‘You,’ Not Everyone

“I’m in a whodunit, the lowest form of literature,” laments sociopathic Nice Guy™ Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley) in the newly released fourth season of Netflix’s You, the first five episodes of which are out, with the remaining five set to be released on March 9.

Joe, now a bearded London professor going by “Jonathan Moore,” is enjoying what he calls his “European holiday”—and who wouldn’t need one after killing his wife, sacrificing a few toes to cover it up, and abandoning his son—when he finds himself embroiled in the middle of yet another murder mystery. It’s ironic that our antihero resents the mystery as it is one of the superlative elements of the new season. After Joe confesses his aversion to the genre, his favorite student, Nadia (Amy-Leigh Hickman), corrects him. “It is a formula, but the formula is fun. It draws you in, it hides a social commentary” she says.

The conversation is meta commentary, a summary of what Joe’s storyline in London is meant to be. But Nadia gets it only half-right: It’s not the social critique that makes this whodunit worthwhile, it’s the clues, head fakes, betrayals, and motives that tell us something about the characters, and through them human nature, that keep the audience’s interest. 

With its stubborn insistence on making a heavy-handed comment on society, this latest chapter in the Book of Joe induces more than a few eye-rolls. Should you be willing to soldier on through those, however, you’ll find yourself eagerly awaiting the next installment.

And not to find out who did it—that much is revealed in the first half of the season—but to discover whether Joe has at last turned over a new leaf. Entering the premiere of the new season, he has left a trail of corpses, including those of the last two women he’s been in a serious relationship with. And yet, as he insists to a past lover—who rejects him out of fear that she might make it his last three—it’s not because he’s a bad guy

No, of course not. What are his weaknesses, you ask? He cares too much, loves too deeply, and is just too much of a go-getter for his own good.

Yet through five episodes, he appears to have at last cleaned up his act, going to great lengths to protect others without forming the emotional attachments that have previously led him to do the unthinkable in the name of love. All that in the face of great temptation, too.

After settling into a peaceful routine as Professor Moore, Joe falls backwards into a toxic friend group of ultra-wealthy socialites including colleague Malcolm (Stephen Hagan), his girlfriend and art gallerist Kate (Charlotte Ritchie), Kate’s not-so-secret admirer Roald (Ben Wiggins), rags-to-riches charmer Rhys (Ed Speleers), capital-L Lady Phoebe (Tilly Keeper), artist Simon (Aidan Cheng), American playboy Adam (Lukas Gage), and more.

Oftentimes, the gang seems to be written to see which of them can be the least grounded and most self-absorbed in pursuit of being crowned the worst. The competition is stiff, and it’s at these moments where the show can drag. The rich are the worst, but so is everyone else, and the steady drum line—not beat—of this mile-wide, inch-deep societal critique is exhaustingly dull.The storyline is full of the kind of intrigue that need not rely on a well-crafted gimmick, much less this pointless and self-defeating one. 

Part of what made past seasons, and especially the show’s inaugural one, so gripping was the realism of it all. Joe is both compelling and frightening because his feelings are real, and they drive him to drastic, but conceivable action. The absentminded awfulness of many of these characters detracts from the realism of the story. 

An explanation of this phenomenon: Once the group begins to be culled by our serial killer, the reaction of the friends of the deceased is so detached as to beggar belief. Even if their indifference could be imagined, their lack of fear and horror could not. The glazed-over look pasted on a few of the more minor characters’ faces has the intended effect of rendering those characters unappealing, but the unintended effect of jarring the viewer out of what is otherwise an immersive viewing experience.

As Joe begins to suspect that the killer is one of the caricatures he’s surrounded by, the folly of this overwrought social critique is made even more apparent by the season’s virtues. Okay, a final gripe, one drunken, designer drug-fueled exchange proceeds as follows:  

Character A: “You know what your problem is? You seem to want to work.”

Character B: “Our forebears didn’t pretend to earn what was rightfully theirs. They were   on another level. Above work, above law. Hell, in the good old days, the aristocracy were the f****** law.”

Character C: “Indeed. F*** democracy.”

 All: “F*** democracy!”

It’s painful to watch, and it’s only the worst of many examples.

Back to the virtues! The more nuanced and character specific reasons for which Joe suspects some of them to be the murderer are both interesting and explanatory enough to keep you guessing. There are hints as to who the culprit is, but there are also more than enough red herrings and dead ends. A dash of action and imminent danger grabs your attention when the slething starts to feel monotonous.

The formula works, even if Joe doesn’t harbor much respect for it. Perhaps that is partly a function of it being condensed into half a season, with an entirely new challenge of outwitting the newly-revealed mastermind in the second half, but it works, nevertheless.

Still, Badgley’s protagonist remains the most persuasive case for tuning in. He’s not likable, per se. In the space of just a few moments during their aforementioned conversation Nadia exclaims “Oh my God, you’re one of them! Sad.” and observes “your problem is that mysteries are entertaining.” Not exactly a man of the people, then.

In spite of his snobbish streak and homicidal habits, though, Joe remains inexplicably sympathetic. Were your average viewer to try to explain it, they might chalk it up to his past trauma or occasional expressions of progressive pieties. “I believe in gun control,” he reminds viewers. But I chalk it up to his earnestness.

Joe honestly believes he’s the hero of the story. He’ll admit to “mistakes,” in a Nixon-esque “mistakes were made” kind of way. Yet that’s where he leaves it. This behavior leaves two possibilities. 

The first is that he is an almost singularly narcissistic individual whose affliction renders him utterly incapable of weighing the proportionality of the harms done to him against the much greater ones he’s inflicted on others. The second, which I endorse, is that he operates on the basis of an entirely different—and yes, wrong—moral framework that gives more to and demands more of others. 

When Joe says he’d die for the ones he loves, he means it. The only trouble is he’ll kill you if he suspects you wouldn’t do the same.

There is in his raw passion something to be admired, or at least respected. And that’s why I found myself breathing a sigh of relief as he predictably mounted an improbable escape from death in the final moments of episode five.

Should the rest of the season turn its spotlight away from its clumsy social commentary and back onto Joe Goldberg, it’ll tell the worthwhile story he so craves. If not, though, the writers will have created something as decadent and superfluous as they imagine the lives of their characters to be.

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