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‘You’: a Sinister Evolution of the Romance Drama

Penn Badgley and Elizabeth Lail in "You"
Still from "You" on Netflix starring Penn Badgley and Elizabeth Lail.

At first glance, the beginning of “You” appears to be pretty cute. An aspiring young writer walks into cozy, independent bookstore in New York City searching for her next read, only to bump into the cute (like, very cute) bookstore manager who has been eyeing her since she walked in. They flirt — a pseudo-intellectual banter found only in TV shows and John Green novels — then exchange names over a credit card receipt, and part ways.

This scene, the first five minutes of Netflix’s 10-part television series “You,” is about as innocent as it gets as the initial meet-cute evolves into a much darker and thus more engaging tale. This series takes the cultural trope of boy-meets-girl and successfully turns it on its head by revealing the dangerous underlying obsession behind a contrived relationship.

The aforementioned bookstore manager, Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley), goes home and proceeds to stalk his newfound crush, Guinevere Beck (Elizabeth Lail), on social media. He narrates his journey through her Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr pages. He pieces together what he assumes to be her story. “Every account set to public,” he says, “You want to be seen, heard, known.” A little insulted that she didn’t post about their encounter, he rationalizes, “I realized your online life isn’t real. If anything, the fact that you didn’t share me with your followers only confirms we really connected.”

When Beck takes classes, eats with her friends, and undresses in her bedroom, Joe is there — out of sight, head ducked down, baseball cap on, hands in coat pockets — driven by an omnipotent and narcissistic belief that only he can bring out the real Beck, that only he can fix her life. Ultimately, Joe succeeds, winning her over with, yes, his looks and charm, but also with classic grand romantic gestures — kidnapping her ex-boyfriend, eliminating her friends, and cosplaying as a Victorian author, to name a few.

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It’s these psychotic elements that disrupt the classic romance drama vibes of shows like “Riverdale” (which shares the same executive producer, Greg Berlanti) and “Gossip Girl’ (in which Penn Badgley plays another, albeit more subdued, love interest). They are a welcome disruption, one that allows the show to preserve romantic drama viewers while attracting a new, more thrill-seeking, audience.

“You,” released by Netflix in late December (but actually produced by and originally distributed on Lifetime months earlier) also remains topical, not only through floating text bubbles and shots of Facebook posts, but also by exploring themes like domestic abuse, sexual harassment in academia, and toxic masculinity. Penn Badgley delivers a nuanced performance as a character who is emblematic of toxic masculinity — one who struggles, and fails, to recognize that his “protective action” are both menacing and problematic.

And yet he still manages to be sympathetic. During one scene, Joe is snooping around Beck’s apartment and hears her come home, then he hides in the shower. As she comes tantalizingly close to discovering him in his hiding spot, one cannot help but hold your breath for him and hope he does not get caught.

That’s what makes the show so interesting: its deception. Joe isn’t the usual calculated criminal mastermind. He’s impulsive, inexperienced, and unprepared for the drastic measures he takes to infiltrate himself into Beck's life. “How exactly does one get rid of a body?” he wonders at one point. “I can’t just Google this thing without creating a pretty damning evidence trail.” Most of the time, he’s just a pretty nice guy. Take his mentor-like relationship with young Paco (Luca Padovan), his neighbor’s son who often takes refuge in the hallway from the yelling, arguing, and bed-creaking produced by his mom and her abusive boyfriend. Joe feeds him, gives him books to read, and shares rare book-restoring advice: “The most valuable things in life are usually the most helpless. So they need people like us to protect them.”

So who is Joe? Is he truly compassionate, or is he simply a psychopath beyond understanding?

“Beck, I love you,” Joe says, “and loving someone means you will do anything for them.” This is Joe’s mantra. He repeats it every episode, after every thrown punch or pulled trigger. He is a character who has convinced himself that he knows what’s best for Beck, that what he is doing is justified — and in turn, hopes to convince viewers of the same.

Though “You” focuses on psychopathy, books, social media in the modern age, and the personas that accompany it, it is ultimately a show about toxic masculinity. It’s a show that captures what happens when guys “know” best, when mansplaining turns into manslaughter, and when arrogance, paranoia, and a desire for control are taken to the extreme.

“What’s chivalry?” Paco asks Joe in episode two.

“It's treating people with respect. Especially women, like men should.” After watching the show, one hopes this version of chivalry is dead.


—Staff writer Kalos K. Chu can be reached at kalos.chu@thecrimson.com.

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