You is a strange beast. By all rights, the Netflix series, now three seasons long and with a fourth on the way, shouldn’t be the success it is: it’s melodramatic, a little trashy and very twisted, but surprisingly engrossing.
In any other context, our lead character Joe (Penn Badgley), a serial killer, stalker and compulsive liar, would be the villain. But in You he’s the hero, someone we find ourselves rooting for even as he assaults and locks people in fortified glass cages. Badgley convinces with a mix of effortless charm and simmering darkness, making Joe a bizarrely sympathetic character in spite of his murderous tendencies.
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Season two introduced a worthy match for Joe in the form of Love (Victoria Pedretti), a superior choice for love interest to season one’s Beck. Whereas Beck was always reacting to Joe’s advances, Love pushes back, taking him completely off guard with the climactic twist that she, too, will kill to be with the people she loves. She hides as many dark impulses as Joe, and Pedretti has a powerful onscreen presence to equal Badgley’s.
After Joe moved from New York to Los Angeles last season, he and Love now find themselves in picket-fence suburbia outside San Francisco. The former, ever the bibliophile, finds work at the local library and takes a liking to his boss Marienne (Tati Gabrielle); and the latter, looking to get back into baking after having a child, sets up her own business and fends off flirtatious advances from rogue youngster Theo (Dylan Arnold). They meet and befriend a variety of locals, including swinging couple Sherry (Shalita Grant) and Cary (Travis Van Winkle), whose story ends up intertwining with Joe and Love’s in explosive ways.
Joe and Love are a match made in hell, and season three is as hellish as ever. Despite now being married, Joe indulges his stalkerish ways once more and takes an interest in next-door neighbour Natalie (Michaela McManus); the isolation cage makes a comeback, because no season of You would be complete without it; and more than one person meets a bloody and gruesome end – although the perpetrator is not always who you think. The events depicted go to some dark places, with blackmail, suicide and emotional abuse playing out against a backdrop of obsession and delusion.
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Joe and Love’s newborn son Henry is a nice new element that mixes up the status quo, giving Joe a newfound motivation to do better as a father and a husband – not least because the relationship he shared with his own parents, and parental figures, was fraught, as explored in further flashbacks to Joe’s youth at a group home. The pair’s happily-ever-after ending last season was too perfect to last; here, their relationship becomes strained, with arguments and disagreements coming to the fore as both mother and father struggle with the non-stop workload of new parenthood. Couples therapy has never been so tense. The dysfunction in their marriage is in direct contrast to the ostensibly tight-knit bond shared by Sherry and Cary.
From the pilot episode onwards, You has tapped into the zeitgeist in numerous ways, including by examining the nature of obsession, namely with social media and physical appearance. You’s San Francisco, like LA before it, is populated by vacuous, body-obsessed individuals who enjoy glamorous house parties and spruik alternative health solutions. The season taps into anti-vax conspiracies and even makes mention of the pandemic. And arguably, this string of ten episodes is even richer, conceptually, than before, with themes of parenthood, fatherhood and new beginnings (“Can you be a good father if you’re a bad man?”); intergenerational trauma, neglect and toxic relationships; surveillance and personal privacy; and hypermasculinity, polyamory and addiction.
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This is a season with the usual You fare of secrets, revelations, murder and a suite of pretentious side characters – and now with added domestic drama. The result is a bingeworthy thriller that builds to an appropriately bloody conclusion, one driven by powerhouse performances from Badgley and Pedretti. Joe and Love are reprehensible people doing reprehensible, and often very stupid, things, but you can’t stop watching them do it.
You is out now on Netflix.