Why Netflix's hit stalker series YOU is so addictive

The genius of this 10-part, water-cooler thriller lies in how well it addresses the way society frequently romanticises abusive behaviour. Roisin O'Connor is one of the many viewers who have become obsessed

Thursday 10 January 2019 10:51 GMT
Elizabeth Lail and Penn Badgley in 'YOU'
Elizabeth Lail and Penn Badgley in 'YOU' (Netflix)

There’s a line in the sleeper hit TV series YOU that best sums up what it’s about.

“I’m not worried,” Penn Badley’s lead character Joe Goldberg tells us. “I’ve seen enough romantic comedies to know guys like me are always getting in jams like this.”

As Joe thinks this, he’s lying across a bed that belongs to Beck – the woman with whom he has become obsessed – poring over the private messages on her computer and trying to learn more about her. She doesn’t know he’s there, because she doesn’t know him, and as she walks through the front door, Joe jumps into her shower for what becomes one of the creepiest scenes of the entire show.

The genius of this 10-part, water-cooler thriller, based on Caroline Kepnes’s book of the same name, lies in how well it addresses the way society frequently romanticises abusive behaviour. Joe's comment is incredibly astute, despite him being unaware of its negative connotations, because his psychopathic behaviour very often mimics that of so many male leads in romantic comedies.

There’s a very similar scene to the aforementioned bedroom moment in one of the most beloved romcoms around: 10 Things I Hate About You. Attempting to find out about Kat’s likes and dislikes, Cameron (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) uses her sister (with whom he is obsessed) to invade Kat’s personal space and go through her things without her knowledge, so Patrick (Heath Ledger) can manipulate her into liking him. YOU's trailer actually uses a version of Cheap Trick's song "I Want You to Want Me", which featured at the end of 10 Things. The slow-tempo rendition also recalls the music used in the creepy stalker-fest that is the Fifty Shades franchise, which seems deliberate.

Joe believes he’s a good guy. In several moments across the series, the audience believes it too. He lends books to his young neighbour – who often shelters in the hallway from his drug addict mother’s abusive boyfriend – and acts as a kind of surrogate brother/father to him.

In the narration, he justifies his actions involving Beck (Elizabeth Lail) by presenting himself as a white knight, “saving” her from her (admittedly terrible) ex, who runs an artisanal soda start-up, and the friends he deems to be unworthy of her. In another, he muses that he's probably the only feminist Beck knows. During one particular moment of eyebrow-raising hypocrisy, he scolds (in his head) Beck’s best friend Peach for spying on her in the bath… while he spies on both of them. “God, I need to pee,” he adds. It’s hilarious, but also terrifying.

YOU: Netflix's 10-part thriller - trailer

YOU has drawn comparisons to Badgely’s earlier and best-known work, the hit drama Gossip Girl, and for good reason. In Gossip Girl, Badgley portrayed “Lonely Boy” Dan Humphrey, the outsider in a group of privileged teenagers. Dan is deep and sensitive. He loves poetry and his favourite word is “death”. He reads the New Yorker and shows a distaste for his friends’ obsession with money, status and fashion. In YOU, Joe works in a bookshop and shows a similar outlook on life to Dan, although he goes far, far further when it comes to chasing the object (and he does treat Beck like a possession) of his desires. When he does commit those atrocities, he becomes the (albeit extreme) epitome of performative wokeness: men who claim to be feminists, to be good guys, when actually they engage in patterns of behaviour that are incredibly toxic.

Elizabeth Lail and Penn Badgley in Netflix's thriller YOU (Netflix)

Proof of quite how brilliant the show is at conflicting its audience is all over social media, where hundreds of fans are still attempting to reconcile their deep-rooted comprehension that Joe is a psychopath with the fact that his character can also be rather charming. “Is it wrong that I ship Joe & Beck?” one asked on Twitter. “Yes,” Netflix answered simply (and correctly).

Badgley has been at it as well.

But in the same way that Sebastian Faulks did in his 2007 novel Engleby – about a working-class boy who wins a place at an esteemed university – or Gillian Flynn with her book Gone Girl, the readers and viewers of YOU are forced to become complicit with a killer: subject to Joe’s reasoning because his is (for the most part) the only perspective they have. We sympathise with him one moment, then feel sick as soon as he does another despicable thing.

It helps all of the other characters are so annoying. There’s Peach Salinger (fictional cousin of the celebrated author), Beck’s heiress best friend who is also obsessed with her, and Anikka, who is spot-on as the self-absorbed influencer. From Beck's creepy professor to her pretentious writing mentor/competitor, Blythe (Hari Nef), most of these people are indeed so reprehensible that you do end up, disturbingly, rooting for Joe.

Then there’s Beck herself. Joe is a misogynist, so he sees Beck as a kind of fantasy, rather than a real person. Yet she’s often shown to be selfish, and vindictive. There’s a big question as to whether she’s anywhere near as talented a writer as she or Joe makes out. Rather than expose a predatory professor who has a history of coercing his female students into sleeping with him, she appears to lose the evidence she has and accept the opportunity to switch tutors instead. She cheats on Joe with her therapist (who he is also seeing for sessions in secret, because, obviously). She has an affair with him while he is with his new girlfriend, Karen.

Of course, none of this in any way justifies Joe’s behaviour. That’s the point. The viewer has to constantly check themselves, as they find themselves laughing at something he says, or lusting after Badgley, and recognise Joe's behaviour for what it is. YOU one of the best recent examples of television that doesn’t once patronise the viewer, or expect them to require characters to be either good or evil in order to know what they are supposed to feel about each one. All of them are multi-faceted and complex, and at various times annoying, hilarious, charming, stupid, brilliant and horrifying. YOU is fantastic television. And also a very good reminder to close your curtains at night.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in