Is “You” Problematic?

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Illustration by Lauren Luna

Lauren Luna
Contributing Writer

This article contains major spoilers for the second season of the Netflix show “You.”

Just after Christmas Day, Netflix released the second season of hit thriller T.V. show “You.” Starring Penn Badgley from “Gossip Girl” as the antihero Joe, “You” has cultivated a broad fanbase with significant critical acclaim. The tension between Joe’s acts of violence and his more sympathetic points has converted him into the Internet’s “white boy of the month,” as seen by a multitude of tweets circulating the web. 

In the first season of “You,” New York City bookstore manager Joe engineers his relationship with graduate student Guinevere Beck. He stops at nothing to get her and takes out all obstacles, such as an aggravatingly privileged ex-lover and a borderline-obsessive best friend. 

Based on his violent tactics alone, Joe can be easily condemned, yet the show colors his character with past traumas as a child and present ventures to save neighbors Claudia and Paco from Claudia’s abusive boyfriend, Ron. 

In the second season, Joe moves to Los Angeles for what he calls a “fresh start,” where he meets new girlfriend Love Quinn. He assumes the identity of Will Bettelheim, a clean I.D. distributor who he holds hostage for most of season two, eventually setting him free. Love initially appears as another of Joe’s fixations, yet Joe learns he has met his match with her. 

One of the biggest twists in season two occurs when Love killed Joe’s ex, Candace, rather than Joe doing the job himself. In essence, Love Quinn and Joe Goldberg are the same person. While Joe seems like he’s on the way towards redemption through his relationships with Ellie and Will, in the end we learn that Joe hasn’t changed at all.

“You” originally debuted on the Lifetime television network, where it had a dedicated yet small audience. After coming to Netflix in 2018, both the popularity and controversy of “You” spiked. 

After the release of season two, specifically, the internet exploded with memes surrounding the show. Caricatures and parodies of the show dominated the web despite the psychologically heavy content in the series. 

Through the jabs at Joe’s antics and the praises of the notably lighter points in the show, memes acknowledge “You” as the narrative of an evidently deranged man. 

More impressionable viewers may take the intimate perspective into Joe’s psychology seriously. Because the show looks so closely into Joe’s past and his thoughts which range from internal stabs at millennial culture to his long-winded musings on his fixations, it runs the risk of inspiring sympathy for his character among the audience of the show. 

Critics consider this image of Joe’s character problematic because it romanticizes a character with clearly unsound tendencies. 

Yet the problem with the critical perspective of the show is that it also takes the show more seriously than it is meant to be taken. As the show takes something so easily rejected by society and familiarizes with relatable traits and human feelings, skeptics find that the show makes excuses for an evidently insane man. 

Some think the show perpetuates the idea that violence against women is okay, which creates tension especially in a fragile time period in the context of the #MeToo movement. Though the show portrays female violence, it doesn’t excuse or support it.

In an interview with RadioTimes, Elizabeth Lail (Guinevere Beck) said that the most unfortunate part about the show was that “the woman doesn’t live in the end.” Preceded by countless shows where the pursued woman scarcely escapes her disgruntled lover, “You” follows in the trope which spells defeat for the victim. 

While season two does not adopt the same trope, the audience does see a married Joe fall for his faceless neighbor, restarting the cycle and telling the viewers that through all the points at which redemption seemed like a possibility for our antihero, Joe remains the same.

Through all the different perspectives on the show, viewers need to recognize that while “You” analyzes scenarios that could be real, the show itself is fictional. It could be argued that a less intimate insight into Joe’s mind would leave less of an impression on audiences, yet this insight is exactly what separates “You” from other T.V. shows following the narrative of a serial killer. 

Joe is the embodiment of the “nice guy”; he claims to be detached from modern life and refuses to engage in trendy things. He rationalizes his sociopathic behavior with the mistakes of other people, which conveys the evident problems with this mentality which exists among many young men today. While Joe’s individual story does not need to be taken seriously, the societal issues which the show highlights deserve attention.