clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

‘You’ Tweaked Its Murderous Thriller Format and Became a Marital Drama

The Netflix hit risked becoming the story of a guy who literally and repeatedly gets away with murder. In Season 3, there’s room to evolve.

Netflix/Ringer illustration
Spoiler warning

In the latest season of You, many changes are a matter of geography. After spending Seasons 1 and 2 in New York and L.A., respectively, the third chapter of the Lifetime turned Netflix thriller sets up shop in Madre Linda, a Silicon Valley suburb à la Atherton, California, or Palo Alto. The move allows for a fresh wave of the place-based satire that’s become one of the show’s primary pleasures. Freed from the land of improv troupes and ultra-organic groceries, the writers can sink their teeth into a new set of satirical targets: polyamory; biohacking; tech surveillance; and apps. The new characters are another kind of wealthy West Coast liberal, yet the narcissism of small differences is where comedy thrives. Last year’s “Wellkend” summit is this year’s “W.O.M.B.,” short for “Women Optimizing Motherhood and Business.”

But the biggest shifts this season are anything but cosmetic. In its first two outings, You repeated the same basic pattern: Psychopath Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley), a Patrick Bateman for the age of indie boys, becomes infatuated with a girl, and his crush quickly escalates to violent extremes. Besides the cross-country move, the biggest difference between Seasons 1 and 2 was their distribution. The show initially premiered on basic cable, which was an awkward match for its millennial demo. You was then acquired by Netflix and the first season exploded in popularity. The third season leads the service’s U.S. top 10 as of Wednesday, dethroning Squid Game.

The show’s initial formula proved improbably effective. You tells an objectively disturbing tale: Joe is a serial stalker, manipulator, and killer. Yet its tone is viciously funny, starting with the perfect in-joke of its casting. Badgley rose to fame as Dan Humphrey, Gossip Girl’s “Lonely Boy” who turned out to be its namesake. The invasive mean streak implied by that reveal was incidental, the unintended result of writers straining for surprise; on You, another show starring Badgley as a lovelorn voyeur, Joe’s dark side takes center stage. The show shares his contempt for literary pretension (New York) and showbiz aspiration (L.A.), but it also shows us what Joe can’t or won’t see: that the women he idealizes are actually kinda basic, and that Joe himself is a creep. Done poorly, the savage portrait of paramours like Guinevere Beck (Elizabeth Lail) would add insult to injury; not only does she end up dead, she’s also a terrible writer! But on You, it’s an indirect attack on the man who puts them on a pedestal. And Joe may think himself a romantic, but Badgley gives him the bug eyes and straining grin of a guy who can’t quite pull off his sensitive-bookworm disguise.

You’s high-wire act may have been successful, but it wasn’t sustainable. At a certain point, the show risked becoming the story of a guy who literally, and repeatedly, gets away with murder—a shrewd exaggeration of sexism that still underscored a sexist status quo. (Enough fans weren’t getting the message that Badgley had to personally shoot down a few thirst tweets.) But in the final moments of Season 2, You made a pivot. All season, Joe pursued chef and faux-Erewhon heiress Love Quinn (Victoria Pedretti), convinced she was his soulmate. He was more right than he knew. Love, it turned out, was every bit the deceptive schemer Joe was, and just as capable of committing manslaughter on a whim. Plus she was pregnant, taking Joe’s preferred quick fix (the fatal kind) off the table. Off to Madre Linda they went! Even killers’ kids need good schools and a spacious backyard.

In Season 3, You has room to unpack the full potential of that twist. The show is no longer about a single predator who fixates on women; it’s about a couple of predators who have to balance their own impulses with checking one another’s. It is, in short, a marital drama, or at least You’s soapy spoof of one. (Scenes from a Marriage this is not.) “I never thought to wonder what happens after boy gets girl,” Joe confesses via voice-over. The answer turns out to be a far richer text than what comes before. Lots of TV shows have applied this insight, but only You can do so with its signature panache.

This genre shift gives You a keto-compliant buffet of new influences. There’s Desperate Housewives–esque suburban farce, complete with a cameo by Marcia Cross. There’s a more modern takedown of mommy bloggers, embodied by Search Party’s Shalita Grant as Madre Linda’s own influencer-about-town. There’s even a touch of film noir in the mounting tension of a marriage built on mistrust, with murder the easy and obvious way out. And because this is a show about a bookstore clerk who thinks of literacy as a moral litmus test, Richard Yates references abound.

The single biggest shift, though, is one of perspective. “When our patterns line up like this, it’s very, very hard to see the other person,” says Joe and Love’s joint therapist. “Because it’s dangerously close to looking in a mirror.” (The story line handily sums up the season’s MO of matching the absurd with the mundane. Like a typical suburban couple, Joe and Love go to counseling; unlike a typical suburban couple, they go because Love put an ax in their neighbor.) Though Joe can’t bring himself to admit it, he and Love are the perfect match he’s been waiting for—so much so that she easily carries the weight of a proper colead. The delicious irony is that the second Joe finds true love is the second he starts eyeing the escape hatch.

Throughout the season, Love reminds Joe his usual tricks won’t work on her. “I see you,” she says, over and over. “I know you.” Love can tell when Joe’s attention turns elsewhere; Love knows Joe’s fantasies never stay in his head. In theory, that knowledge is what we want from our closest relationships. But the title character of You isn’t supposed to be Joe; it’s a projection of his latest love object, addressed in the second person as Joe lays out his rationale. When that obsessive scrutiny gets turned back on him, Joe can’t take the heat—it’s a 10-hour rendition of the meme weighing “the rewards of being loved” against “the mortifying ordeal of being known.”

Not that this season is all about Joe. That’s what the new episodes truly have to offer: a break from his oppressively warped point of view, if only to spend time in another. We’re out of the misogynist frying pan and into the narcissistic fire. Love has her own traumatic backstory, involving rich parents and a codependent twin; she has her own pattern of attraction to men she thinks she can save, from Joe to the teen boy next door. (Add The Graduate to You’s list of source texts.) For one episode, she even gets her own voice-over, a series of text messages to her now-dead brother. The new focus is a welcome expansion, evolving You from a take on toxic masculinity to a broader look at romantic dysfunction. It’s also yet another knock on Joe. All that time spent following Love around Los Angeles, and he had no idea who she really is.

Like all good things, You’s new setup comes to an end. Joe and Love’s volatile union quite literally goes down in flames, with Joe faking his wife’s suicide and his own death. (Cutting off his own toes and baking them into a pie might’ve been a little much, but that’s what makes You, You.) For Season 4, Joe’s headed to Paris, setting up a potential Netflix crossover from hell. But before it goes, Season 3 shows us what happens when Joe is forced to actually try at a relationship rather than move onto a new fixation. If he can’t make it work with Love, he can’t make it work with anyone, which is precisely the point. The couple that traps their victims in a cage together, stays together—until one takes a look in the mirror and can’t stand what they see.