This will probably end up being one of my more controversial articles, and I debated even writing it, but Lifetime/Netflix’s thriller You is such a problematic story that I have to talk about it. On the one hand, it was an entertaining show, I ended up watching the whole thing and even though it dragged it places, it had that “just one more episode” draw to it. Yet on the other, it has presented a problematic narrative whose message is so easily misinterpreted that one questions if this story really needed to be told.
You tries to tell the story of a serial killer. This is not a romantic story, this is the story of how a deranged killer stalks and manipulates a woman, only to then kill her when she fails to live up to his unrealistic expectations. Yet because of the way it’s presented, people are genuinely thinking this is a romance and falling in love with Joe. To the point where the actor who plays Joe took to twitter to remind these people that Joe is a deranged killer.
Even scarier, if you go read some of the user reviews of this show, you’ll see men posting about how much they relate with Joe because they dated toxic girls too. I don’t want to link to it here, but if you go read the Google user reviews for this show, you’ll know exactly which one I’m talking about. If a significant portion of the audience is coming away thinking this is a romantic story and if they think Joe is the hero of the story, then You has a made massive mistake.
Obviously you can’t control people who willfully misinterpret your work to suit their own world view, but You is written and presented in such a way that it would be incredibly easy for people to misunderstand it. Watching this show, I could see how people can come away thinking this is a romantic story of doomed lovers like Romeo and Juilette. That’s absolutely not the intent behind it, but that doesn’t matter. Point is, people are falling in love with Joe, and even scarier, relating with Joe (and not seeing that as a problem.)
The Problem With You
Joe is Shown in the Best Possible Light
If I were a serial killer on trial, whoever made You is the person I’d want as my lawyer, because they make Joe like a poor maligned kid rather than the pyschopath he is. His every positive attribute is focused on obsessively, while his deranged behavior is often glossed over or played off as cute.
An inordinate, and quite frankly boring, amount of time is spent showing just how doting a partner Joe is: he makes her breakfast, he helps comfort her when she’s sad, he does everything he can to make her happy. Then a lot of screen time is spent trying to turn Joe into a hero by showcasing how he helps Paco. Meanwhile his stalkerish behavior isn’t treated with gravitas it should be, and sometimes is even played for laughs.
Early on in the show, Joe is spying on Beck through her window and masturbates as he imagines having sex with her. This should be an eerie, disturbing scene as we watch this maniac masturbating outside an unknowing woman’s apartment. Instead, it’s played up for laughs as an old woman walks out of the building behind him and interrupts. Of course the old woman is totally oblivious, and Joe becomes the chivalrous gentleman helping her out with her bags.
What should have happened is Joe to get caught and have to run for his life as the old woman starts screaming and calling 911. Remind the audience what it is that we’re watching: this is not cute, it is not funny, it is not romantic, it’s a crime.
You also focuses on how intelligent, charming, and witty Joe is without also highlighting the anger and cruelty that would have to be part of a serial killer’s nature. I’ve not done exhaustive research into serial killers, but I can’t imagine that there was ever one as nice and compassionate as Joe is. It never shows Joe getting angry or lashing out in rage. Even when we see him murder people, he does it while looking almost confused, like he’s bewildered that it’s come to this.
I would think that to be a serial killer you have to possess a sense of cruelty, harbor some deep-seated rage, or be detached from your emotions entirely. Joe doesn’t display any of that. He’s the friendliest, most affable serial killer you’ll ever meet.
In many ways Joe is like Ted Bundy; he’s so sweet, charming, and pleasant looking that you wouldn’t believe he’s a serial killer. If you’ve never read The Stranger Beside Me by Anne Rule, which I highly recommend, there’s a part she talks about how some of his victims, who had escaped from him, looked at Ted in the courtroom and weren’t sure that this was the man who almost killed them.
Until the day Ted got angry in court. The mask he’d so carefully worn broke, and the moment was caught on film. When those victims saw the picture of Ted angry… they finally recognized him, because that was the Ted they saw the day they almost died: the angry, violent predator.
That’s the moment You needed. We needed Joe’s carefully constructed mask to break and see the angry, violent predator within. Unfortunately we never get to see that. I spent the entire run of the show watching your friendly neighborhood murderer. Joe is so pleasant that he makes Superman look like a cynical antihero.
To make matters even worse, when Joe does murder people, you end up feeling like he’s justified in doing so. Largely because…
Joe’s Victims Are Undercharacterized
The antagonists in the story, Peach, Benji, and to a certain extent even Beck, are written in such a way as to amplify their negative traits. It reminds me of how antagonists are written in stories like Taken, The Equalizer, and other revenge stories: the villains are so over-the-top that when our heroes set about sadistically killing them, we’re euphoric about it.
Yet none of the characters in You rise to the level where any of them deserve Joe killing them. All the characters are just deeply wounded souls dealing with their own traumas as best they can, and who, coincidentally, didn’t turn into fucking serial killers. What we needed was to have these victims better characterized, so that when their end came, we felt sadness, grief, and even a sense of loss. Instead we got a bunch of walking caricatures that, when they died, brought only satisfaction.
Part of the problem is that we see everything from Joe’s point of view, aside from one half of one episode where we get Beck’s. They try to play Joe up as an unreliable narrator, but forget the “unreliable” part, the part where his assumptions are proven false.
Joe makes snap judgements about all of Beck’s friends. Peach is vindictive and controlling, who secretly wants to make Beck fall in love with her. Benji, Beck’s old boyfriend, is a rich douchebag with a drug habit who doesn’t care about Beck. And all of Beck’s other friends are brainless, self-obsessed millenials who do nothing but talk about sex and boys.
What we needed was to have these assumptions proven false, or at least more complicated than meets the eye. Peach, even though she can be vindictive and controlling, could also be an amazing friend capable of compassion and empathy. In the show, Peach sabotages Beck’s writing career, hoping that the setback would cause Beck to move to Paris with her. Instead they should have shown her being a good friend to Beck while also trying to manipulate her into moving to Paris. Add a little nuance to these stories.
Go ahead and have Benji be the classic dudebro stereotype, but then show us the insecurities that made him that way: is he trying to live up to his highpowered father’s expectations? Does he have self-esteem issues and he’s overcompensating?
What about Beck’s other friends? Why are they only ever talking about men and sex? Surely they must have other common interests, if only to ask how each other’s days are going?
We needed Joe’s assumptions to be challenged, turned on their head. He can still believe all the things he’s saying, obviously, but we as the audience need to see that the reality is different. Instead all of his assumptions about Beck’s friends turn out to be true:
Benji really is just a drug-addicted douchebag who is dedicated to hedonistic pleasure. Peach really is in love with Beck and attempting to manipulate her into loving her too (gee that sounds familiar). Beck’s secondary cast of friends really are all vapid, sex-crazed idiots with no personality or ambitions. And finally, even his assumptions about Beck are proven correct as well: she’s got daddy issues, self-esteem problems, and even that she cheats on him with her therapist.
You want to know something terrible? I felt a certain smug satisfaction when Peach died. She was a collection of every toxic and negative female stereotype rolled into a walking caricature, and that’s why I felt good when she died. It sparked that primal feeling of schadenfreude, taking pleasure in seeing someone suffer, especially if we think they deserve it. And that’s coming from someone who was actively analyzing the story and understood the mistakes it was making, and I still fell into that trap. The showrunners tapped into that primal sense of righteous satisfaction over a death that makes revenge stories so popular, and they did it exceptionally well. Too well.
Now imagine you’re a man who knows a woman in his life that he thinks is just like Peach, maybe an ex-girlfriend or annoying coworker; You has now given them a story that makes them feel justified in those feelings, you’ve given them vindication. Normalized it. The showrunners need to ask themselves whether that’s really the story they want to be telling.
And while they’re at it, maybe they should remind themselves what this story is actually about.
The Show About a Serial Killer Forgot to Show Joe Being a Serial Killer
The first murder in the show is so quick and clean that you’ll hardly even realized it’s happened. Benji reveals in the course of his captivity that he’s allergic to peanuts, and so when Joe finally decides to kill him, he doses Benji’s coffee with peanut oil.
Benji just collapses to the ground and dies in about 5 seconds flat. Benji should have been writhing around on the floor, clawing at his own throat, the capillaries in his eyes bursting, and his tongue bursting from his mouth purple and swollen. This death should have been ugly, vicious. You should have told the audience what a truly horrific death that would have been, and focus on our attention on the man who caused it.
Meanwhile Peach’s end isn’t even shown on camera. Last we see is Peach struggling on the ground trying to get the gun away from Joe… and then the camera cuts away and we hear a gunshot. What we should have had was Peach begging for her life, sobbing uncontrollably, and saw the sky reflecting off her lifeless eyes afterwards.
Then there’s the worst of the bunch: Beck’s death. This was the worst part of the show. After making the same cliche mistake as every serial killing victim, not killing the killer when you had the chance, Beck is murdered by Joe. Again, it happens off screen. If you want to tell this story then you need to commit and show Joe killing Beck.
How he does it isn’t as important as how he acts. Is he crying while he does it because he “loves” her? Or is he screaming in rage because she didn’t live up to his expectations?
This is important for three reasons:
For one, it helps characterize Joe, how he kills the woman he loves would reveal important information about how he compartmentalizes his violent nature with his delusions of being a romantic.
Two, it gives us closure. If you’re sane and paying attention, you’ve been rooting for Beck to outwit and escape Joe. Having her die off camera is anticlimactic, I wanted to watch her giving the good fight until the very end, not go quietly into the night.
And third, we need to feel this death. By having her die off camera, you rob the scene of the emotional context it so badly needed. That’s the unifying problem with all the murders on this show, they fail to evoke any emotional response.
There doesn’t need to be gratuitous violence, we don’t need to see entrails and brains, but the audience does need to feel their deaths. I should have been feeling sick and mournful at watching Beck die, to be filled with regret. To be seething with anger at Joe. To feel the same rollercoaster of emotions that Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad created for its audiences. Hell even Law and Order makes you feel bad for the victims, why can’t You?
If you’re not willing to make your audience uncomfortable, to feel negative emotions, then you should not be telling a story about a serial killer. Otherwise you get the situation we’re in now: that people think that Joe’s actions are justified and that he’s somehow a romantic figure.
The only thing You made me feel was angry, and not angry at Joe for killing an innocent woman which is what I should have been feeling, no I’m angry with the show itself. I’m angry that it made a deranged serial killer look like a poor misunderstood boy looking for love. I’m frustrated that in attempting to highlight the dangerous signs of stalking and abusive behavior, it instead reveled in those behaviors and made them seem acceptable and even romantic. And most of all, I’m just bewildered that no one making this show stopped to ask a very important question:
What is this for?
What are you hoping to make the audience feel? What should they be thinking? If you answered horrified and thinking how awful Joe is, you need to go back and examine why so many people aren’t getting that. More importantly though, why should they continue watching this show?
I will not be tuning in for season 2, because this is how TV works: the show keeps going for as long as its profitable. My only incentive for watching would be to see Joe brought to justice, but I know that won’t happen until the viewership numbers hit low enough that Netflix decides to pull the plug. That might take years, and why would I want to continue watching this man kill innocent people, getting increasingly frustrated every time he escapes justice? What else am I supposed to be getting out of this show, because I honestly have no idea.
So what does everyone else think? Am I blowing this out of proportion? Or is You as problematic as I fear?