Every so often the timing of your arrival at a party is meticulously planned—perhaps you deliberately got there early in order the assist the host/hostess set up, carefully arranging food platters, lighting decorative candles, making sure everything is “just right.” Perhaps you’re right on time thanks to some basic pre-party preparations, like deciding on an outfit the day before and keeping an eye on traffic reports as you got ready, ensuring a prompt arrival. Or perhaps you’re an hour or so late. You knew that would be case the moment you received the invitation, so your tardiness is expected. You explained the situation to your host/hostess ahead of time and he/she is happy to welcome you to the celebration long after the other guests have arrived.
Then again, maybe you weren’t invited at all. Maybe you only know about the party because someone you have a crush on is a guest…not that she actually told you anything about it. You know because you stole her smartphone at an opportune moment, forcing her to purchase another, and allowing you access to all her calls, texts, and e-mails. You’re not attending the party yourself, you’re hiding in the bushes, watching lovingly from a safe distance, completely unseen and unknown to the other partygoers.
Welcome to the premise of the television series You. Based on the novel by the same name and originally broadcast on Lifetime in September 2018, it was acquired by Netflix in December (the second season is currently in production). I’m pretty sure that my initial brush with the series was a blurb in the “What to Watch” section of Entertainment Weekly. I vaguely remember reading something about it, just a few sentences that mentioned a new show on Lifetime involving a stalker, and being intrigued. I made a mental note to check it out, but completely forgot about it until I stumbled across the “new” Netflix original show a few months later. I was understandably confused since the description of the show sounded eerily familiar, even though it was on a completely different network. Luckily I happened upon another brief piece about the show, this one mentioning the move from cable to streaming service, and things started to make a bit more sense.
This party had changed locations, but it was still in full swing. Even though I was tardy, guests continued to be admitted, so I decided to take advantage of my second chance to join in on the fun.
On second thought, “fun” might not be the right word here. In any case, if you’re feeling a little uncomfortable with the show’s subject matter, I’m going to ask you to hear me out on this. Allow me to walk you through the pilot so you can safely give it a try.
You is the story Joe Goldburg (played by Penn Badgley)—a highly intelligent, sweet, compassionate bookstore manager—and his quest for love in New York City. The first episode begins predictably enough with a young, pretty woman strolling into his store, perusing the literary works lining the shelves. She catches his attention immediately, prompting him to wax poetic in a perceptive, thoughtful inner monologue delivered via voiceover. These private reveries will become routine as the series progresses, and the insights they provide might be the only reason why viewers are willing to join Joe on his twisted journey to find his soulmate. But more on that later. His first encounter with Guinevere Beck (her friends call her “Beck”) is standard fare: she approaches him for assistance, some light flirting ensues, she purchases a couple of books, she leaves. But she paid by credit card (purposely, Joe muses, because she wants him to know her name), so unbeknownst to her, their interaction doesn’t end there.
First he Googles her. Fair enough, I suppose. I mean…isn’t that what one does these days? He’s pleased to discover that all her social media accounts are set to public, making it ridiculously easy to learn all about her life (or, at least, the version of her life that she posts for the world to see). Secondly, he looks up her address, which is unsettling to say the least. Why does he need to know where she lives? What does he plan on doing with this information? Would randomly showing up in her neighborhood in hopes of running into her be too much? Aren’t there other, less ominous ways of getting in touch with her? Contacting her on social media would be a fairly benign option, though having to create a profile solely to do so would be a little weird (Joe doesn’t belong to any social media platforms). If you were Joe, how would you proceed? Would you leave it entirely in her hands and hope she came back to the store or would you try to ensure a second meeting?
However you’d choose to handle the situation, I sincerely hope you wouldn’t do what Joe does, because at this point the creep factor increases exponentially. He goes to her address and watches her scamper around her first floor apartment through the ridiculously large, inexplicably shadeless/blindsless windows. He learns her schedule, then follows her to yoga and college and drinks with her friends. In doing so he learns that the life she portrays on social media barely scratches the surface of the real Guinevere Beck, who struggles with making ends meet, has nothing but shallow, superficial friendships, fights against a seemingly never-ending bout of writer’s block, and suffers from exceedingly poor taste in men. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Joe doesn’t stop there. He easily manages to weasel his way into her apartment while she’s out (calling in a nonexistent gas leak in her apartment and conveniently showing up while the gas man is there works like a charm) where he steals panties, goes through her laptop, and very nearly gets caught when she unexpectedly returns home early.
This routine could’ve gone on for months, but the stars favor Joe that same night when he follows Beck and friends to an open mic session where she drunkenly attempts to recite a poem for the audience. Unable to watch her make a complete fool of herself, Joe leaves before her performance is over. Coincidentally, a few minutes later, he watches in wonder as a very inebriated Beck stumbles onto the subway platform. Swaying with boozy sorrow, she texts her jackass kinda-boyfriend who couldn’t be bothered to attend the disaster of a performance she just put on, and almost inevitably falls onto the tracks. At this point, Joe must make a decision—reveal his presence and save her life, or continue to lurk in the shadows and hope she has the wherewithal to climb back onto the platform herself. Of course the dashing knight runs forward to save the damsel in distress, and the viewer is perturbed by the fact that if Joe hadn’t been following her, she would be dead.
Thus begins the story of Beck and Joe. He helps her home where the aforementioned jackass kinda- boyfriend is waiting for her (one of my favorite lines of the pilot is when Joe mentally refers to him as “You waste of hair”). Before they part ways, Beck realizes her phone is gone, probably lost forever in the subway. Joe suggests they exchange information anyway, and in one of the only smart moves she makes during the season, Beck gives him her e-mail address instead of her phone number (Joe silently agrees that her caution is warranted since she doesn’t really know him yet). Of course, what Beck doesn’t realize is that Joe secretly snatched the phone she dropped, so now he has 24 hour easy access to EVERYTHING she does on-line, as well as all her communications with other people. She returns to the bookstore the next day with a token of her appreciation and they make tentative plans to get together in the near future.
Things are looking up from Beck’s perspective. A nice, attractive, seemingly normal guy is interested in her…this has potential! She has no idea that there’s a dark obsession simmering beneath his kind, unassuming exterior. She’s blissfully unaware of the lengths he’ll go in an attempt to get to know her, love her, and help her maneuver through the complex quagmire that is life. And she’s certainly ignorant of the fact that Joe has used false pretenses to lure her jackass kinda-boyfriend to the basement of the bookshop, where he’s now being held hostage.
Thus ends the first episode of the ten episode season.
Joe is a fascinating character, wonderfully complex and exceptionally well-written. You want to dislike him because half the things he does range from objectively questionable to morally repugnant, and most are flat-out illegal. But you do like him. You may even fall for him a little. And whenever it looks like he’s going to get caught telling a lie, hiding in a shower, or sneaking around a large, isolated country estate, you hold your breath and pray he won’t be. You’ll even outright root for him for time to time. I know I did. I think that speaks volumes about both the quality of the writing and quality of Penn Badgley’s acting. Because Joe isn’t your stereotypical fictional stalker…he’s a much more realistic creature, one who is so good at hiding his darker inclinations, he’s the last person anyone would suspect of questionable behavior. The series beautifully illustrates this ability, which serial killers sometimes possess (just to be clear, Joe is NOT a serial killer). It helps the audience to understand the real-life wives and girlfriends who are shocked to learn that their significant others are deranged murderers. In such cases outsiders often wonder, “How could she not have known?” You provides an answer to that query.
But Joe isn’t all stalking and kidnapping, with the occasional assault/murder on the side, which is why he will kinda sorta win you over from time to time. For the most part he genuinely seems to want what’s best for Beck, even if that means letting her go (and I actually mean that last part, which was particularly surprising). It’s obviously not his place to decide which parts of her life are good for her and which parts aren’t, but the fact he has her best interests at heart makes him all the more interesting. How can I be so sure of his intentions? His running inner monologue keeps the viewer abreast of his most intimate thoughts, so we know what motivates him. While many MANY of the ways he chooses to “help” Beck are wildly inappropriate and often criminal, his justifications ring with a certain amount of truth. I’m not defending or excusing his behavior, but knowing the “why” behind his actions can create a certain amount of empathy in the viewer. That said, without the voiceovers that describe the inner workings of his mind, he would be a much more sinister character. It’s a shrewd move on the writers’ part.
A more compelling reason you’ll be conflicted about your feelings regarding Joe is his big brother-like relationship with Paco, the boy who lives next door. Paco’s mother, a recovering drug addict, is in an abusive relationship with a parole officer, so Joe often finds Paco sitting in the hall reading a book in an attempt to escape the alternating bouts of fighting and loud make-up sex taking place within his apartment. Joe does everything he can to help Paco—giving him food, lending him books, and doling out words of wisdom whenever possible. He even takes him under his wing a bit and teaches him how to care for and repair old books. He clearly has a soft spot for the boy and does what he can to shield him from an impossible situation. Joe’s relationship with Paco is quietly endearing, and shows the audience that he’s not an entirely bad guy.
My last point about Joe is more me pointing out that “things could be worse,” rather than an actual positive attribute, so bear with me. All things considered, one of the most striking things about him is the fact that he gets absolutely no pleasure out of killing people. Rest assured the body count is relatively low; Joe is a stalker that kills, not a killer who stalks. Killing is a last resort, a means to an end when no other solution appears feasible to him. And while he always feels that his decision to end another’s life is necessary, the act of killing them and the disposal of their bodies disgust him, to the point of making him physically ill on at least one occasion. This type of reaction was unexpected, given how malevolent some of his actions can be; I was sincerely surprised to find this out. It added yet another distinctive facet to a character that was already multifaceted.
As or Beck (played by Elizabeth Lail), let’s just say I’m not her biggest fan. I mean, she’s ok, I guess. She’s definitely pretty, so I can understand why Joe’s attracted to her. I’m even willing to admit that she has the potential to do something meaningful with her life if she could manage to get a clue. And I assure you, she’s completely clueless. Her naiveté is so great that sometimes I wanted to grab her by the shoulders, shake her, and yell, “What the F#@% is wrong with you?!?” My biggest problem with her is the fact that she lives on the first floor of an apartment building on a NYC street and possesses no means of covering her big, beautiful windows. Come on, sweetie, common sense should tell you that the first thing you do when you move in is buy some blinds. Or shades. Curtains? Something…anything that you can use to give yourself some privacy when the occasion dictates it. Like when you’re walking around in a towel after a shower. Or having sex with your skeevy jackass kinda-boyfriend.
I could go on and on about her poor choices (like her gaggle of “friends,” who are more-or-less useless, petty little rich girls who don’t need real jobs so they can sleep the day away and party through the night), but I’ll let you discover them for yourself. Ultimately, Beck is a mess, pure and simple. I think we’re supposed to forgive her that because she’s young and trying to figure out what she wants out of life. That excuse only gets you so far, though. We were all that age once, but we weren’t all in that shape. I know I wasn’t. It’s not like I knew EVERYTHING, but I had my act pretty much together. Around her age I was working towards my undergraduate science degree and figured out how I could manage spending a semester in England (where there were no science classes available) and still graduate in four years. Admittedly I lived at home (to save money), but I also had a steady job and paid my parents rent. Beck doesn’t know whether she’s coming or going and she lives in New York City, of all places. I grew up about an hour outside the city and I had a hell of a lot more street smarts at 13 than she does in her early 20s.
Before I wrap things up, I need to make something perfectly clear—I do NOT condone stalking in any way, shape, or form. It’s repulsive and immoral, not to mention illegal. And I don’t mean to imply that Beck “asks” for this to happen to her. Absolutely not. She’s the victim. No one asks to be stalked. I don’t like her, but she doesn’t deserve this. Again, no one does.
I had a lot of trouble writing this article, which is a bit puzzling. I’ve already mentioned my passion for true crime in previous articles and my love of horror movies is legendary (at least to my family, friends, and those who followed my 31 Days of Horror articles), so why should a TV show about a stalker be so disturbing? Why does it make me uncomfortable to endorse it? Perhaps it’s because the show is far more realistic than most horror movies, with a manipulative, dangerous, yet somehow completely likable character at its center. Sometimes I like Joe. I really do. And I find that deeply disturbing. But that’s part of the point, isn’t it? Not only to show the audience how easy it is for someone to deceive you, but to portray a man who is a brave, charming prince on the outside…and a sadistic monster on the inside. The most terrifying part is not that the monster exists, it’s that he’s not all monster. He’s the prince too. His very core is equal parts hero and villain. The question is can you live with both?
What’s more, the series forces you to scrutinize your own behavior. Is it ok to Google someone? Secretly follow them on social media? Look them up on their employer’s website? Stop by the café they frequent in hopes of running into them? Are we all stalkers to some degree? How much is too much? Where do we draw the line?
You is not for everyone. While I found it utterly fascinating, I appreciate the fact that some people might consider the subject matter far too disturbing. If I’ve piqued your interest but you’re still unsure if this show is for you or not, I encourage you to check out the first episode or two. If it ever gets to be too much, you can hit “stop” and remove it from your queue at any time. No one has to know. Except me. Because I’ll be watching…