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‘You’ Season 2 Review: A Dangerously Compelling Fish-Out-of-Water Story

Penn Badgley's Joe Goldberg falls deeper into his denial that he is a bad guy and the villain of his own story.

Victoria Pedretti, Penn Badgley, "You" Season 2

Beth Dubber/Netflix

There is just something about “You” that makes it hard to look away, even as it forces viewers to really feel uncomfortable for thinking about “rooting for” the series’ handsome-but-deadly protagonist. “You” star Penn Badgley tried to do as much on social media during the show’s first season on Lifetime, reminding fans to mixed results that his obsessive, controlling, and violent character was, in fact, all of the above and not a handsome charmer who deserves to be a love interest.

“You” is now a Netflix original in its second season, and it makes those aforementioned facts even harder to digest as Badgley’s Joe Goldberg falls deeper into his denial that he is a bad guy and the villain of his own story. As much as Joe paints himself as a good guy who’s not a murderer (despite the number of murders he’s done), “You” never pretends to be on his side. At least, not in that sense. In fact, it’s in those moments of self-defense where the mirror focused on Joe is at its largest, even though he refuses to look into it. Season 2 forces Joe to really look at himself and places himself in a metaphorical room of endless mirrors.

While many “You” fans are wondering how the shift from Lifetime to Netflix might change the series, no one has any reason to worry as the streaming giant doubles down on the show’s addictive tone and doesn’t attempt to fix what ain’t broken. The most notable change from the movie to Netflix is that “You” can now drop f-bombs. The more drastic change is the show’s setting, which moves from New York to Los Angeles.

As “You” Season 2 begins, Joe has moved to Los Angeles in an attempt to get away from his very-much-alive ex-girlfriend, Candace (Ambyr Childers). So now Joe Goldberg — going by the name “Will Bettelheim” in his attempt to lay low — has to navigate being a fish out of water. It’s far less wacky than it sounds, but “You’s” sly sense of humor continues to make the series pretty funny. Los Angeles means there’s too much sun, there’s too much movie talk, and there’s too much green juice for Joe’s liking. It’s all torture for a snobbish New Yorker like Joe, even though he’s quoting Nora Ephron movies and drawing Wes Anderson comparisons in his inner monologue.

At the center of this season and its new locale is the appropriately-named Love (Victoria Pedretti), a chef who catches Joe’s eye at a time when he claims to want to do anything but fall into the same patterns as his life in New York. Fall into the same patterns he does, albeit reluctantly. With the blueprint for Joe set in Season 1, the audience comes into Season 2 knowing that it has to now worry about Love and everyone in her orbit. The key for the season is to subvert those established expectations — even if Joe doesn’t subvert them on his end — without betraying what made the show work in the first place. Since we’ve seen Joe’s greatest hits in the first season, the second season has to be able to play around and poke fun at them even more than they originally did. Season 2 succeeds here largely because of Love’s characterization.

While both Season 1 love interest Beck and Love are clearly archetypes for Joe to latch on to, the difference is that Beck was written in an intentionally blank way. Love is such a fully-developed and straightforward character that there’s no mistaking who she is and what she wants. Unlike Beck, Love isn’t searching for and questioning what she wants. Love is upfront about her baggage, and despite Joe’s instincts, she doesn’t “need” to be “saved” by anyone. As observant as Joe is, he’s often genuinely surprised by Love because she isn’t so easy to predict. The same goes for her circle of friends, too. This new dynamic throws Joe’s confidence into crisis mode and allows Season 2 to dismantle Joe in ways Season 1 did not.

The direction “You” goes with Love and her relationship with Joe proves that showrunner Sera Gamble knows exactly what she’s doing. The more the audience likes Joe — and likes Joe with Love — the more “You” makes sure to tip the scales with all of the terrible things he does, whether it’s kidnapping, murdering (the body count keeps getting higher this season), or gaslighting. That last one is especially highlighted when it comes to the Joe-Candace situation as he continues to cling to the falsehood that he’s not the bad guy here and she is. The Candance storyline is where “You” makes it clear just how terrifying Joe actually is. Badgley deserves praise for the way he’s able to play the many facets of Joe’s deranged-yet-charming personality, but Childers more that rises to the challenge of playing a cool spurned ex who is clearly traumatized by Joe and his wolf in sheep’s clothing act.

One of the smartest things “You” Season 1 ever did was intentionally not diagnose Joe, even when there was an opportunity to do so with Dr. Nicky (John Stamos). To pin a specific mental illness on Joe would open up a can of psychological worms, as well as box the character into someone who could be fixed. Season 2 goes deeper into Joe’s history — before he entered the foster system and ended up with the abusive Mr. Mooney — digging into the root of his savior complex and mommy issues. While “You” succeeds in presenting these flashbacks without having them serve as an excuse for his behavior, they’re also the most extraneous part of Season 2. Any viewer could’ve filled in the blanks about Joe’s issues with women stemming from his relationship with his mother without actually seeing any of history unfold. The flashbacks are the biggest misstep of the new season.

Outside of its two romantic leads, “You” Season 2 also succeeds with its supporting characters, Ellie (Jenna Ortega) and Love’s filmmaker/addict brother Forty (James Scully). Both of these characters are able to grow and reveal depth that is unexpected. “You” presents a complex and difficult teenage character in Ellie, one that’s self-aware without being an unrealistic portrayal, and the show offers an interesting dynamic in Love and Forty’s co-dependant relationship. Sadly, no member of Love’s friend group reaches the entertaining highs of Shay Mitchell’s Peach Salinger in Season 1, but these new Season 2 characters are more of a means to challenging what Joe thinks he knows and prove more essential to Joe’s journey.

“You” Season 2 proves Season 1 wasn’t lightning in a bottle, though it’s questionable if Sera Gamble and company should attempt to press their luck with a Season 3. That’s something Joe would do, which might just answer the question of if it should happen. But it will also come down to how the audience reacts to the way this season ends. Based on the nine episodes that come before the Season 2 conclusion makes sense and could even bring the series to a whole other level — especially when it comes to sympathy for the devil — should it continue on. But should it?

Grade: A-

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