[Editor’s Note: The following article contains spoilers for “You” Season 3, including the prior two seasons.]
“You” probably didn’t see this coming. What initially looked like another frothy, late-night soap from Lifetime is now firmly established as a perennial critics’ favorite and a Netflix hit? Yeah, we didn’t either. And while this could be the result of our quarantine brains over-bingeing on everything, Season 3 of “You” is damn near perfect. Finally, it seems that our favorite serial killer Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley) has become a fully fledged antihero — and it took three seasons to find a bit of empathy for him. Developed for television by Sera Gamble and Greg Berlanti, “You” has continued to progress over three shapeshifting seasons, emerging in 2021 with a tone drastically different than what was seen in its preliminary days on cable.
A social media-obsessed white man who dons a black baseball cap to prey upon unsuspecting women was perhaps not the easiest sell in 2018, amid the height of the #MeToo movement. Originally based on Caroline Kepnes’ novel of the same name, “You” was admittedly a “social experiment,” according to lead star Badgley. “It will be interesting to see the mental gymnastics we’ll go through as a culture to love an evil white man,” the actor told IndieWire at the time. “I think it will certainly add to the conversation and create its own conversation.”
Pulling from David Fincher’s “Gone Girl” and Mary Harron’s “American Psycho,” “You’s” premise was simple enough: Guy meets girl at a bookstore. Guy stalks girl back to her house. Guy dates girl. Guy murders everyone girl cares about, and then guy inevitably smothers the object of his affection. The aforementioned and arguably interchangeable girl in Season 1 is the insufferable Genevieve Beck (Elizabeth Lail). Our early allegiance to Joe stemmed not from condoning his actions, but instead aligning with his inner monologue: Beck was annoying. She didn’t deserve to die, but she was also never a substantial lead in the first place…which was part of the point. We saw Beck entirely through Joe’s eyes as she verged into a caricature and therefore, it was not a real loss when she was killed in a bout of passion.
Then came Season 2, which started as a glimmer of hope and became a stepping stone to the spot-on third installment. Drawing from Kepnes’ sequel “Hidden Bodies,” the sequel season took on specific, timely political issues like sexual abuse in Hollywood and wealth disparity. Joe fell in love with Love (Victoria Pedretti), and it seemed that he met his soulmate, especially when Love’s own murder streak was revealed.
Add a baby, a white picket fence, and the Bay Area tech bubble, and Season 3 had the makings right off the bloodied bat to become a fresh next step. Joe as a dad? Why not! How would his demented understanding of love (and Love) be affected by an innocent newborn? Could family change Joe? As Season 3 played out, “You” proved to be more of an anthology series, completely reinventing itself yet again with an unprecedented flexibility to mirror exactly what we need, when we need it.
Season 3 diverged from the cynical and calculated Joe that we had grown to accept as our devilish pathway into the story’s arresting social satire. Instead, Joe was a victim of sorts, both within the flashbacks to his childhood and the shocking realization of just how much the suburbs can become a glass prison. Joe is more mature, and it seems that “You” has strayed from its Lifetime beginnings to offer a terrifying truth: Season 3 stands as a commentary on marriage, the definitions of feminism, and conformity for capitalism’s sake, which are all topics much harder to laugh off than its twisty, campy first season.
John P. Fleenor / Netflix
Fleshing out Joe’s co-star certainly helped. Pedretti’s sinister twist in Season 2 elevated her to a status any fellow killer would have to respect, and she earned a more thorough examination this year, filled with relatable fears magnified to entertaining extremes. Female burnout is quite real, and it’s easy to empathize with Love’s grief, pain, and insatiable need to feel alive… even as she murders her own victims under the guise of protecting her family. Season 3 even offers a real-world social commentary on how to approach toxic masculinity post-insurrection and takes a firm stand on COVID-19 anti-vaxxers. It’s then that we realize “You” is choosing to break the fourth wall, and use its viral status and outstanding cast to send a distinct message.
Gamble confirmed, to some extent, that Joe has adapted much like the series itself. “He’s been through a lot. He has felt a lot of heartbreak,” Gamble revealed to E! News. “He’s been in a lot of scary situations, but in certain ways that are crucial so we can keep telling the story, he’s not able to fully see himself. I don’t think that a character who is built this way, a person who has this sort of psyche and life, is necessarily capable of it.”
Since the beginning, Joe himself has been talking directly to the viewer via voiceover. In the new season, he casually mentions that Beck, his New York-based love interest who seems like a distant memory by now, was a “child.” The same could be said about the series, considering how much it’s grown since its one-and-done season on Lifetime.
John P. Fleenor / Netflix
It wasn’t Joe who murdered the deal with Lifetime, but the network’s decision to cut ties. According to the Washington Post, Netflix had the second-run U.S. rights and first-run global rights of the show, which is produced by Warner Horizon Scripted Television. After Lifetime passed on a second season, Netflix took over, and a whole new audience became acquainted with Joe for the first time via streaming.
In a review of Season 2, IndieWire wrote that the script “places [Joe] in a metaphorical room of endless mirrors,” forcing him to confront the denial that his is the “villain of his own story.” By season 3, Joe shatters the only real mirror that matters: Love’s opinion of him.
As Gamble summed up to E! News, “I think the formula that we talk about in the writers’ room with the directors is that the plot, the story, can be completely batshit crazy. Joe’s life is not progressing along a normal avenue and his behavior is not always normal. But we keep the emotion and the relationships as grounded as we can. We never want this to feel like a show where, like, ladies with shoulder pads just slap each other. We don’t want it to be so frothy. We want you to really feel the feelings, so when we’re writing a scene where two characters are talking about how they feel, the job of whichever writer is writing that scene is being as honest as they can.”
Or in Badgley’s own words, “What the creators of the show do so well is within this device where the person is ultimately irredeemable, they do explore things that healthy people should be exploring. […] [Joe] is having these new experiences and trying to be present and trying to change. As an actor, I have to believe him. That’s new, for me.”
And it’s new for us, too. Welcome to the world, eerily relatable adult Joe.
“You” Seasons 1-3 are available to stream on Netflix.