It takes special skill for an actor to make audiences welcome a murderous stalker back to TV.
Sera Gamble’s “You” returns to Netflix for a fourth season that throws Penn Badgley’s remarkable character into new relationships and complications. The five-episode Part 1 is streaming now, with Part 2 due March 9. Not for the first time, “You” reinvents itself with setting, genre, and cast, Badgley’s surly antihero the sole constant holding everything together. It’s rare that a show can reinvent itself so well and often — “You” is all but anthology at this point — but Badgley makes it look easy. After years as the irascible Joe Goldberg, he knows exactly how to react to every twist and guide the audience with his eyes, body language, and menacing voiceover.
Season 4 finds Joe on a coveted “European holiday” (mostly in the since-divested United Kingdom), in search of his true love Marienne (Tati Gabrielle), who fled the U.S. after learning that Joe killed her boyfriend. Somehow — more explanation would either be too much work or too distracting — Joe becomes a professor, giving impassioned lectures about literature and redemption to a rapt audience in a library. Not for the first time, Joe wants to put his past behind him, but old habits — like spying on the neighbors, particularly the female neighbor when she’s alone with herself — die hard. “No love, no people, just books,” he tells himself before staring baldly through the uncovered windows across the way.
Before long Joe finds himself deeply entrenched in an illustrious but deplorable social circle: London’s hotshot nepo babies, with their rich parents, loyal bodyguards, drugs and booze — as bereft of self awareness as they are flushed with cash. This isn’t the first brush between Joe and the one percent, a tension that’s been boiling toward hatred since he met the Quinn family in Season 2. One by one, Joe’s shiny new friends start dying at the hands of a mysterious “Eat The Rich Killer,” and he finds himself in what he considers the lowest form of literature, one that the devout “You” audience will lap up greedily: a whodunit.
By now it’s not only acceptable but expected that “You” fill out its ensemble with disposable two-dimensional characters, a decision that works perhaps because the show never pretends they are anything but. Anyone outside of Joe’s head reaches the audience through his worldview (which is still too feminist to call a woman crazy and aware enough to disparage Woody Allen). None of the new cast clears the Shalita Grant bar for “You” ensemble excellence, but there are a few standouts in the parade of sparkly privilege, like Tilly Keeper and Lukas Gage. Amy-Leigh Hickman presents within the few minutes as the rare character with any sense or substance, the kind of grounding presence that Gabrielle offered in Season 2. She takes a backseat in later episodes, but likely in service of a bigger role in Part 2.
As always, there’s a woman: Kate (Charlotte Ritchie) — the woman Joe watched through the window. Kate is a self-proclaimed bitch who spurns Joe from the start, responding to his harmless incognito alias with outright hostility that goes against their obvious, screaming chemistry. They enter a somewhat tedious will-they/won’t-they; Joe doesn’t trust himself to get close to a woman because they end up dead or hating him (or both), but Kate hides behind arbitrary walls that crumble a little too conveniently around him. Her character’s weakness is cast in sharper light than any other because of her many scenes with Joe, whom Badgley has mastered beyond compare.
Splitting Season 4’s release is a choice that both works and doesn’t. There’s a clear shift at the midpoint that frames these five episodes as buildup and the remaining five as action, climax, and resolution. That’s a relief as the wealthy strangers grow stale around Episode 4, but frustrating because whatever relieves them is still a month away. The whodunit works until it doesn’t — a premise that could not be more welcome in the wake of “Glass Onion” — which just happens to be the same point at which the season pivots again. Expect more reinvention in the back half, and in Season 5.
With another season and a half to go, the question of “You” comes back to redemption. Joe Goldberg is undoubtedly one of the most compelling and watchable characters to come out of the streaming era, but a character with his colorful history will never have a clean slate. “You” will have to define and execute Joe’s version of redemption on its own terms, whether that’s small acts like giving his son a better life and saving Marienne’s or more intricate acts wrapped up in future episodes. Even in Part 2, Joe’s shifting priorities change the focus and function of his narration, the direction of the titular “You” itself. In a series that has reinvented itself time and again, from Lifetime to Netflix and Beck to Love and New York to California, anything is possible, especially with Badgley in the driver’s seat.
“You” Season 4 Part 1 is now streaming on Netflix.
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