Editor’s note: Major spoilers ahead!
There’s an early scene in You, the soapy, stalker drama currently streaming on Netflix, where Penn Badgley’s Joe Goldberg breaks into Beck’s New York City apartment. Beck is the object of Joe’s obsession, the woman he’s so dutifully committed to saving from all the terribly cruel men in the city. Beck doesn’t actually know Joe, though. They’ve only shared a few moments of casual, flirtatious interaction at a neighborhood bookstore. Beck, of course, also doesn’t realize that Joe is one of those terribly cruel, terribly bad men, too.
Once inside her apartment, Joe, like a detective searching for clues, methodically combs through her belongings — her leftover lunches, her photos, her dresser (where he pockets a pair of her undies like a treasured gem) — before committing a modern-day violation of privacy: He browses the files of her laptop and soaks up the most intimate details of her personal life so he can use those details to win her over later.
Joe is a creep of the worst kind. He’s also a criminal, a thief, a Peeping Tom, a public masterbater, and, we later learn, a violent assaulter and murderer. All this in the name of some twisted vision of love. But in this moment, I can’t look away. If this were real life, I’d be mortified. Here in this fictional bubble, though, I’m intrigued. What is it about you, Joe?
The scene continues unfolding. Beck, played by Once Upon a Time‘s Elizabeth Lail, returns to her apartment, forcing our Peeping Joe to slip quietly into her bathtub to hide. “I’ve seen enough romantic comedies to know that guys like me always get into jams like this,” Joe monologues. (No, Joe, they don’t.) As Joe’s hiding place continues to serve its purpose, a disturbing thought crosses my mind. I don’t want Joe to get caught. I want him to get out of this situation unscathed. He’s creeping around for love! For his future!, and — oh, god, am I really rooting for this shitty guy?
What is most interesting about You, which debuted on Lifetime last September, isn’t the discussion about social media, privacy, and modern day dating, but rather the relationship we have with monstrous men who lurk among us. Joe is a monster — a flannel-wearing, book- and coffee-loving, Tinder-swiping one at that. It’s no surprise that we’re intrigued and attracted to Joe. You presents him as gentle and approachable, as a protector who will rush to your rescue if you drunkenly fall onto the subway tracks. You wants us to see both his good qualities (knight in shining armor) and the bad (creep, stalker, abuser), and blur the line between villain and villain-ish. In this way the scene right before Joe is in Beck’s apartment — where he protects his young next door neighbor Paco from his mom’s abusive boyfriend — feels almost deliberate. Joe is two-faced. But the duality the show gives us feels almost like a test, one that ultimately makes us question our social conditioning, and our attitudes towards romance, chivalry, and men who take what they want without consequence.
When asked at last summer’s TCA panel how he felt about playing a stalker in the #MeToo era, Badgley revealed he was interested in how audiences would “love an evil white man.” “I think it will add to the conversation, it will create its own conversation,” he added.
Internally, this is a conversation that caused me to check myself numerous times as I devoured each episode of You‘s excellent and gripping first season. I nearly panicked for Joe when Paco almost discovered captive Benji in the basement of Joe’s bookstore, and felt empathy when he, on the way to Peach Salinger’s country home to spy on Beck, ran off the road after hitting a deer. No, you’re not supposed to feel these things, I thought. After finishing the series (I will not touch on that final episode because the show literally goes haywire and takes a slightly different turn, tonally), I thought more about Joe, about how he is the scum of the earth, about how he’s just another misogynistic “evil white man” who thinks he knows what’s good for a woman, and about how I should kick myself for even thinking about criticizing Beck for not having the wherewithal to get blinds for her apartment windows.
There’s a great article on i-D that explores the hard time we have with separating romance from emotional abuse. Just scroll through social media to see all those who somehow ship Joe and Beck to see what I’m talking about. “Perhaps because of how similar Joe is to us, the reaction to You online has seen some viewers defending him, romanticizing him, and, perhaps most worryingly, displaying some serious victim blaming,” Roisin Lanigan writes. “Some, it would seem, consider all of his bad behavior the result of how unlikeable and unworthy of his love and obsession Beck’s character was.”
I’m not quite sure what message You is ultimately trying to send, especially when, in the end, Joe kills Beck and gets away with it. Does that mean women who don’t comport to a man’s will dies? Or that, at the end of the day, a man’s point of view is the only thing that truly matters? (To be fair, Caroline Kepnes’s books, which You is based on, is told mainly from Joe’s point of view. The show carries this format over, which is why we never really hear Beck’s thoughts.)
If anything, You has made me reflect more deeply about about my own social conditioning as a woman, and how I perceive and react to moments of emotional abuse onscreen. Perhaps, like Bagley said, having conversations about Joe and unpacking why an “evil white man” is still an acceptable villain for TV viewers to root for in this day and age, is a good place to start. But as You and Joe’s heroic and horrific ways prove, everything is complicated. We really have our work cut out for us this time.
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