A fantasy sociopath can help you escape from & process the real-world ones you’re faced with every day.
It’s Saturday, October 24th. There’s a global pandemic raging, amidst unprecedented economic collapse. Biden and Trump just had their final ‘debate,’ and we’ve got 10 days before the election…begins. No-deal Brexit is looming, and the last few weeks have seen the (elitist, Tory) London-based government in a battle with (populist, Labour) Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham, which ended with Boris Johnson stomping away, just as Brexit will. Both the British and American governments are currently being run by toddlers dressed as men, “men” who care more about helping their wealthy friends fail than saving the lives and livelihoods of the millions of people entrusted into their care.
I’m in the midst of all of this. A born New Yorker currently riding out the dragon that is 2020 in Manchester, UK, I’m watching both countries suffer at the hands of these self-absorbed, power-obsessed “men.” Unsurprisingly, I need a little distraction. Like everyone living through this pandemic, I am turning to arts and entertainment for survival. Yes, survival, Tories: ballet can keep us alive, not just “cyber.”
And over the past week I’ve found myself drawn into the world of a show that both reflects and distracts from this moment in time: YOU.
First released in 2018, YOU (streaming on Netflix; created by Sera Gamble and Greg Berlanti; based on the novel series by Caroline Kepnes) plays by some pretty basic television rules. It’s full of pretty people in a very prettily shot version of New York. It’s got a rom-com setup: Boy meets girl, boy falls for girl, boy does anything he can to get girl. It’s just that in this case, anything he can includes things like following her everywhere, stealing her phone, hiding in her shower, and killing her ex-boyfriend. (Spoiler alert fiends, don’t worry — I’m only three episodes in, so I can’t give too much away.)
This allows the show to play out on two levels: soapy enough to be bingeable, complex enough to not feel like a waste of time. Penn Badgley’s Joe Goldberg (the “boy” of our setup) is a wonderful beast, and feels incredibly pertinent to our moment. While the show was released in 2018, it was developed in 2015/2016 during the beginning of Trump’s “ascendance” over our airwaves. Goldberg is pitted as an alternative to the Trumps, Borises, and Patrick Batemans of the world. He’s anti-wealth and privilege, hates social media, is an old-school romantic who wants to take his time courting someone rather than “grab them by the pussy,” and he continually pushes the object of his affection (obsession), Guinevere Beck, to trust her own voice and stand up for herself.
Every element of Joe’s character — other than the fact that he’s a controlling, violent, obsessive stalker who masturbates in a doorway while watching Beck through her window — is written to up his likability quotient. This is successful enough that you don’t turn the show off, even after said masturbation scene — which by the way ends with him helping a little old woman with her bags. Our heartstrings are pulled as we watch him save his maligned child neighbor from his abusive household, by feeding him, teaching him to believe in himself, and helping him escape into — wait for it — books. This show gave Goldberg the one truly sympathetic characteristic you can give a man: kindness to children a love of books. Books are the most important part of his life. As a creative writing masters student (just like Guinevere Beck) this puts me in unavoidable, unstoppable swoon mode. The writers of the novel and the show know this. How can you walk away from a man whose life rotates around books? Well, books — and his respect for YOU, Beck.
This is where the show reveals its importance. Joe isn’t outwardly as evil as Trump. He’s more like the male equivalent of an Amy Coney Barrett — someone who you can pretend makes you look like you’re listening to criticism (she’s a woman!) when really you’re just digging your heels even more deeply into the problem (she’s a terrible person!). The cleverness of YOU is that it makes you, as an audience member, culpable in your appreciation of Joe. Joe may seem to say all the right things, but in fact he is confining Beck’s role as much as any of his more blatantly misogynistic colleagues. He has a vision of who she is, and when she deviates from it he loses his faith in his mission. Goldberg isn’t obsessed with Beck, he’s obsessed with who he thinks she could be.
But the issue with the show is that it never quite steps enough beyond Joe’s perspective to give Beck a compelling voice of her own. While commenting on the gender politics of our time, the show hasn’t quite escaped them, even with strong female leadership. Beck is insecure, questioning who she is and surrounded by people who tell her who she should be — friends, boys, dissertation advisors, uppity classmates. This is realistic (okay, maybe a little too realistic to be comfortable, my 24 year old self whispers) but it leaves us with a half-baked character, too much object and not enough subject. Beck is a little too much of a mess for us to fall in love with her, or totally understand why Goldberg has. She’s too naive, seeing only the shiniest best bits of the caricatures of pretension around her. And by the end of episode three, we haven’t once seen Beck do anything successful in relation to her work ethic or her writing, to a level that renders her a bit unbelievable.
In order for this show to be a truly successful investigation of and salve for our time, Beck will need to grow in agency and self-understanding even as her world, and possibly her own life, come more dangerously under attack. The success of this show will lie in how her character grows and changes over the season, even if she may not end up surviving it (no spoilers, please!) But the depiction of Joe, in whom the writers can explore complex questions of romance, power, control, and submission, is keeping me watching. It is uniquely apt for a time in which our media has been overtaken by child-men who throw tantrums when things don’t go their way. And yet soapy enough to serve as an escape from all the real sociopaths out there. So I’ll just be over here clicking on the next episode…