How to Make a Self-Aware Show About a Serial Killer

In Season 2, Netflix’s dark melodrama You doubles down on its critique of its loathsome protagonist—and introduces some smart women who get in his way.

Beth Dubber/Netflix

This story contains spoilers for Season 2 of You.

Disillusioned New Yorkers abscond to Los Angeles to escape any number of undesirables: the rats (and raccoons) that traverse grimy subway stations, the trains that seem to arrive with less regularity than the vermin, the puddles of icy sludge that turn crosswalks into ecological terror sites every winter. But none of these nuisances is the reason that Joe Goldberg, the loathsome protagonist of Netflix’s hit dark comedy You, finds himself on the West Coast at the outset of the show’s second season. He has fled something much more specific: the multiple murders he committed in the tri-state area and the man he framed for them.

You introduced Joe (played by Penn Badgley) as a charming bookstore employee at the start of Season 1 and then quickly revealed his evil side. When the aspiring writer Guinevere Beck (Elizabeth Lail) walked into his store, Joe became dangerously fixated on her; the show contrasted Joe’s supposedly feminist-leaning sensibilities with his obsession, which turned to stalking and violence. By the end of the season, You had presented a clear indictment of Joe, skewering his veneer and showing just how easily some misogynists can conceal their beliefs. His final gesture toward Beck encapsulated the way he disguised selfishness as love: Joe killed her after she learned about his other murders, then published a heavily edited volume of her writing. Beck became a literary star only in death, and Joe enjoyed the spoils of her fame.

A self-aware work of melodrama, You combines the best elements of murder-mystery series, Millennial sitcoms, and revenge fantasies. In its newly released second season, the show builds on its condemnation of Joe by moving beyond its clever examination of the “nice guy” trope. Rather than simply diving deeper into his psyche, You surrounds Joe with a dynamic ensemble that pushes the story into richer territory. These new characters, especially the women, challenge Joe’s sense of power and control in different ways, at times bringing a welcome lighter tone to the show in the process.

Season 2’s fresh approach to You’s grim material owes partly to the change in setting. Los Angeles boasts more sunshine and cheerier personalities than New York’s literary scene, and the new city’s ambient warmth clashes with Joe’s escalating violence. You also treats its characters’ personalities with a newfound irreverence. Soon after arriving in L.A. and reinventing himself as “Will Bettelheim,” Joe falls for a woman literally named Love Quinn (Victoria Pedretti). She and her brother, Forty (James Scully), run a bookstore-slash-health-shop called Anavrin. (Yes, that’s “Nirvana” spelled backwards, and the twins Love and Forty are named for the tennis scores). Despite his distaste for the artifice of L.A., Joe quickly decides that Love is everything that Beck wasn’t: brilliant, family-oriented, and, most of all, real. Hyperbolic L.A. jokes aside, the most satisfying moments of the second season are the scenes in which Love positions herself not as Beck’s opposite but as Joe’s foil.

Season 1 was unequivocal in its presentation of Joe as an objectively bad person. He was charismatic, sure, but that magnetism was always portrayed as the means to violent ends. Beck, meanwhile, was a middling writer and decidedly bland human, which ostensibly made it easy for Joe to project his fantasies onto her. The series upends this dynamic in Season 2, teaching Joe a lesson and thrilling viewers in the process: As a character, Love is just as menacing as Joe and far more unrepentant. The show is also clear that the other women who surround Joe are significantly more interesting than he is, not to mention smarter and more resourceful. Joe’s landlord, the journalist Delilah Alves (Carmela Zumbado) and her teen sister, Ellie (Jenna Ortega), both commit more wholly to their own creative pursuits than Joe ever does to his literary craft. (At one point, when he tries to get involved with a problem they’re facing, Joe’s attempted benevolence backfires.) And when Joe’s estranged ex Candace (Ambyr Childers) reappears, her tracking skills are superior to his stalking techniques. All of these women undercut Joe in some way, whether or not their encounters are romantic.

Even in Season 2, after Joe is established as a murderer, he continues trying to distance himself from the men he sees as brutish misogynists. (In Season 1, Joe believed himself to be better than his neighbor’s abusive, alcoholic boyfriend.) Again, You unveils the full extent of Joe’s depravity slowly. His thoughts, which viewers hear as a voice-over throughout the series, point to a desire to avoid the jealous rages that ensnared him in the past. He tells himself that he’ll never again draw close to a woman only to treat her the way he did Beck or Candace. The dissonance between his thoughts and his actions, especially amid the increasing bloodshed, provides some of the show’s sharpest critique of its own protagonist. “Everything was from a place of love; to protect,” Joe thinks late in the season, while sitting on the blood-covered floor next to a dead body. “But what type of man would do this? …. Have I just been refusing to face who I really am? What am I?” The answer is obvious, but it’s still momentarily affecting to see Joe so unwilling to face the truth—if only because his character retains an appeal that is at odds with the show’s message about his vileness.

The antihero of a relatively unknown Lifetime adaptation before Netflix picked up You, Joe now belongs to a strangely crowded landscape of TV serial killers with an enthusiastic fanbase. Like Bill Hader’s fictional Barry Berkman, and Zac Efron’s portrayal of real-life murderer Ted Bundy, Joe garnered an outpouring of lusty responses after You became a cult hit last year. Like Hader, Badgley has expressed confusion at some viewers’ attraction to his character. While You and its star resist that adulation, in Season 2, Badgley imbues his character with even more disarming panache. Joe skulks about L.A. with terrifying, lupine grace. His smiles are eerie, his gestures too precise to feel safe and too understated to telegraph the danger he’s capable of.

This season, though, the show lends that same tension and aura of threat to its women. Love, in particular, evolves from a stereotype of domesticity into a formidable character. Pedretti plays her with frenetic energy and gradually exposes Love’s rebellious traits. By the penultimate episode, Love upends everything Joe has come to believe about himself. After several episodes of light-hearted banter and good-natured attention for the men around her, she transforms in a gripping scene. Love confesses to Joe a grievous crime of her own and doesn’t repent when Joe looks at her with shock and horror. In a monologue, she tells him that the innocence he wanted to see in her obscured her capacity for violence. “While I was seeing you, really seeing you, you were busy gazing at a goddamn fantasy,” Love says. “A perfectly imperfect girl … but I was always right here.” It’s a devastating send-up, not only of Joe but of all men who view women through narrow lenses—and of all the You fans who make excuses for them.