You continues to be a smart, engaging thriller, and even though a lot of it is played for maximum silliness, it remains highly watchable.
There’s more than one reason that You works so well. The actors are charismatic and the plot is addictively nutty. The writing is full of cautionary nuggets, skewering critiques and funny gags. This is all true. But the big reason is that it has its two main characters, and several more besides, walk a precarious tightrope. They have to be one thing and another, often at the same time. The appeal hinges on the bad guys being likeable and the victims being untrustworthy; the bad guys being detestable and the victims sympathetic; the bad guys understandable and the victims perplexing. The overall effect is arresting. You don’t know where you stand, or who you might be stood next to.
On the one hand, Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley) is a maniac. He inexplicably fell in love with a woman he met for five minutes, hijacked all her social media profiles, kidnapped her on-again-off-again boyfriend, held him hostage in a chilly vault in the basement of the book store he manages, and by the end of “The Last Nice Guy in New York” has killed him, thus throwing the episode’s title into some doubt.
On the other hand, I kind of believe him.
Don’t misunderstand me – I don’t believe he’s the good guy of this story in the same way he does. But I believe he genuinely cares about and wants to protect Beck (Elizabeth Lail), which I suppose is the point. I don’t believe he’s a danger to the speed-reading stairwell urchin to whom he continually shows kindness and generosity (there was a slight blip in “The Last Nice Guy in New York”, but we all make mistakes), and I believe he’s a victim himself – not of being Friendzoned, obviously, although that’s never fun, but of longstanding abuse which has clearly warped his view of the world and the people who populate it.
You subscribes to that age-old storytelling maxim of the best villains being the heroes in their own stories, but it’s bold enough to also imply that the heroes – or the victims – might be villains in someone else’s. So it is that “The Last Nice Guy in New York” has Joe grappling with the fact that Beck’s real personality might not entirely coalesce with the fantastical version of her he has conjured from her social media accounts. And even more aggravatingly, the person who sees through the façade is the hipster artisanal soda-brewer Benji (Lou Taylor Pucci), who is currently being given the smug psychological torture routine in the bookstore’s basement.
Case in point: Beck invites Joe to a party at the home of a ludicrously wealthy friend somewhat improbably called Peach Salinger (Shay Mitchell), whose relationship to J.D. is unexplained but has enough potential to entice a bookworm like Joe. And Benji suggests that she’s doing so to add “texture”, which is almost certainly true, considering she dumps him seconds after arriving and leaves him to mingle on his own. It’s funny because Joe’s whole shtick is that he has everyone figured out, especially dopey bros like Benji. That’s why he smugly terrorises him by quizzing him on books he claims to have read and forcing him to taste-test his own soda. But how Benji sees Beck – as a self-interested, superficial gold-digger, and a master manipulator – is arguably closer to reality than the idealised, “romantic” version that Joe has conjured; what initially seemed like superficiality on Benji’s part is reversed into ignorance on Joe’s, which is a nice switcheroo.
This’ll inevitably work better when Beck is allowed to be a little more openly conceited and unpleasant; the show’s obviously heading in that direction, but it isn’t there yet, so you can buy Joe’s refusal to admit his errors – and his constant, vaguely pathetic willingness to do whatever Beck wants – as a consequence of stubbornness rather than stupidity. But the more interesting dynamic is sure to emerge when Joe realises that you can’t judge people entirely by the face they show to the world. Just like his well-read, old-fashioned charmer persona is to cover up the fact he’s a nutcase stalker, so too is Beck’s winning, poet-next-door personality a distraction from what’s underneath.
There’s a lot that’s silly about You. It’s absurd that nobody who works in the bookstore ever goes downstairs, and Joe’s ability to hide big, hardback books on his person is a stretch. There are lots of little details it gets wrong about technology, not to mention people, and it falls too easily into stereotypes, such as when Beck’s pervy professor tries it on in exchange for some promised grades. Plus, a show with such a hard-on for classic lit has no excuse for deploying lines like, “It’s about a monster who’s not really the monster”, in description of Frankenstein, or when Beck says, “I’m starting to think I’m like, some kind of magnet for dudes with serious issues,” to the man who poisoned her boyfriend with peanut oil.
But it’s also playfully absurd in a lot of the right ways, getting at the contradictions in our always-online engagement with the world, and in our relationships, and in our aspirations. Not to mention it’s just a fun twisty thriller, with a good amount of turns and reversals and close-shaves. I like it. And I reckon it’ll probably get even better.
Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.