Initially, Netflix’s debut season of “You” appears to be a cliche boy-meets-girl romance set in New York City. It quickly evolves, however, into a wannabe thriller about a murderer who conflates romance with stalking. Despite the unfortunate twist, the show, based on a psychological thriller novel by Caroline Kepnes, kept me coming back for more.
“Gruesomely murdering everyone close to the girl you are crazy about and stalking her is not love!” I yelled at protagonist Joe Goldberg throughout his psychopathic exploits. Penn Badgley plays the role of our main character and highly intelligent bookstore manager. Joe’s dream girl in this tale is failed writer Guinevere Beck, who goes by Beck and is played by Elizabeth Lail.
Twisted characters like Joe are not unusual in media, but in this case, “You” offers the chance to peer into the mind of our stalker through his own narration. Through 10 episodes, I earned a chance to listen to a troubled — yet methodical — man rationalize murdering everyone in his path, including the following: Beck’s ex-lover Benji, played by Lou Taylor Pucci; Beck’s best friend Peach, played by Shay Mitchell; and Joe’s neighbor’s alcoholic boyfriend, Ron, played by Daniel Cosgrove.
From the outset, Joe demonstrates his willingness to do whatever it takes to secure his picturesque future with Beck. The rational suggestion for Joe is to simply try to win her over using his suave good looks and endless knowledge about classic literature — no murder required. However, like a “true gentleman,” he persists in his calculated stalking of Beck.
As the series progresses, Joe cites his immoral principles as a byproduct of growing up without a father figure and the resulting attempts by bookstore owner Mr. Mooney, played by Mark Blum, to discipline Joe in his teen years while he served as an apprentice at the bookstore. By locking him in a glass cage and forcing him to read first editions of classic U.S. literature, Mooney believed he could teach Joe the value of books.
While being forced to read Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden Pond” could qualify as child abuse, this punishment does not justify Joe’s adult behavior — he is not as guiltless as he claims to be.
The melodramatic thriller shows Joe stalking Beck more often than attempting to woo her. I often asked myself how Joe never gets caught. For starters, it helps that Joe kills anyone who reveals an inkling of suspicion of his antics.
Joe’s luck seems to never run out. When Joe warns Beck about a meaningless meeting Peach arranges for her with a bigtime editor, she does not initially heed his precaution. However, when the editor does indeed try to seduce Beck, she puts Peach in her place for setting her up and further validates Joe’s suspicions about Peach’s intentions for Beck. The meeting’s failure also, conveniently, helps Joe look like less of a paranoid person and more like a friend showing real concern.
Joe indeed walks the fine line between normal New Yorker and unstable, murderous sociopath alarmingly well. But this show makes it clear that, above all else, Joe is a pathetic stalker: He stands literally two feet outside Beck’s house every night and desirously stares at her through 7-foot windows; he follows her to an empty subway station where he is forced to save her life after she falls onto the tracks, proving he followed her; and he admits he knows she is a poet on the Uber ride to her house, post-rescuing.
In short, “You” starts as another glamorized love story but derails off the expected track when one side of the romantic equation cannot comprehend the difference between devotion and obsession. It’s been done before, enough that it merits an IMDB page dedicated to the genre, but seeing this dark side of Joe is as bingeable as it is horrifying.
Joe’s success as a stalker and murderer may not stay within the realm of believability, but “You” had me coming back for more at the end of each episode. With slow and deliberate plotting, it delivers an endless series of twists.
Even though many of the twists push the premise to a near-absurd conclusion, each addition to the plot generates even more suspense. “You” may be a trashy thriller that gives a little too much screen time to letting an obsessed stalker justify his crimes, but it is addictive enough to start episode one and, like Joe, feel unable to do anything else but watch the doomed relationship until the very end.
Rohit Mahtani is a junior in the McDonough School of Business. Netflix and No Chill appears in print every other Friday.