By Poulomi Das
One of You’s funniest – and equally scathing – moments comes well into the explosive show’s sixth episode. An injured Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley) breaks into the sprawling vacation house where his girlfriend Beck (Elizabeth Lail) and her recuperating best friend Peach (Shay Mitchell) are cooped up. Joe manages to remain out of sight – hiding under beds and behind doors – as he spies on their conversations and debauchery; freely judging their intentions with every passing minute.
To anyone else, it’s evident that Joe violating his partner’s privacy stems from his inability to trust her or even consider her an individual. Yet, in Joe’s head, his stalking is justified – it’s not creepy if he’s concerned about Beck’s well-being. Just like the standard romantic male lead, Joe is, after all, just going to unimaginable lengths to protect the woman he loves. In this case, from getting swayed by her toxic best friend to cheat on him.
You juxtaposes Joe’s hypocrisy in a delectable scene: Joe stares at Peach longingly stare at a naked Beth who is inside a bathtub. Without a trace of irony, he expresses his indignation, “How dare she invade your privacy like that?” It’s impossible not to chuckle at how cleverly staged this moment is. Although, what is more revealing is the realisation that this scene prompts: Just like Joe, even “our” sympathies comfortably lie with him. In our heads as well, Peach is the only villain. It’s precisely this big-screen romantic indulgence of freely allowing male leads their transgressions for the noble pursuit of love, that Greg Berlanti and Sera Gamble’s You, mines to its advantage.
Adapted from Caroline Kepnes’ novel, You follows Joe, an introverted bookstore manager and an archetype of the proverbial “nice guy” who stumbles upon Guinevere Beck, a graduate student and aspiring writer at his bookstore. It’s love at first sight – Joe is convinced that he might be the one for Beck, even before he’s had the chance to talk to her. On her part, Beck flirts back, reciprocating his interest by volunteering personal information that is easily searchable on the internet. Joe follows her lead and cleverly arranges a meet-cute in the virtual world by stalking Beck’s multiple online accounts to know her better.
Unknown to Beck, he steals her phone, reads her messages, manipulates his way into her heart by saying the right things.
Image Credits: Netflix
Until then, You resembles a familiar script, one that so many of us repeat in our daily lives. Who among us hasn’t given in to the temptation of looking up Tinder matches, our crush’s ex, or even a new boss online, before we meet them? Social media, for the millennial generation, is that 3 am friend we confide in and depend on.
Yet for all his murderous stalker tendencies, Joe seems blissfully unaware of his innate villainy.
It’s what this “harmless” looking up leads to – when the show implies that our soulmates might just be our stalkers – that makes You a defining series of our times. Within minutes of dissecting Beck online, Joe locates her address on Google Maps and ends up on the street opposite her house, creepily peeking through her windows. And over the course of the next few episodes, he continues stalking her to familiarise himself with her life and then strategically plants himself in it.
When they eventually start dating, he proceeds to calmly erase anyone who can pose a challenge to their happily-ever-after – from an ex-boyfriend to a best friend. Unknown to Beck, he steals her phone, reads her messages, manipulates his way into her heart by saying the right things, and refuses to leave her on her own for even a second. Yet for all his murderous stalker tendencies, Joe seems blissfully unaware of his innate villainy. In his head, he is the hero of his fairy tale – the knight in shining armour, who rescues the damsel-in-distress.
The catch is, Joe isn’t the only one who is enveloped in his own delusion. Our reactions to him, mirror that same mentality. In the last few weeks since the show debuted on Netflix and attained unexpected popularity, more and more women have chosen to see Joe as boyfriend material, focusing on the unwavering commitment of his obsession. For instance, one Twitter user claimed that she wanted a guy to fall for her just like Joe fell for Beck in the show, while another admitted that she’d been rooting for Joe while watching You. A friend, who otherwise astonishes me with the clarity of her thought, couldn’t stop talking about how attracted she felt to Joe while we were discussing the show. It’s as if the fact that Joe is a predator hardly registered. This disturbing train of thought even prompted Penn Badgley to take to Twitter and remind audiences to stop confusing Joe as the misunderstood hero and instead see him for what he is: a cold-blooded murderer.
It’s not difficult to understand the origin of our sympathies: Joe after all, embodies every dangerous fantasy of an all-consuming, passionate romance that pop-culture has, over the years, fed us. You merely dressed up a predator in an appearance that appeals to us the most: the committed boyfriend whose world revolves around the girl he loves and who can do anything for her. And we’ve never had to look beyond it. But by having an extra layer to Joe’s personality that places his brand of romance on the sidelines, You also exposes the extent of the influence these problematic romantic ideals have on our ability to rationalise danger.
But You reserves its most biting critique for the myopic millennial view of stalking. As the show proves, in our universe, stalking is a dangerous act only when it takes on a physical form and stares us right in the face – and is committed by strangers. In our heads, the world of harmless online stalking can never intersect with the reality of women being perennially in danger of being stalked in real life. Perhaps that’s the lesson we should imbibe from You: Real life is just an extension of social media.