The dark side of love 

CN: mentions of sexual assault, abuse and sexually motivated murder. Spoilers present.

In the wake of the release of its third season, Netflix’s You has cemented itself as one of the streaming platform’s most viewed programmes. Adapted from Caroline Kepnes’ novels and originally airing on Lifetime, the story follows the life of Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley), a thirty-something New York bookstore owner who believes in true love and will do anything to get it – even if that means systematically stalking and murdering anyone who poses a threat to his new romantic obsession. Under Netflix’s distribution, You has significantly deviated from its source material: by the end of the second season, Joe has found out that his new supposed true love, Love Quinn (Victoria Pedretti), is also a murderer and that she has manipulated him into a relationship with her, just as he did to Guinevere Beck (Elizabeth Lail) in the previous season before murdering her. 

My experience of You prior to first viewing the series consisted only of a passing knowledge of its fanbase. Despite its main character’s propensity for obsessive, controlling behaviour under the guise of the idealised form of a perfect romantic partner, a significant number of female viewers took to social media to profess their belief that either Joe is a good person or attractive enough to render his crimes trivial. The idea of fandom downplaying a character’s negative traits, sometimes known as “Draco in Leather Pants”, is not a new one. In the case of You, the series’ lead actor Penn Badgley has taken to reminding viewers over social media that his character is not meant to be fawned over.

Yet when it was revealed that Love possessed a similar capacity for violence and, much like Joe, experienced a traumatic upbringing, an equal or similar response did not seem to occur within the fandom. This then begs the question of why one of these murderers is glorified on the same level as fellow “hot Netflix serial killer Ted Bundy” whilst the other isn’t. Ultimately, it all comes back to their gender. The fan response to You serves to demonstrate that men have a much easier time getting away with murder than women.

Joe Goldberg could, and likely already does, exist in our reality

When Joe is first introduced, he appears intelligent, humorous, passionate about literature, as well as physically attractive. Yet, under the surface he harbours a deep sense of entitlement. He will artificially engineer and contrive the necessary circumstances to make any relationship happen. This held up a mirror to my own fears of toxic masculinity, which I found contributed to me finding it impossible to disregard his behaviour and only focus on his positive traits and physical traits in comparison to the series’ other morally dubious characters. But whilst I may not sympathise with Joe Goldberg, I can understand what other people see in him that would lead them to do so. Yet this was never the intention from the series’ creators.

Co-creator and head writer Sera Gamble has said in interviews that Joe’s belief in his own misplaced entitlement is derived from how “we’re a culture that is very, very focused on how we treat our male heroes” in the wake of the fallout of #MeToo. It also reflects the subsequent treatment of men such as Louis C.K. who, despite committing horrifying sexual crimes against women, have been able to go back to their careers. This real world context of events that were still occurring during the series’ production emphasises that the series does in fact take place in a world in which stalking leaves a psychological impact on its predominantly female victims, and that Joe Goldberg could, and likely already does, exist in our reality.

It’s this aforementioned entitlement and belief that he is the perfect romantic partner for Beck that motivates Joe to systematically murder both her shallow drug-addicted boyfriend Benji (Lou Taylor Pucci) and her possessive best friend Peach (Shay Mitchell). To him, their perceived negative influence on Beck’s life is strong enough to justify their deaths, and their removal from her life will allow her to achieve her best self. Unlike fellow pop culture serial killer Dexter Morgan in Dexter, Joe is not a misunderstood vigilante. In doing what he thinks is right for Beck, his fantasies have left him blind to a woman who is emotionally damaged from her best friend’s supposed suicide, alongside a dysfunctional familial relationship that he is unprepared to help her with. For how elaborate and thought out his murders and manipulation of Beck are, and his inner monologue’s attempts to present himself as someone completely in control, it’s his lack of foresight and inability to consider the responses of anyone besides himself which lead to his downfall – especially when Love then enters the picture.

In its first season, You can be seen as a deconstruction of romance fiction’s archetypical romantic lead hiding a dark secret, popularised in the 21st century by the likes of Edward Cullen and Christian Grey. All of these characters originate from female novelists, but Stephanie Meyer and E.L. James frame their creations’ actions from the perspective of the female lead, allowing them to come across as brooding and romantic despite them openly watching their love interest sleep from afar and stalking her. You seeks to challenge this through its reframing of events to be from Joe’s point of view rather than Beck’s, hoping to give viewers an insight into just how damaging this sort of behaviour is for its victims. With Beck in the ground and the move from New York to Los Angeles in its second season, Joe meets the aspiring chef Love Quinn and the cycle of obsession repeats itself. But now that Joe’s behavioural patterns are already established, the deconstruction shifts to the idea of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl and the dangers of idealising romantic partners.

One of the key traits of a so-called Manic Pixie Dream Girl character is that their main role in a story is to teach the male protagonist to embrace life. Their own goals are secondary outside of that, a trope that often simplifies women to a mere plot device. Yet when Love is introduced in the second season, her desire to be a chef is established to have been formed before Joe ever met her, which seems to suggest she won’t fall into this trap. Being around Love shatters Joe’s sense of control. His actions become more impulsive and emotionally driven, and he begins to develop a legitimate sense of compassion towards his neighbour Delilah (Carmela Zumbado) and her sister Ellie (Jenna Ortega). When I first viewed the series, this originally seemed to suggest a form of redemption for Joe, which felt to me as if it swept all his previous behaviour under the rug and would vindicate those who thought he did nothing wrong. And then the rug gets pulled out when Love is revealed to be just as murderous as Joe.

Particularly often in work by male writers, a woman who is willing to kill, let alone take the life of another woman, is characterised as mentally ill. Love is positioned as someone who is driven by impulse and jealousy towards other women. All of her female victims are killed because of the threat they represent to her relationship with Joe

While steering clear of the conclusion I expected the season to take, this narrative development ultimately reinforces a major stereotype surrounding the depiction of women onscreen. Comparing the body counts of Joe and Love reveals a score of six men and three women for Joe and four women and one man for Love. When examining their motivations for murder and the manner in which they occur, Joe is most often under the belief he is helping the world by removing people that are worse than himself. Even his accidental murder of Henderson in season two turns out to rid Los Angeles of another unfunny comedian sexually grooming underage girls. In contrast, Love is positioned as someone who is driven by impulse and jealousy towards other women. All of her female victims, from Delilah to Candace to Natalie Engler (Michaela McManus) are killed because of the threat they represent to her relationship with Joe.

It’s worth considering that Victoria Pedretti seems to be aware of the internalized misogyny present in her character near exclusively murdering other women, particularly her killing of Candace, a victim of Joe’s violent behaviour and an attempted architect in bringing him to justice. But for Sera Gamble, her focus in interviews is on Love’s existence separate from Joe and that she does in fact possess her own desires and problems. Yet in diverting so drastically from Caroline Kepnes’ original novels, the second of which saw Joe go to prison for his crimes rather than be faced with his equivalent, Gamble has transformed Love into merely the latest in a long line of women in film and television who combine physically attractive features with mentally unhinged and murderous tendencies.

It’s important to remember that there have been outliers to this stereotype: Chrissie Watts (Tracy-Ann Oberman), for instance, was lauded as “The Nation’s Favourite Murderess” after she was the one to kill off her notorious husband Den Watts (Leslie Grantham) in EastEnders (1985-). The writing of Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Emerald Fennell in Killing Eve (2018-2022) has also served to portray the complexities of a character such as Villanelle (Jodie Comer) who uses her sexuality as a trap in her profession as an assassin. But particularly often in work by male writers, a woman who is willing to kill, let alone take the life of another woman, is characterised as mentally ill. The 1980s and 1990s were characterised by erotic thriller narratives such as Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct which positioned women in control of their sexuality and bodily empowerment as something to be feared. More recently, the infamous ending of Game of Thrones (2011-2019) pitted Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) and Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) against each other, and held the unfortunate implication that women are mentally unfit to hold a position of power.

One of the most notable instances of a viewer sympathising with Joe came from Stranger Things’ Millie Bobby Brown, who believed that Joe was genuinely in love with Beck after only viewing half of the first season before retracting her initial interpretation. This isn’t excusing the attacks and overblown attention that she received over this, disproportionate to the mere act of a teenage girl discussing a fictional character. But this assessment of Joe’s character drew attention to not only how the ideals of romance fiction and its ability to excuse socially unacceptable behaviour are thrust upon our society from very young ages, but also its ability to allow viewers to forgive behaviour such as stalking on account of the physical features of their leads. But in the case of Penn Badgley, perhaps it is the association audience members still have of him as the charming writer Dan Humphrey in Gossip Girl. The familiarity hypothetically allows them to excuse the character’s behaviour because they understand the actor themselves is not like this. However, audience members are still sympathising with a dangerous serial killer who believes himself to be a knight in shining armour, because in comparison to his victims and even his female counterpart, he is portrayed as intelligent and capable of reform. Much like the romanticisation of the problematic Christian Grey, You, at points, seems to suggest Joe is deserving of redemption by showcasing his abuse at the hand of his father and that he is capable of genuine human emotion. Whether this is a trope waiting to be subverted remains to be seen.

With the conclusion of season three, Joe has now murdered Love and fled to Paris for yet another new start to pursue yet another romantic obsession. Will Marienne (Tati Gabrielle) also turn out to have some unrevealed dark past? For now it remains unclear, but Joe Goldberg will likely continue to have a rabid fanbase of supporters as long as he is portrayed as comparatively smarter, more reasonable and relatable than everyone else around him. My hope is that if he does form a relationship with Marienne, she is the one who is written to possess the power and agency and that she is not seen as being lesser than him. Perhaps then, fans will see Joe for who he truly is: a psychopathic embodiment of “nice guy” attitudes and male entitlement, manipulator and murderer, who deserves no sympathy or glorification.

You is currently streaming on Netflix.

Images courtesy of Netflix Media Centre.
Image description:
1. Love and Joe stand side by side in what appears to be a dark basement. Their expressions are ominous.
2. Love holds a hatchet and looks at something off-screen. She appears fearful.
3. Love and Joe lie in bed, facing opposite sides. While Joe appears asleep, Love is awake and appears troubled.