I never quite liked Dan Humphrey (Penn Badgley) in teen drama Gossip Girl. He always seemed too smooth, too dapper, too good to be true. And so when it was revealed that Humphrey was the anonymous blogger, i.e the Gossip Girl, it wasn’t really that far fetched for me.
Fast forward 10 years later, Badgley finds himself as the lead in another drama where he is once again, too smooth, too good to be true.
In the stalker drama You, however, the reveal comes right at the beginning.
Badgley plays Joe, the manager of a small independent bookstore who becomes obsessed with Beck (Elizabeth Lail), a college student and aspiring writer who walks into the store one day.
He’s smitten by her the minute he sees her and he watches her as she moves through the aisles in the bookstore. They have a conversation and she pays for her book by credit card, allowing Joe to find out her name.
Back home, Joe scours through her Facebook and Instagram accounts (fix your privacy settings, dear readers) to find out everything he can about her. He then goes a step further and stalks her … offline.
Joe finds out where Beck lives and he becomes her shadow. He parks himself outside her apartment, watching her through the windows and imagining himself inside with her. He skulks around the yoga studio where she teaches. He lurks in the corridors of her university, watching and listening in on her conversations with her friends.
He follows her to and from parties and, as his luck would have it, one day he saves her from a near-fatal accident where he seizes the opportunity to flick her phone. With her phone, Joe reads all her text messages and online interactions, real time.
Yes, right off the bat we see him for the creep that he is. And the only reveal, episode upon episode is how utterly depraved he is. There are even nefarious hints that Beck isn’t his first women he’s been obsessed with.
Joe is convinced that Beck needs him in her life. He knows what’s good for her: Her friends don’t really care for her, he does; her professor is out to get her in bed so she needs his protection; her boyfriend isn’t worthy of her but he is.
He’s a maniacal, control freak and we know the extent of how dangerous and disillusioned he is because much of the narrative of You is delivered through Joe’s voiceover. In fact, much of what we know about Beck and her friends are from his point of view; so we dismiss her friends as being condescending spoilt rich kids because that’s how he sees them.
We can’t really make out who Beck is – an opportunist who hangs out with rich kids?; someone who flirts with her professor for good grades?; a lost young woman looking for some directions in life? – because we only see snapshots of her through Joe’s obsessive lense.
It’s suffocating, actually but a very good technique in building a dark and disquieting drama. Credit must go to Badgley – he is terrifyingly creepy and absolutely unlikable.
Well, that is until the series decides to muddle things up and show us a softer side to Joe through his relationship with Paco, a young boy who lives next door to him. Joe often returns home to find Paco sitting outside his apartment door, grimacing at the yelling that’s going on between his mother and her abusive boyfriend. Joe becomes Paco’s “big brother”, encouraging the young fella to find solace in books instead.
Why did the writers add that element into the series? In You, these moments tend to make the main narrative meander. It doesn’t serve a purpose, in my opinion, as it fails to humanise Joe. The scenes involving Paco are distracting and breaks up the otherwise breathless pacing of the show.
But it’s a small negative to an otherwise engaging drama with a twist in the end that is quite left-field.
Although You has swiftly developed a following since its recent release on Netflix, the show – based on the novel by Caroline Kepnes – actually premiered on Lifetime Channel (in the United States) last year but failed to reach the right demographic audience, apparently.
But now, there’s a second season to look forward to (and it will be set in Hollywood!) because we’ve apparently barely scratched the surface of Joe’s darkness.
All 10 episodes of You are available on Netflix.