By this point, it’s pretty clear Joe Goldberg is the problem.
You, Netflix’s beloved murder-comedy staple, follows a simple pattern for viewers to latch on to. Joe (Penn Badgley) is an angst-ridden killer who just can’t stop meeting women and then stalking, trapping, and eventually murdering them. But he’s hot, so not only does he get away, but the end of each season has seen him successfully survive and remerge in another unsuspecting community ripe for the taking.
This same routine was once again present in the first part of You’s fourth season, which was released on Feb 9. This time, Joe is English Professor Jonathan Moore, who has accidentally befriended a group of privileged London influencers, socialites, and nepo babies. Yes, his stalking tendencies are still there, and quickly put to use to peep on his neighbor Kate Galvin (Charlotte Ritchie). But really, it’s not his fault that his new friends start turning up dead one by one. Part 1 of the series ends on a small cliffhanger, with Joe on an unfamiliar mission as the good guy, desperate to stop “Eat The Rich” serial killer and mayoral candidate Rhys Montrose. It doesn’t stay that way for long.
By all accounts, You should be a flop. The show is light on plot and more a mishmash of warring desires and character studies in narcissism. But it gives its actors the freedom to nail their performances, a recipe that has usually worked in its favor. As a show that was canceled over lack of viewership on Lifetime, it’s a testament to Badgley’s commitment to the bit and showrunner Sera Gamble’s inventiveness that the series has so deftly maneuvered itself from a creepy action show to a camp drama classic. But in the modern age of television, a sexy lead and an ever increasing body count still isn’t enough to keep eyes glued to the screen.
Part 1 of You proved this, its hour-long episodes dragging along. Joe is in his head, and putting him in a well-fitting houndstooth blazer does little to keep the story fresh. The new friend group, while heavily accented and equally naughty, are caricature to the point of comedy, and also decidedly uninteresting. It’s surprising that in an entertainment era dominated by eat the rich narratives, the show’s frank murder of people with multiple houses and servants still manages to come off as tedious. The show can’t tell whether it wants you to feel sorry for these people with too much money, or clap when their bodies are stuffed in armoires — an apathy that blunts any attempt at satire. And Badgley’s reported disdain for sex scenes is clear, as the show trades its signature chemistry for a love story with Kate that fails to rival the winning combination that was Joe and his now-dead ex-wife Love, masterfully played by Victoria Pedretti. But in Part 2 of You, the series shows that its previous missteps were all part of a larger cause: an earth-shifting reveal in Episode Seven that takes the Netflix show from misguided to wild, jaw-dropping fun.
Without spoilers, Episode Seven changes things so drastically that it is (almost) enough to forgive the six hours viewers trudged through before it. And while it’s obvious that splitting the show into two parts hindered the pace of You’s narrative arc, Badgley consistently delivers such a winning combo of wide-eyed dread and self-efficacious smugness that it makes me desperate to see him in another project. Meanwhile, supporting turns from Greg Kinnear, Lukas Gage, Ed Speleers, and Tati Gabrielle are so sharp that they nearly take over the entire show. (The four acted like rent was due and they all shared a one-bedroom in WeHo they couldn’t afford to give up.)
The end of the season takes cheeky aim at Joe’s tendency to land on his feet, planting the killer in a familiar locale — this time with limitless opportunities. But there’s only so many times the series can retrace its steps. While Season Four of You manages to stick its bingeable landing, it’s easy to notice that Badgley seems weary of his role. And while the energy served him well this time, another year with Joe Goldberg might be a step too far. Netflix has yet to announce a series renewal for You, an interesting development for one of its most successful shows. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The lack of a Season Five wouldn’t be an indictment, but a celebration of a show that succeeded from nothing, and knew when it was time to hang up the knife.
In the wise words of Taylor Swift: it must be exhausting always rooting for the anti-hero.