This is the shot: A slim, twentysomething white man, pale and dark-haired, waits in the center of the frame, head tilted fractionally to catch a glimpse of something (someone?) the viewer can’t see. He is wearing a dark jacket with a high collar, and a dark ball cap, even though he is inside, even though it is night. The collar is pulled up to obscure his too-romantic silhouette; the cap is pulled down to obscure his too-soulful eyes. This is the kind of man who literary heroines—or at least literary-minded ones—swoon over, but with so much of his face obscured, it is only his cheekbones, high and almost too pronounced, that signal such classic desirability.
Such a signal is important. Because everything else about this shot shouts that this man is a stalker: From the blurring of important details in the background, to the juuuust too-closeness of it, to the shadows cast from odder angles than seem natural, every aspect makes us want to scream at the heroine, RUN AWAY, LEAVE, HOW CAN YOU NOT SEE WHO THIS PSYCHO IS???. And so we need something, some small thing, to remind us, when this man is not actually dressed to kill, when he’s not staring at the device he’s got tracking her every digital step, why she can’t see what we see. And that small thing is: He is attractive.
This, of course, is why this man’s story works. The fight-or-flight reflex his behavior should provoke in the object of his obsessions is counteracted by his charming physical appeal—lust, at least initially, wins out over fear, and as it does, provides the tension necessary to drive the narrative we keep tuning in for.
The trick is, how the show wants to resolve that tension is a question of cultural time. As in, when the handsome stalker was Ezra Fitz (Ian Harding) in Freeform’s teen thriller, Pretty Little Liars, just four short (long) years ago, the romantic hero vs. predator tension was invoked only as a means of creating a temporary road block to eventual nuptial bliss between A Good Man and his (high-schooler) sweetheart. Now, when the handsome stalker is Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley) in Lifetime’s adult thriller You, here in the year of Goddammit Are We Collectively Still Not Taking #MeToo Seriously (a.k.a. 2018), the tension is very clearly meant to resolve not only in Joe’s psychopathy being found out, but in his sweetheart’s (and our) delusions of obsession-as-romance shattering completely.
Understanding that this is You’s endgame is helped, of course, by the fact that (spoilers) Joe straight-up whacks a romantic rival in the skull with a book mallet in the series’ pilot, then kills him with peanut oil after holding him hostage for all of episode two. But even if he didn’t go that far, that early, series creators Greg Berlanti (of the Arrowverse) and Sera Gamble (of The Magicians) make no effort to suggest that we in the audience should be ambivalent about Joe’s character, who addresses the narration of nearly every sequence to an idealized fantasy of Beck (Elizabeth Lail), the “you”-object of his affections, whom he spies from the other side of the book shop he manages in the series’ opening scene and immediately starts scheming to own. In fact, if Berlanti and Gamble make any effort in any direction, it is to keep reminding us that Joe is bad: Take centuries of art romanticizing the unwavering fixation of a handsome man on a single woman and add to it the sea of mundanely callous dudes in the modern dating scene, and you get an audience that’s been trained out of any ability to keep an attentive, clever, present guy, who likes books and making jokes and who is, on top of it all, moppily handsome, at any kind of wait-and-see remove. Like cognitive behavioral therapy, but for the propagation of violent loopholes in rape culture—without intervention from the puppeteers behind Joe’s dark adventures, we might trip over those loopholes and fall to our Joe-shaped doom.
It’s tempting to think that they aren’t doing this, as so much of You is staged as the exact kind of dreamy romance Joe imagines himself to be facilitating and Beck believes herself to be living. Each episode opens on a series of slow, bird’s-eye pans of New York City in early autumn, set to some kind of unobtrusively sweet indie-ish acoustic background music. Scenes with Joe and Beck together are filmed with a warm, golden filter, the background details and even the edges of the foreground taking on a comfortable kind of soft-focus that seems to snuggle them together like a big, metaphorical duvet. If they are outside, the melody of bird song is prominent. If they’re inside, the shush of pages turning and life being lived together is turned high. But when juxtaposed with the brittle, hard-focus, doom-soundtracked reality of the scenes of Joe’s life outside of his and Beck’s “romance,” the delusionally fantastic nature of those softer scenes is made obvious: They are all in Joe’s head, and while Beck may be living in the same fantasy at the moment, Joe’s head is a bad, dangerous place.
“Yeah, but he loves her, but he’s sweet, but it’s a love story!” Badgley imagined eventual fans arguing when he and Lail sat down for an interview with E! News earlier this summer. “In what world?! I don’t believe that’s love. I don’t think that love equals this, so I think we have to question, what is love, and if we think this is love, where are we mistaken?”
Left: A Good Man just working hard for Love. (Credit: Freeform); Right: A Deadly Psychostalker on his way to getting what justice his victims deserve. (Credit: Lifetime)
Where is throughout all of hetero-romantic pop culture. More acutely, where, I would (and already started to) argue, is in Pretty Little Liars, which not only features Joe’s stalker ancestor in the form of Ezra “I’ll Be Watching You” Fitz, but is in actuality one of the two other shows about attractive young people swept up in cyberstalking that every elevator pitch of You invokes. (The other, of course, is Gossip Girl. ) I spent the better part of three years and many hundreds of thousands of words arguing exactly how many rape culture/toxic masculinity balls Pretty Little Liars and the creator-blessed endgame of #Ezria dropped, so I neither need nor want to retread rageful ground here. But I do need to point out that none of those elevator pitches invoking Pretty Little Liars are doing so for the fact that You is finally juggling all the poisonous balls PLL, and, in its earlier way, GG, let fall—they’re doing so because stalking is a superficial thread throughout all three, and because You’s stars include PLL’s Shay Mitchell and GG’s Badgley. That’s it.
The thing is, the fact that You is treating the subject of violent masculine entitlement and obsessive, possessive “love” with more deadly gravity than either of its teen predecessors isn’t subtle; watch the first five minutes of the pilot and you’ll get that. But that’s the point I’m trying to make: You have to watch the first five minutes of the pilot to see it. If you just look to the promo interviews and red carpet soundbites and fluffy entertainment news tweets and headlines, our collective inability to accept the violent potential of the bad men in our midst is laid bare: Joe’s psychopathic character is translated as him being a mere “creepazoid,” according to the photo caption in Vulture’s review, while You itself is cheerfully summed up as a “messy, murderous romp.” According to a teaser interview with Entertainment Tonight last fall, Mitchell declared the show to be “juicy… It still has all those elements that PLL had with it being sort of a mystery, there’s a romance part to it and it’s just exciting.” Back on E! News, while the article anchoring Badgley and Lail’s interview sports the title, “Penn Badgley Is ‘Really Troubled’ By Anyone Thinking You Is a Love Story,” it eventually can’t help but suggest that, “What Joe does is not really harassment from what Beck can see, but from the viewer’s perspective, it’s not quite not harassment and also not quite not [sic] love.”
It’s true, as Kathryn VanArendonk argues in that Vulture review above, that the tone of You isn’t steady, but I’d argue in response that this is less an indicator of the show not being serious enough to be more than a romp, and more a reminder that we are not, as a species, that great at metabolizing the idea that multiple, contradictory things can be true about a person or a situation at the same time. Especially if that person is a man, and especially if the contradictions involve a woman. I am filing this piece on the weekend before the Senate Judiciary Committee plans to hear testimony in the alleged violent attempted rape of a 15-year-old girl by then-17-year-old Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, and likely no one reading these words is unaware that “boys with be boys,” “that was just horseplay,” and “what is harassment anyway???” have resurfaced, in response, as an apparently reasonable foundation for the debate between men’s ability to gain fame and fortune and women’s basic humanity. “Two things can be true at the same time” has become a kind of clarion call across justice-minded social media, but that doesn’t mean it has been absorbed by everyone, on every level.
And so we get: Romp. Juicy. Romance. Not quite harassment. We get Ezra Fitz as pop culture’s most recently successful romantic stalker model. We get the urge to make excuses and carve a path for a bad man’s not-all-badness, even being inside Joe’s head in a way we could never be in Fitz’s, even knowing how he thinks, how he watches, how he transgresses Beck’s digital and physical privacy—even knowing how he murders people to get closer to her. We get that urge because we are also getting Joe swinging from murderously delusional to relatably jokey (his inner monologue as he disposes of his romantic rival’s body in episode three, and later as he picks up jogging to better follow Mitchell’s Peach, is particularly funny) to empathetically invested in making the daily life of his neglected kid neighbor just a bit richer and safer and less sad in a way that isn’t inconsistent so much as it is human, and in its humanity is challenging for us to accept.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the most emphatically unequivocating take I’ve found on the non-romance of You comes from Badgley himself, whose every interview has centered his utter rejection of anything positive one might try to shake out of Joe, or Beck, or Joe and Beck’s “relationship.” One of the most illuminating is the one he did with Devon Ivie at Vulture. It is worth reading in its entirety, but his response to why he took on a stalker role now, in 2018, stands out:
“Now that we’ve made the first season and I’ve been gauging reactions with critics and friends and viewers, I can say there’s a certain accountability—an emotional and psychological responsibility—that we hold the viewers and Joe to. It’s not this wildly irresponsible, escapist fantasy at the perfectly wrong time. I think the show came out at the right time, because any other time, we wouldn’t have had the courage at a social level and have conversations about why we’re drawn to it, but also why we know we shouldn’t reward it. We don’t want to reward Joe more than how he’s already being rewarded.
And as to whether or not he thinks that “viewers will cheer on this depraved man for being a self-described ‘fool in love’,” Badgley responded, “To me, a conversation I hope it starts is, What is it about the show that’s compelling? Why am I watching it? Am I enjoying it? Am I agreeing with Joe? What about all of this do I enjoy most? […] The degrees of which you’re enticed and excited by a show, there’s a lot more scrutiny in terms of the stories we’re interested in telling and consuming—the things we’re still charmed by and attracted to. Because Joe shouldn’t be allowed to behave the way he does. But only the viewer can decide.”
Shortly before Pretty Little Liars was set to air the last half of its seventh and final season, I flew out to Los Angeles to join my co-recappers at the show’s final PaleyFest panel. There were still ten episodes to go before the finale, and we held out hope that the series that had, in its bravest moments, been the most subversively anti-rape culture on television, might be about to burn the whole of Rosewood’s toxic patriarchy to the ground. The viewers who congregated in our comments section every week had certainly decided that that was the only way Pretty Little Liars could end with integrity. Ten episodes! Ezra could STILL be A! His stalking could be revealed as the toxic danger it always was! But then we got to PaleyFest, and the entire theater was filled with fans whose only interests were the romantic lives of the cast, both onscreen and off, with the #Ezria endgame front and center.
Reader: #Ezria was endgame. And after giving fans like me a single fever dream of the show’s best character beating the daylights out of a jailed Ezra before letting his high-school sweetheart forgive him, the show was so proud of its own cleverness.
It’s 2018 now. #MeToo is only growing stronger as it complexifies, and as more projects like You get made by people who, like Badgley, Berlanti and Gamble, are entirely disinterested in giving bad men a path to not-all-badness. Joe is an outlier, but our willingness to soften the evil of his—fictional, patently obvious, easily condemned—violent obsession is the water we’ve been swimming in for too long. We can decide, as viewers and as people, to start demanding cleaner pools.
You airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on Lifetime.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic whose writing has appeared on Forever Young Adult , Screener, and Birth.Movies.Death. She’ll go ten rounds fighting for teens and intelligently executed genre fare to be taken seriously by pop culture. She can be found @AlexisKG.