You Season 4’s Finale Teases Some Good Ideas, but Ultimately Ends Up Back in the Same PlacePhoto: Courtesy of Netflix TV Reviews Netflix
The first half of You Season 4 went a bit against type for Netflix’s popular if occasionally controversial drama, casting murderer/stalker/generally terrible person Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley) as the protagonist in an Agatha Christie-style mystery, tasked with figuring out the identity of the Eat the Rich killer attempting to frame him for a series of crimes he didn’t commit. Your mileage may vary on how well this particular narrative shake-up actually worked—and whether uncomfortably positioning Joe’s character in the role of a hero/victim without really bothering to interrogate whether encouraging its audience to essentially root for and sympathize with him is actually a good idea. And, to be upfront about it, the second half of the season isn’t much better about answering these sorts of questions, but it’s at least considerably more clear-eyed about the fact that Joe’s darkness is an essential part of who he is.
The back half of You Season 4 is certainly more entertaining than its first. This run of episodes is, with a couple of exceptions we’ll get to in a moment, compulsively watchable and full of the sort of wild, bonkers twists we’ve come to expect from this show. But as viewers inevitably come to realize that most of the events we saw in the season’s first five episodes didn’t exactly unfold in the way they initially played out onscreen, Netflix’s decision to split the season in half seems increasingly bizarre. How much more impactful and/or shocking would many of these revelations have been in a world where a month hadn’t passed between them? When viewers didn’t have to struggle to remember the details of those suddenly key throwaway scenes? (Thank goodness for narrated flashbacks, I guess. But… why?)
Season 4’s last five episodes do get a lot right. Thankfully, we’re done with most of the subplots involving Joe’s new cadre of rich aristocratic friends. Part of this is because several of them are dead now, but it’s also because the show rapidly loses interest in its previous efforts at even vaguely critiquing the lives of the idle rich. There’s an utterly momentum-killing subplot involving the relationship between influencer heiress Lady Phoebe (Tilly Keeper) and her financially strapped American playboy boyfriend Adam (Lukas Gage) who may or may not be gaslighting her to gain access to her fortune, and the show introduces Greg Kinnear as Kate’s (Charlotte Ritchie) billionaire father trying to pull the strings of his estranged daughter’s life from afar, but, thankfully, that’s about it. Instead, there’s more focus on plucky, whodunnit-loving university student Nadia (Amy-Leigh Hickman), who unfortunately finds herself increasingly entangled in the mystery of professor Jonathan Moore’s true identity, for both good and ill.
More importantly, the show thankfully jettisons the strange framing that implies Joe is some sort of victim in this season, or that he’s actually taken any real steps to becoming a better—or even, really a terribly different—person. He’s back to his absolute worst ways, and though both he and the show spend a prodigious amount of time trying to compartmentalize or explain away what a monster he is, the visual evidence sort of speaks for itself. And at this point, it’s hard to argue that You as a whole might not just be better off if it stopped trying to give Joe excuses for why he’s terrible and just fully leaned into the fact that he is.
Four seasons into this show, is there anyone still watching who’s hoping for a redemption arc for this character, or even a coherent explanation for his worst behavior? Probably not. Yet, for some reason, You keeps on trying to give us one—from the sad childhood backstory they introduced during Season 3 to the ways this current outing often seems content to pretend that Joe is somehow being driven to commit terrible acts by people and forces beyond his control, the show is strangely reluctant to acknowledge the fact that their leading man isn’t anyone its audience should be sympathizing with. Joe Goldberg shouldn’t be anyone’s hero. Or even anti-hero for that matter. (Sorry, Taylor Swift.)
The season feels freshest when it attempts to navigate the new relationship between Joe and the rags-to-riches political darling Rhys Monrose (Ed Speelers), a man who is both his weirdly quasi-inspirational mancrush and his new worst enemy. The reveal that Rhys was secretly the Eat the Rich Killer all along was the most interesting twist in the season’s first half, and its final five episodes are at their best whenever Badgley and Speelers are on screen together. Rhys’s delightfully dry and completely unapologetic, often straight-up unhinged villainy offers the spark of energy we’ve been missing from the series’ lead character so often this season, and their tense relationship thrums with both the constant threat of violence and an intriguing sort of sexual tension that mirrors many of the ways we’ve seen Joe obsess over women during the course of the show. (In fact, you will likely find yourself wishing the show had somehow taken that parallel further or made his attraction even more explicit.)
Their strange relationship is certainly more interesting to watch than Joe’s romance with Kate, which becomes duller and more pedestrian with each scene the pair share. You seems to want us to see Kate as a different sort of equal for Joe, one who, unlike now dead wife Love, wants to encourage him to be his best self rather than enable his worst impulses. A woman scarred by the terrible choices her wealth and privilege have allowed her to get away with, who secretly just wants the chance to use those advantages to change the world for the better as a sort of penance, should be a compelling character in her own right. But Kate is weirdly unbothered by the red flags that litter Joe’s life, and though the show occasionally insinuates that she too has the sort of dark secrets that uniquely position her to understand his desire to leave his old self behind, there’s little that her money and position haven’t been able to smooth over for her, so her insistence that she’s truly a bad, unforgivable person often comes off feeling more than a bit hollow.
Twisty and propulsive, there are lots of entertaining surprises within Season 4’s conclusion, and more than one moment in which Joe almost feels ready to admit that he’s not the selfless romantic hero he pretends to be, and that his idea of a moral code is as twisted as everything else about him. But in the end, the season finishes almost exactly where it always does. That’s technically a mild spoiler, I guess, but it isn’t, not really—because this show can’t exist if Joe gets caught, or if he’s forced to truly take any accountability or face any lasting consequences for his actions, so didn’t we all kind of know coming into this where it was headed? True, Season 4 dangles a tantalizing moment, featuring a couple of really fantastic guest star cameos, that feels as though it’s finally ready to see Joe truly answer for his dark misogyny, but the show ultimately returns to the safe narrative ground that means it’s almost certainly getting renewed for Season 5. And, look, I’m not saying, I’m not going to watch that inevitable fifth season when it arrives. But maybe it’s time to start asking—how long can this possibly go on?
You Season 4 (Part 2) premieres Thursday, March 9th on Netflix.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.
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