Watching the Netflix series “You” has always been something of a trust exercise between the audience and the creators — trust that the creators do not intentionally argue that the villainous protagonist is desirable or his victims stupid, but rather that all will become clear in due time.
In the second installment of the popular show, Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley) moves his one-man stalking operation to the West Coast. Bemoaning the juice cleanses and constant sun of the Los Angeles lifestyle, Joe sets his sights on a new, fair-skinned, natural goddess with lightly tousled waves and a devil-may-care attitude. Joe finds Love Quinn (Victoria Pedretti) — yes, that is the girl’s name — while working at a dual health food/book store called Anavrin (Nirvana … backward).
While season two may hate LA as much as season one adored New York, this juxtaposition gets to the heart of Joe’s character. In LA, people want to be seen; in New York, people are allowed to disappear. In the new season, Joe finds himself in a battle of wits not only against his own darker impulses but also his ex-girlfriend, Candace Stone (Ambyr Childers).
Love’s character comes across as endlessly more constructed and perfecting than Guinevere Beck (Elizabeth Lail) was, and for good reason, as Love’s character reveals itself in the season’s third act. To make up for a fairly one-dimensional female lead, however, the show introduces characters like the struggling journalist and quasi-single parent Delilah Alves (Carmela Zumbado) and her younger sister Ellie (Jenna Ortega).
Joe, Love and Forty Quinn (James Scully) are clearly caricatures of the tropes they’re created to represent: Forty with his ravenous social climbing and Love with her spontaneous dates in pursuit of the “perfect taco.” Ellie and Delilah, however, ironically serve as the stereotypical straight men in this murderous comedy of errors, the realest characters in the whole show living right next door.
One famously talked about element of the show is the outrageous names given to some of the show’s cast. The writers of “You” possess a normal understanding of what human beings are called with names such as Joe, Ellie and Delilah. They chose, however, to leave Joe entangled in the likes of Guinevere Beck and Love Quinn (and her brother Forty, both names apparently acting as tennis references). The continuation of this theme in the new season adds to the unbelievable nature of some of these characterizations, intentionally superfluous in order to make a point about who we idolize and why.
In the second season, the audience is offered insight into Joe’s upbringing. His abusive relationship with Mr. Mooney was the focus of season one flashbacks, but season two brings a glimpse into his troubled upbringing via his relationship with his flighty mother, who was a victim of domestic abuse. These flashbacks far from excuse his behavior, instead offering depth to a character who at times seems baffling in his motivations.
In pursuit of a love interest to fill the shoes of season one’s Guinevere, however, “You” hits on something more insidious with Love. “You” is one of the smartest programs streaming today that lends itself easily to interpretation and argumentation. The switch from network broadcast to the Netflix standard of releasing all of the episodes on the same day has helped the show by allowing its entire argument to be made before media outlets, bloggers and fans are able to conjure up episode-by-episode analyses.
With an unreliable narrator, it’s important to not take anything he says or thinks at face value. Those who think the show is arguing that Joe is actually a good guy who just keeps getting into tough situations (that involve murder to get out of) are external victims of the gaslighting that Joe Goldberg’s narration is constantly guilty of.
In interview after interview, Badgley, the show’s star, has argued that the script goes to investigate how far we as a society are willing to go in order to humanize and make excuses for the faults of a straight white man. “You” continues this investigation with an even more bloody and brazen second season.