Add an ominous soundtrack to some of the most popular romantic comedies of our generation, and you might find a chilling resemblance to horror films. A man desperate to reconnect with that beautiful girl fate threw in his path? The only thing separating romance from sheer horror is how far the man is willing to go.
For Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley), the man at the center of Lifetime’s You... ain’t no mountain high enough.
Romantic comedies are the obvious comparison when talking about You, but it is impossible to discuss You without addressing another New York-based series. Before Badgley was playing bookstore manager Joe, he was aspiring writer Dan Humphrey on Gossip Girl.
Like the man Gossip Girl coined “Lonely Boy,” Joe is a self-described good guy with a love of literature and a passion for deeper-than-they-appear blondes who “need saving.” On Gossip Girl, Dan is fascinated with It-Girl Serena (Blake Lively). For years, he admired her from afar. Then, a chance encounter during their junior year — Dan finds her phone after she stumbles out of a hotel bar, drunk and having just been groped by the show’s one-time resident creep Chuck (Ed Westwick) —allows him the in needed to start a real romance with his dream girl.
Innocent enough. But flash forward six years and just as many seasons, and we learn that Dan’s crush extended far beyond quiet admiration. Dan is, and has always been, the titular Gossip Girl, the omnipresent blogger responsible for essentially stalking the lives of Manhattan’s elite. His initial target of choice? Serena herself.
Shortly after the big reveal in the show’s anticipated series finale, we jump forward several years to Dan and Serena’s wedding. All is forgiven. In fact, Dan’s stalking and casual cyberbullying is written off as the ultimate “love letter” to Serena.
Looking back, Dan is kind of the worst. So when I say that Joe is Dan on the darkest timeline imaginable… well, let’s just say You gets pretty intense.
The producers knew what they were doing when they cast Badgley as Joe (Gossip Girl is produced by Alloy Entertainment, the same company behind You), and it’s a brilliant critique. Where is the line in separating “stalker” from ultimate romantic? What makes one person a Joe, another a Dan?
Just as Gossip Girl narrated that episode by peppering in frothy, snarky commentary about the lives “she” (really, Dan) observed, here, the narration is provided by Joe, speaking exclusively to his lady love. What’s in his head is more terrifying than one could ever imagine… especially because, like Dan before him, Joe really does seem like the last of the nice guys.
Joe’s newfound love is a grad student/aspiring poet named Guinevere Beck (Elizabeth Lail), who goes by Beck. To Joe, she is a lovely mess, full of unseen, special potential.
Joe meets Beck when she walks into his bookstore, and instantly, he is smitten. He plays it so cool that, if we hadn’t heard Joe’s voiceover analyzing every single subtle choice Beck makes, every inch of her body, we might think he barely noticed her flirting.
But Joe does notice Beck’s interest. He takes Beck giving him a credit card to pay for a Paula Fox novel as an invitation to learn her full name: She is really Guinevere Beck, a name befitting a manic pixie dream girl if there ever was one.
Joe uses that full name to find all of Beck’s (public) social media accounts, then pulls a Catfish move and uses a photo of her moving into her apartment to find Beck’s not-so-public address.
From there, Joe has everything he needs to learn all that’s possible to know about Beck. He discovers that she has a terrible not-exactly boyfriend named Benji (Lou Taylor Pucci), who makes artisanal soda and has a flesh-colored beard almost as off-putting as his unchecked privilege. Beck also has better-but-still-not-great friends, including rich party girl Peach (Shay Mitchell), whose eagerness to fund Beck’s NYC lifestyle feels less generous and more like a power move.
This is all weird, of course, but is it that much weirder than what many of us do before a blind date? It’s only when Joe is standing outside Beck’s apartment, masturbating on a New York City sidewalk to a fantasy of them having sex, do we really get the sense that Joe is a special type of unwell. He just will never recognize his behavior as such. When an elderly woman comes out of the apartment, surprising Joe with his hands still in his pants, Joe puts on his best nice guy face and helps her with some luggage.
That’s the creepiest part of the series: If you were to watch You without Joe’s voiceover, you would love Joe. Despite his cooly threatening voice insisting he will “save” Beck from herself, Joe’s actions make him appear better than the douchebag bros populating this version of (and, umm, often the real version of) New York. He may be a psychopath, but at least he doesn’t have an artisanal soda company or a made-up gluten allergy. That would be insufferable.
The episode weaves in one big example of Joe’s kindness. Joe has a kid neighbor named Paco (Luca Padovan) with an awful alcoholic step-father. Joe makes sure Paco always has a meatball sub for dinner and a book to read. When Paco’s parents are really going at it, Joe takes him to his bookstore’s secret glass cage in the basement to show him all the rare books. He even shows the kid how to fix the book his stepdad destroys, using a mallet Joe will later use for less-than-literary purposes.
Joe also teaches Paco a few things that we know are deeply antithetical to the person we know Joe to really be. Joe tells Paco that all women deserve respect, despite the fact that Joe just broke into Beck’s apartment, hacked into her laptop, and stole her underwear.
Beck and Joe do end up meeting for a second time, because Joe arranges it. Joe goes to Beck’s poetry show, only for the aspiring writer to leave the stage, drunk and in tears because artisanal soda man Benji never showed. In a moment straight out of a rom-com, Beck shows up, drunk as a skunk, on Joe’s subway platform… and proceeds to tumble down onto the tracks.
Just as a train is about to crush poor, pretty Beck, Joe makes a dashing rescue. Joe and Beck lock eyes as Beck lands on top of Joe, and music swells — it’s like a scene out of a Sandra Bullock movie. Then, because this isn’t a romantic comedy, and Beck still is wasted… she pukes on Joe. Oops.
Fortunately, that just leads to an extended hangout, with the two sharing a cab back to Beck’s place, where they are interrupted by Benji, who barely registers Beck’s near-death experience. Beck and Joe share a moment, but she doesn’t give him her phone number — just her email. No worries on Joe’s part, though — Joe stole her phone anyway.
Joe wastes no time using the information on the phone for evil. Posing as a food critic, he emails Benji declaring he wants to try his dope soda. Instead, Joe takes Benji down to the rare books section of the basement, and whacks him over the head with that very same mallet. It’s bloody. I’m sure that Benji is dead.
Not the case, though. Instead, hours into Joe’s shift at the bookstore the next day, he goes down to the basement to “check on a shipment.” There, standing in the glass cage, is Benji, insisting to Joe that Joe got the wrong guy. Joe just smiles. He didn’t.
And Beck? She returns to the bookstore, all smiles and apologies, ready for Joe to take her out for that promised drink.
Maybe Joe is just that good, but that smile almost makes me forget about the kidnapped douchebag in the basement. That’s the problem… and also the point.