In the end, he killed her.
Isn’t that always how it goes? Remember, we are watching Lifetime. And on our way to what felt like an inevitable conclusion, we got what turned out to be a totally muddled and sloppy treatise on violent men, the ways social media renders us basically helpless against those who would use it to do us harm, and how everything you think is romantic is actually creepy as hell. It brings me no joy to tell you that after having given it more thought than I ever planned on giving this series, I am convinced that You wasn’t just the harmless-but-ridiculous semi-escapist fare I was expecting. At its core, it is as toxic as the masculinity it purports to be taking down.
There’s never really a good time to make a TV show that essentially says, “This abusive man has a backstory worth considering, but his female victim amounts to little more than a plot device in his demise.” But this year of our never-ending nightmare, 2018, brought to you by 4chan, is an especially gross time for this sort of thing. I am surprised at how angry I got watching this last hour of the season, having viewed the previous nine episodes with the kind of lol, okay remove a series this crazy and ridiculous seemed to call for. But knowing now what it all builds up to — what it does and what it fails to do — I am reevaluating. I am (almost) out of stairwell urchin jokes! For this and for so many of my ills, I blame society.
It feels like You wants to be edgy and subversive. But a story that gives a violent male character a full, complicated history (or, I should say, attempts to do that) while never revealing more about its female character beyond what said male character can discern and/or chooses to project onto her is not subversive, at all. There is nothing edgy or original about a beautiful blonde’s being trapped in a cage of her bad boyfriend’s making, begging to be set free, and then, just as she’s close to freedom, getting murdered by him instead. That’s not a plot twist. In reality, that’s just the plot.
Was it necessary — was it even remotely good television — for an entire episode to be devoted to Beck’s being psychologically tortured until she gets killed? Look, my threshold for torture on television is pretty high. I studied and ranked all the most horrifying moments on the most gruesome season of The Americans, and they were graphic. But we don’t get anything narratively meaningful out of watching Beck plead for her freedom and her life, over and over again, to no avail. This is the kind of gratuitous shit that made me quit The Handmaid’s Tale.
Did any of you watch Natalie Portman’s speech at Variety’s Power of Women event? You should! It’s worth 15 minutes of your life. Near the end, she issued this directive: “This is a united challenge to everyone in this room: Tell a new story. What if we took a year off from violence against women? What if, for one year, everyone in this room — just one year — does everything in their power to make sure entertainment produced from this room doesn’t depict a rape or murder of a woman? In the projects you write, produce, direct, act, package, market, do not harm women this year. Let’s see how that goes.”
Now think of all the creepy, abusive men we’ve met or heard about in You: Joe, Benji, Ron, Beck’s pervy professor, handsy book agent Roger Stevens, the gropey uncle Beck refers to in this finale (not to mention her dad, who Beck says just eyed her accusingly when she told him what happened), John Stamos, a.k.a., the therapist who screws his grieving client. What is the function of this murderer’s row of scumbags?
You wants to be a deconstruction of pop-culture romance tropes. “You can’t tell me that’s crazy,” Joe tells Beck about his secret stash of her stolen underwear. “It’s the stuff of a million love songs.” This — the dark side of the romantic stories fed to us from such a tender age we can’t remember a time before we knew the ending “happily ever after” — is worth interrogating, and certainly the tone You aims for, one of snarky horror, could be a good approach. But You doesn’t seem to know what to say or how to say it. It’s miles behind, say, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, to cite the best example of a show that’s actually nailing this commentary-on-the-thing-while-also-being-the-thing thing.
Beck, in her own telling — though this is untrustworthy because it is said only to convince Joe that she loves him and will help him frame John Stamos — asks herself, “Isn’t this what you wanted? Didn’t you want to be saved?” Maybe! But something like 90 percent of the episode shows Beck sobbing and screaming for a rescue that not one but two male characters deny her (thanks for nothing, stairwell urchin). Her self-absorbed pack of girlfriends, of course, are nowhere to be found, having failed to see through Joe’s elaborate ruse about a “writer’s retreat.”
The one woman who does get saved in this show is Claudia, Paco’s mom. The finale sees Claudia getting loaded onto a stretcher in the back of an ambulance with Ron at her side. (“Victim insists it was an accident.”) Later, she’s in a hospital bed with a brace around her neck and bruises all over her body, forced to defend to Joe her calculated, painstaking decision to not leave her abuser. Her eventual escape comes not from her female friend, Karen — though in the world of this show, that would have made the most sense — but from Joe, who finished the job Paco started by bashing Ron’s head in. And it’s kind of unclear if Joe would have bothered had the hallway orphan not been in the picture — which is to say, if there hadn’t been a boy to make Claudia’s life important enough for Joe to save.
So is You trying to say that women do, in fact, need men to save them? Or that they don’t? Is it that all men are violent monsters and/or bystanders who will always choose their relationships with men (see: stairwell urchin leaving Beck in the basement out of loyalty to Joe), or that only most of them are?
Joe is our classic unreliable narrator. Obviously we aren’t supposed to buy his perspective as an accurate one. But the show never shatters Joe’s vision of the world. Instead, at all crucial junctures, it affirms him, arguing that, yes, Beck’s life got better once he intervened behind the scenes; that Peach, Benji, and Ron deserved to be punished for their respective crimes; that Beck’s surviving friends are vapid narcissists; that the only way Claudia and Paco could ever be safe from Ron is if Joe, and Joe alone, committed his third homicide in ten episodes.
Because we see everything from Joe’s perspective, we are prevented from seeing anything Joe fails to see, including Beck’s full humanity. His comeuppance — the no-duh return of the not-dead Candace — hardly undoes that damage.
Joe’s flashbacks, with Candace and with Mr. Mooney, take up a considerable amount of screen-time. These scenes are comically vague, and not in a “good art doesn’t give you all the answers” way, just in an “Okay, but seriously, who the fuck is this person and how did he become a serial killer?” way. (They really give Don Draper’s Little Whorehouse on the Prairie flashbacks a run for their clunkiest-symbolism money.) No crucial biographical information about Joe is given to us until Mooney word-vomits a bunch of exposition in this season finale. It’s frustrating, to say the least. But it’s better than nothing, which is exactly what Beck gets.
You treats us to zero Beck flashbacks and (almost) zero Beck voiceovers. She is introduced to us mostly as a figment of Joe’s obsession, with the ostensible promise that this outline will be filled in with her real personality as the series progresses. This shall upend Joe’s, and our, expectations and reveal who she truly is. Supposedly. But this never happens!
Sure, we met Beck’s not-actually-dead dad. And for a minute, it looked like relations between them were starting to move forward to an honest, interesting place. But we never see or hear from him again; we never see Beck’s mom at all, and aside from a brief phone call wherein Beck mopes about her money running out, we never hear from her, either.
The only context we get for why Beck is the way she is — why she is particularly vulnerable to the tactics Joe deploys — comes in her frame-the-therapist fable, which is to say, in a version of her life story packaged with the sole intent of winning Joe over. It is Beck pretzeling her narrative into a form she thinks will appeal to her abuser. It’s not Beck actually telling us, the audience, her story. So we have no way of knowing how much of it is authentic Beck (probably very little) and how much of it is just what we’ve gotten all along: Beck, as perceived by Joe.
Beck can only get out by pretending to buy Joe’s version of reality: By saying that, yeah, this prison is like the low-tech writers’ retreat she always wanted. And it’s true, no guy has ever done anything like this for her before! Of course she doesn’t hate Joe, she couldn’t possibly, she’s just trying to understand him. In a peak girlfriend moment, she even apologizes for being crazy.
She submits to Joe’s every whim.
And then he kills her anyway. Sigh. Everybody excited for season two?