Let’s Talk About the Ending of You’s Season Finale

Penn Badgley as Joe in You.
Penn Badgley as Joe in You. Photo: Courtesy of Lifetime

In the last episode of You’s first season, romantic heroine Beck finally realizes that the gorgeous, thoughtful man she’s been dating, Joe, is actually a monstrous serial killer who’s been stalking her, manipulating her, and will probably kill her. We the viewers have known this from the jump, because You puts us inside Joe’s head from the first moments of the show, but the entire first season of You is the process of watching poor hapless Beck fail to recognize the danger she’s in. Finally, she discovers his hidden box of serial-killer trophies and the inevitable happens: She’s trapped in Joe’s snazzy basement dungeon, scrambling to strategize her way out, desperate to avoid what she’s sure happened to Candace, Joe’s last girlfriend who’s been mysteriously missing for months.

Beck does not succeed. She writes a magnum opus, an essay about the falseness of romantic tropes that’s an effort to re-seduce Joe so she can escape, but her attempt fails and Joe murders her. In the end, Joe posthumously publishes Beck’s work, which has conveniently fingered Beck’s therapist as the murderer so Joe escapes suspicion. Then, in the last moments of the season finale, we watch as Joe’s internal stalker engine starts all over again. We can hear his intrigued inner monologue as he follows a faceless woman into the aisles of his bookstore, analyzing her appearance for what he imagines is her intended appeal and possible vulnerabilities. We assume that this is his next prey. Then she turns around. The woman is Joe’s ex-girlfriend Candace, the woman whom Beck assumed he’d killed, and to his astonishment (and ours!) she’s not dead. What a twist!

There are two kinds of questions to ask about this ending. The first kind: Is it well-made? Does it deliver on the story the season had been building toward? Does it feel like a fitting conclusion for the previous nine episodes, are the performances good, does the final twist make sense, is it an entertaining hour of television? Does it hint toward what’s to come in a second season? The second: Is the ending of You … good? Beyond the storytelling and structural ideas, is it good for the world and for its viewers that this is how Beck’s story ends?

Those questions are also questions about the whole series. Is it good that a show about a psychotic, narcissistic, self-absorbed killer — a show about a dude who bears a surface-level resemblance to swoon-worthy romantic Prince Charming tropes but who is actually an abusive, violent stalker — exists? Is it good that You prioritizes Joe’s point of view over everything else, putting us in the head of a man who murders people and who can only see life through the filter of his own needy obsessions? Is it good that Beck’s perspective gets only part of one episode, while Joe dominates everything else? Is it good for us, the viewers, to watch yet another story about a woman trapped in a cage begging for her life?

In her recap of the final episode, Jessica Goldstein asked exactly this question, and comes away with an unequivocal no, it is not good. “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,” Goldstein writes. “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?”

Goldstein’s further point is that it doesn’t matter that You tried to undermine and satirize all of the romance plots that are culturally coded as sweet, but which are actually abusive, manipulative nonsense. Because in the act of satirizing them, You also straight-up replicates them. It is still giving Joe the voice and making Beck the victim. It is still centering Joe’s perspective, even as it’s trying to turn him into a monster. Badgley’s performance is as a highly charismatic, magnetic murderer, which means that while you’re watching him be a murderer, you’re also watching him be magnetic. It’s a point that’s hard to argue, especially given how much time Penn Badgley, the actor who plays Joe, has spent on Twitter trying to dissuade the show’s fans from falling in love with a psychotic, misogynistic killer.

You is a show about a dude who stalks, tortures, and kills people, in a TV landscape that is already full-up with objectified, tortured, and/or dead women. The existence of any part of the show’s audience who finds Joe attractive is pretty incontrovertible evidence that on some level, the show’s attempt to undermine Joe fails. You is a ripe target for bad fandom, for viewers who misread the show for their own ends and blithely ignore that every character is supposed to be a loathsome monster. (Yes, even Beck.)

And yet. That first question, the question about whether the finale is well-made, whether it follows on what the beginning of the season started, whether the performances are good, whether the twist makes sense, whether it sets up a second season, whether it is an entertaining hour of TV… in spite of everything, the answer to that question might still be yes. Everything that happens in the final episode is the fitting and inevitable conclusion of what You warned us would happen from the first moments of the pilot. If the show’s central engine is to demonstrate the toxicity of masculine behavior when filtered through a rom-com ideology, then Beck’s death — and just as crucially, her relative voicelessness throughout the season — is the whole point. I cannot blame the show for following through on all of the things it told us would happen from the start.

I’m also loathe to cede all of You’s reception to the bad fans. It’s possible to misread everything that happens in the finale and insist that Joe’s still attractive, but it’s also clear that misreading is totally counter to everything the show tells us. It makes sense to see Beck as one more dead girl on TV and Joe as one more monstrous anti-hero, but that means flattening all the deliberate, skin-crawling contradictions the first season establishes, the connection we’re meant to draw between Joe’s loving words and his violence, the fact that all of this is sort of a farce, and that Candace being alive at the end is a good twist! I have no idea how You season two will play out, but a woman who knows Joe’s true nature and returns from the dead so she can confront him seems like a good start.

Even if this particular show’s goal is to satirize and puncture our collective mythologizing of the attention-worthy violent man, it makes sense to feel like TV would be better if it took a break from violent men like Joe for a bit. But that’s a broader question about the whole show, and about its cultural goodness on a scale separate from its storytelling. If the question is just about the end, and whether that ending is well-made, then the conclusion of You’s first season is everything the show had been building toward all along. Joe kills Beck, as we always knew he would. The performances work (Hari Nef forever!), and it’s an appropriate culmination for a show that’s been telling viewers from its very first moments that its protagonist is a dangerous, untrustworthy killer.

Crucially, it’s also not really the end. You’s final word is not that Joe succeeds, toxic masculinity is the route to romantic happiness, and Beck was too dumb to live. Its last gesture is Candace’s return, suggesting that Joe’s comeuppance is yet to come. I have to believe that the worm will turn in season two, and that Joe will finally face some consequences. His fate hovers over him like the Sword of Damocles, and if You lets him escape in its final endgame, it’ll have become a bleaker and less self-aware show than I’d hoped. For right now, though, I’m happy for the season to end with Joe thinking he’s gotten away with it all, blind to what’s to come.

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Let’s Talk About the Ending of You’s Season Finale