Spoilers for You below.
In the first episode of You, which aired on Lifetime over the summer and which you can now binge-watch on Netflix, we meet Beck, a Xerox-decay version of Dakota Johnson who is getting stalked by Penn Badgley. More importantly, we also meet Beck’s terrible, rich best friend Peach. In the second episode of You, we learn her full name: Peach Salinger. “Like J.D. Salinger?” Penn Badgley asks. Beck’s casual, hilarious answer: “I mean, yes.”
A Brooklyn dating nightmare about a hyperliterate stalker, You makes for a delightful winter binge-watch, as — from what I can tell from Twitter — many people have decided to do since it hit Netflix in late December. If you’re one of them, welcome to the TV show that casually gives the author of Catcher in the Rye a relative just for fun, and then decides to get Shay Mitchell, one of the Pretty Little Liars, to play that relative. It’s set in a delirious cocktail of highbrow literary pretension and TV-ready silliness.
You’ll spend most of You wondering if Penn Badgley is hotter as a sociopath, or if anyone is actually dumb enough to masturbate in a ground-floor New York apartment without curtains, but that’s beside the point. We’re here to talk about Peach Salinger, with whom you are already familiar even if you haven’t watched the show. Peach Salinger is the worst girl in your English class, the one who never did the reading but was somehow beloved by the professor. Peach Salinger refuses to use nicknames just because, off-handedly mentions that “James Franco and I didn’t end well,” and at one point says, “Brown people don’t bite,” referring of course to her alma mater.
With a character as silly as Peach, casting is half the battle. Shay Mitchell, who doesn’t seem aware of the very concept of skin pores, looks the part, but more importantly, she sells Peach’s weird intensity. She knows how to play ridiculous plot points — like, for instance, when Peach is furious that Joe stole her copy of Ozma of Oz — without making fun of them. She surely learned how to do that on PLL, but it’s also a sign of the kind of acting you need to do on Greg Berlanti–produced TV shows, which tend to exist right on the line of ludicrous without admitting it onscreen. What I’m saying is that Mitchell needs to do a guest spot as, I don’t know, Jughead’s rival Gryphons and Gargoyles dungeon master on Riverdale.
The real J.D. Salinger, who made his name decrying phonies and false emotions, would definitely hate all of this, which adds to the appeal. Through a narrative built around male romantic obsession, You sends up tropes about true love, which are often perpetuated by male authors (in one voice-over, Joe muses that that he’s the only feminist Beck knows). For all Salinger’s elevated sense of spirituality, he did pursue a relationship with Joyce Maynard when she was 18, about which she has quite mixed feelings. That relationship is something You never references, though Peach’s last name does call it to mind. Sure, the show hints, it’s kinda bullshit for us to write in a Salinger character who’s vain and superficial, but wasn’t he kinda bullshit too? In You, everyone’s a phony, even a Salinger.
A few episodes into You (and after what feels like several seasons of plot), we realize that Peach is not what she seems, because of course she isn’t. Just like Joe, Peach is obsessed with Beck: Her controlling nature is actually a guise for protectiveness, and for the fact that she has oh so many photos of Beck saved on her phone. The twist would be frustrating, given that TV already has way too many scheming queer characters, but since everyone on You is categorically The Worst, we’ll take this a representational wash. Plus, Peach is better for Beck than Joe, who sneaks into Peach’s house in Connecticut and ends up murdering her. Sorry if that’s a spoiler, but Peach was dead from the moment she suspected Joe taking her Ozma.
You is a very silly show, and Peach is just one of its many silly creations: There’s also Hari Nef as an insufferable TA, and John Stamos as a character I call Hot Vest Therapist. The show doesn’t live in reality as much as it lives in the fiction Joe is telling the audience whenever he breaks the fourth wall. Everything is exaggerated, every character a caricature. But nevertheless, Peach Salinger stands out as deeply hateable yet compelling, self-obsessed, and a little sad. She does everything a good side-character on a TV show can do: steal scenes, provide plot fodder, have a ridiculous name, hold a gun and shout, “You stole my Ozma!” May she rest in peace, and may season two of You introduce someone even more absurd. Maybe a Hemingway?