What associations does the name Bluebeard conjure? The particulars of the Bluebeard fairy tale — the monstrous husband, the curious wife, the bloody chamber and its totemic key — may not spring to mind with the ease of Cinderella’s or Snow White’s, yet it is the most prescient and revealing fairy tale for our times in how it speaks to desire, abuse, and the ways women’s curiosity is turned against them. It’s unsurprising, in this light, that Bluebeard has permeated pop culture even as the fairy tale itself is rarely spoken of with the same familiarity as other tales. You can see the shape of Bluebeard in everything from the 1945 gothic noir My Name Is Julia Ross to the second season of Killing Eve to Netflix’s gloriously deranged You, the second season of which premieres on December 26.
In You’s second season, showrunner Sera Gamble and her collaborators place our Bluebeard, Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley), in the last place he wants to be: Los Angeles, presented here as a vapid oasis that becomes more entangled the closer you look. He’s on the run because one of the women he thought he’d buried — his ex-girlfriend Candace (Ambyr Childers) — has come back to haunt him. But even with the possibility of getting caught pressing upon him, he finds a new object of obsession in the heiress and chef Love Quinn (Victoria Pedretti). He’s working in the bookshop-café of the trendy grocery store Anavrin (yes, that’s Nirvana spelled backward), and instead of a bloody chamber, he has a glass cage tucked into a storage facility.
You proves itself to be a momentous, darkly spun treat this season that doles out blissful fun while providing fascinating commentary about the nature of desire, and it continues to be a great showcase for Badgley’s wiry menace. After watching the entire second season, all the issues I have with it are ultimately nitpicks. The flashbacks concerning Joe’s battered childhood, for example, are washed out in a way that makes them register as visual clichés. But larger issues, like certain characters being grating — namely, Ellie (Jenna Ortega), a precocious, film-obsessed teenage neighbor who gives Joe The Big Sleep as a gift, and Love’s brother Forty (James Scully), a walking L.A. douche-bro stereotype — dissipate over time as the show deepens and complicates its archetypes.
Watching Love, I couldn’t help but think of Amy Dunne’s infamous “Cool Girl” monologue from Gillian Flynn’s novel Gone Girl. She’s almost too perfect — not just a smart heiress but an amazing cook and baker who is exceedingly kind and wonderfully open. Even her tragic backstory makes her more endearing. The worst thing you can say about her is that she gets a touch obsessive when her relationship with Joe hits a snag. But for the most part, she’s so perfect Joe is ready to disregard his previous relationships as mere infatuations, even though he’s haunted early in the season by the visage of Guinevere Beck (Elizabeth Lail).
One of the best things season two does is make Love a lens through which to explore the ways men project upon women, in order to deconstruct our cultural ideas of the cool girl. Of course, Joe can’t see Love’s humanity and complications; he’s too busy slotting her into his fantasy of what lasting love looks like, an understanding shaped by the abuse he witnessed as a young child from both his parents. We are, after all, deeply implanted in his skewed perspective on matters, tagging along as he navigates the strange world of Los Angeles, crossing paths with a skeevy celebrity comedian named Henderson (Chris D’Elia) and having a breakthrough thanks to acupuncture done by Love’s closest friend, Gabe (Charlie Barnett). But through Love herself, You makes apparent that it isn’t the woman herself who matters, it’s how Joe sees her.
If the Cool Girl has an antithesis, it’s the madwoman, a figure who disrupts our notions of what a woman can be and boldly colors outside the lines society has drawn for her. You’s madwoman is Candace, a figure who Joe thinks is utterly crazy but in reality is reckoning with her abuse at his hands. Candace’s story becomes emblematic of how the systems of law and justice don’t actually help women when they need it but reinforce trauma, leading to Candace’s taking matters into her own hands to wreak vengeance upon Joe’s life no matter how far he runs.
Beyond exploring the archetypes women are often forced into by the men in their lives, You provides intriguing commentary on desire itself — how it works, how it mutates, how it consumes, and how it is undermined by the modern constraints of app-based dating. (At one point, Joe goes on a series of increasingly awkward, even a touch deranged, dates after getting complicated advice from Forty and fellow Anavrin worker Calvin, played by Adwin Brown.) But that commentary never comes at the expense of narrative momentum, as the series’s writing strives to surprise and delight in equal measure. There are several unexpected turns of fortune and bloodied losses, all of which feel intrinsic to the larger story Gamble is telling. The last two episodes are especially riveting for how they play with audience expectations, then set them on fire. This is the kind of show that upholds the pleasure principle — it wants to be delirious fun, and it succeeds admirably. The fact that it manages to remain grounded and complex as it does so is a testament to Badgley’s crown jewel of a performance.
Badgley is a touch wolfish in nature — there’s something dangerous and almost feral about his physicality. His eyes often wide with wonder, yearning, and deranged focus, he moves through the world looking down at everyone in his path. But more important, he’s not a heightened version of a violent man. Watch the gentleness with which he touches Love and the brutality of his grip on those who stand in the way of his desire. Watch how he comes alive when torturing someone. This is the real Joe, a man whose charm is barbed and whose words are often devoid of the truth. This is a man who delights in control, which Badgley keeps at the forefront of his performance. For all its ecstatic turns and arch, sometimes operatic nature, You is ultimately an unnerving, complicated portrait of male violence — how it begins, whom it targets, and how its effects ripple outward.