There is a look that settles across Joe Goldberg’s face in the finale of You’s second season that I can’t get out of my head. Gone is the wiry menace with which he usually navigates the world. In its place is a prickly, dejected confusion as Joe (Penn Badgley) listens to his latest paramour, the heiress and chef Love Quinn (Victoria Pedretti), as she carefully extols her myopic derangement and the murders she has committed — including that of the poor Delilah Alves (Carmela Zumbado). In essence, his dream girl becomes a nightmare.
Like its first season, You season two is arch, infuriating, and wholly engaging. There were issues that prickled, of course: Joe’s insistence that wearing a baseball cap is like donning an invisibility cloak; the grating precociousness of Delilah’s young sister, Ellie (Jenna Ortega); and, of course, the near perfection of Love herself. But with the revelation that Love is as murderous and warped by the traumas of familial life as Joe is, You reshapes the understanding of this season and its two most important characters, revealing the corrosiveness of all-consuming desire.
What Joe was looking for in Love was a vessel, the kind of woman he could map his needs and desires upon, absolving him of the darkness he chooses not to face. What he finds instead is a mirror that reflects everything he doesn’t want to see in himself: his propensity for great violence, the looming darkness within him, and the horrors of his childhood. Joe may not see himself as abusive, but how else can you describe a man who stalks, manipulates, and even kills women when they don’t fit into the storybook romance he seeks to write?
Throughout this season, flashbacks to Joe’s fraught childhood revealed how he witnessed his mother’s abuse at the hand of her husband and how he eventually killed the man to save her. The washed-out nature of these flashbacks initially renders them as blunt visual clichés; worst yet, I thought they were a way to absolve Joe and make him more sympathetic. But by the end of the season, I came to see them as prescribing a reason for his villainy, not absolving it. They are a venue to witness the ways that abuse cycles through generations. And the twist about Love underscores that we have choices when it comes to the pitfalls of our familial life: Will we repeat them or buck them entirely?
There is a swath of the penultimate episode where it seems Joe is finally stepping into reality after Candace (Ambyr Childers) locks him in his own cage with Delilah’s dead body and plans to call the police about his crimes. What kind of man would do this?, he thinks to himself. Has Candace been right all along? Have I just been refusing to face who I really am? This doesn’t last. Candace texts Love, who arrives at the storage facility to find Joe locked in his glass prison with Delilah’s body. Love’s reaction isn’t what I expected at all, of course: When Candace goes to comfort her, she takes a broken bottle and slices her throat in one faithful gesture. She then confesses to Joe that she killed Delilah so their relationship wouldn’t be threatened. In learning that Love had killed Delilah, Joe can pretend he’s a good man who kills only for the right reasons, not a sociopath with little self-awareness.
To accept Love would be to accept who he really is. With the sudden knowledge that Love is pregnant — an exclamation that stops Joe from bringing the sharp end of a handcuff to her jugular — Joe can cast himself as a savior once more. He isn’t complicit in Love’s crimes or a villain himself; he’s a noble man trying to protect his unborn child. This savior role acts as both a shield and a cudgel, a way for Joe to rewrite his violence and a reason to exact that violence in the first place.
Of course, a major reason Joe is able to adopt his savior persona once again is the death of Love’s brother, Forty (James Scully), who intended to kill Joe and “save” his sister. He’s manic in the finale, jumping with nervous energy as he tells Love she’s as broken as he is and puts a gun to Joe’s forehead. But before he can pull the trigger, he’s shot by Detective Fincher (Danny Vasquez). When Joe sees Love crumpled on the floor near Forty, he returns to the role that he loves and that he believes himself to be: the avenging savior, nursing a woman back from the throes of grief. Forty’s death is another fascinating example of the ways violence is engendered by and follows Joe. Is it any surprise that Forty dies, considering anyone who tries to reveal the truth about Joe meets a similar fate? Is it a surprise, considering the ways violence bleeds into nearly every aspect of Love and Joe’s lives?
By describing his relationship with Love as a prison in the closing moments of the season, Joe reveals his inability to face himself. If the finale implies in its last few minutes — with Joe creeping on his partially hidden neighbor, surrounded by an orderly suburban landscape — that he will continue his patterns, it reworks our understanding of Love entirely. Throughout this season, Love has come across as the “perfectly imperfect” girl. She can bake and cook extravagant meals! She’s beset by abusive parents and a wreck of a brother, but she still loves wholeheartedly! She has a traumatic past! She’s cool! She’s free and open and kind! There were subtle hints to Love’s obsessive qualities, such as the intensity of her reaction when Joe decides to take things slowly and not rush headlong into the relationship, but I wasn’t prepared for the twist that casts Love as a figure like Amy Dunne, the beguiling lead of Gone Girl who goes to great lengths to punish, then entrap, her husband.
The best scenes in the finale occur when Joe is trapped in his own glass prison as Love turns the tables on him. “You know why this is happening? Because while I was seeing you, really seeing you, you were busy gazing at a goddamn fantasy,” Love says, looming over him. Love peels back the layers of Joe’s psyche to reveal that he isn’t in love with the women who have crossed his path but with the idea of them and the ways they can fit into a narrative he alone crafts. Gone Girl collapsed the boundaries in noir between the femme fatale and the angelic dame by fiercely interrogating marriage and desire. In the same manner, You makes the dream girl and madwoman the same person. In doing so, it reveals both the strange strictures that put a chokehold on women’s lives and considers the darker edges of desire. You takes the common fears of women — of being projected upon, manipulated, gaslit, and killed by the men in our lives — and heightens them to the pitch of horror. After Love locks him in his glass cage, Joe imagines himself in the same position as his last love and victim, Beck (Elizabeth Lail), showing how completely unaware he is and how all his issues are of his own making.
As I wrote in my review of the second season, one of the most important lenses through which to view You is the Bluebeard folktale. Here are the outlines of the story if you’re not familiar: A rich Frenchman marries a young woman and advises her that his sprawling home is all hers, except for a single room to which he still gives her the faithful key. Her curiosity consumes her. What she finds is a room housing the remains of his previous wives, whom he murdered. (She’s eventually saved by her own ingenuity and the help of her family in some versions.) Bluebeard has always been a tale about desire, and that’s also the center of gravity of You. Desire is never apolitical. It is fused to our notions of race, gender, and power whether we want to face that fact or not. In You, the politics of desire rests on notions of privilege. It’s what powers the ethos of the series. It’s what allows Joe to slip past the justice he rightfully deserves. In the same way that Joe can shape the world around him in destructive ways because his white maleness acts as a shield from greater scrutiny, so too can Love do the same because of her own whiteness and wealth. That’s what gives You fascinating heft beyond its ecstatically rendered twists and turns: its considerations of how our desires are politicized and how those politics affect the ways we grapple with desire in the first place.
You season two ends by binding Love and Joe together in a twisted dynamic — married, pregnant, and the picture of suburban bliss — that she sees as the perfect romance, while he views it as a prison, giving way to fascinating questions to approach in the next season. Will Love be a bad mother, as Forty suggested before he was shot to death? What will Joe look like as a father? What will happen when Love realizes how different their outlooks are and that he does indeed think she’s mad? Most important, what kind of man will Joe become when trapped in a golden cage of his own making?