exit interview

An Unredacted Interview With You Co-creator Sera Gamble About Season Four

“It’s one thing to have to justify killing one or two ex-girlfriends, and it is quite another to walk into a season with a minimum of ten murders under your belt.” Photo: Netflix

The Netflix serial killer social satire and Penn Badgley creepazoid thriller series You has a new release structure for its fourth season. It’s been divided into two parts, with the first five episodes premiering in February and the second five on March 9. That structure is both appealing and remarkably well suited for the season as a whole, for reasons that can’t be explained without spoiling what happens in part two.

This structure also created a challenge. Before the release of part two, it was difficult to talk about a very fun, very surprising season of TV in a way that examined how it all fit together. To tackle that issue, we decided to sit down with You’s co-creator Sera Gamble to talk about the show — the whole thing, not just the first part. But when the interview was published in February, we redacted it, blocking out all the stuff that spoiled what was coming up in the season’s second half.

Now that the full season has been released, we’re republishing the same conversation in its entirety. It covers the overall structure of the plot, the challenges of crafting it, the recent interest in depicting sex on TV, and all the decisions that went into part two’s biggest surprises. This is everything, including ALL the spoilers about some wild part-two twists, rendered in blue text. (It’s not a link! We know your brain might think it’s a link!) You have been warned!

How early did you decide season four would be split into two parts?
Netflix approached us about splitting up the season mid-production. It was a somewhat new thing they were doing with some of their shows; they had done it for Stranger Things. And it just so happened that the season split very cleanly down the middle. As a show that is fortunate to get a certain amount of internet buzz, the streaming era is a double-edged sword for writers. It’s exciting that people can watch your whole story, but it’s a bummer that it’s over so quickly.

Ultimately the idea that people could really enjoy the reveal at the end of episode five and sit with that and have theories about what that relationship is going to be felt exciting. We knew we had a couple of big structures that we were going to use in the season. We knew the whodunit would be the first part, and then the thing I was glibly calling the “serial killer buddy comedy” would be the second part.

Part of what you get to do with this show is relocate to a new place and satirize a particular subculture of a wealthy group. Why London?
We had to start on those decisions last season. We always give you a hint about where we’re going, and we wanted to put Joe in a foreign country. We had several kinds of clueless Americans and American subcultures, and we wanted to make him even more of a fish out of water.

France is so beautiful, and we did shoot in Paris a little bit, but at the end of the day, if you want to talk about old money and have some of the people in the circle Joe is reluctantly part of, we have to have some of them be actual aristocrats. Most of the writers are American, and we were thinking about how Americans think of British aristocrats. They know more about England, and there would be less of what I call “the exposition fairy” flying in to tell you a bullet-point summary of what you’re seeing.

The rigidity of a British class structure feels prime for a Joe skewering, and yet there are so many different flavors of it. How did you determine his targets?
We wanted to do a bit of mixing and matching. That’s why Adam is such a central character. We were interested in the difference in the rhetoric about money and acknowledging the 1,000-year history of the class system in England.

In the United States, we talk about how we’re not like the country we broke away from and we live in a democratic meritocracy, and it’s such bullshit. The mega-rich are the mega-rich, and one feature of the people who have won over time is that they know what their public face should be and how to talk to people, and how you talk to people when you have a lot of money and power in America is different than in the U.K.

We got to dig into the level of comfort they have with the difference between Roald and Adam getting drunk in the country house. We wanted to poke at the almost apologetic nature of Americans with privilege in comparison to people who were like, “Yeah, but my family has been important for 800 years.”

How early had you been thinking about a whodunit structure for the season?
The first step in every season is that Greg Berlanti and I go to dinner. Greg always pulls a deceptively simple sentence out of his pocket that becomes a huge guiding principle for the show. He was like, “London, foggy, cold, London murder mystery, whodunit.” Immediately so many things fell into place.

Some of the things about the second half of the season, we were preparing ourselves to do for a couple of seasons. We really wanted to get Joe to this point where he has to reckon with his past deeds and speak more honestly about his behavior. But that in and of itself is not ten episodes worth of plot. So these would marry well.

How worried were you about spoilers leaking this season?
A little bit more worried than usual. You can really torture yourself with worrying about leaking TV in 2023. We kept it as need-to-know as we could, but need-to-know on a TV show was like 45 people on a Monday talking about it.

So we sent a couple of notes out to the cast and crew just asking them to help us keep it quiet. And then the studio was kind of monitoring and helping. I think it would be a bummer for that to come out. And by the way, someone will always guess. Your story cannot stand on surprise alone. A couple of people have already jumped on my social media to give me this particular theory. You can call it “Fight Club.” Everyone has seen it before. It is notorious for being a twist that’s hard to pull off.

Structurally, did you conceive of the whodunit and the “Fight Club” idea together?
Joe’s character arc is something we had been talking about for a couple of seasons. Greg would point out that the pressure on him only gets greater the more he runs and tries to start over. The thing that’s particularly fascinating to me is how baroque his justifications have had to become. It’s one thing to have to justify killing one or two ex-girlfriends, and it is quite another to walk into a season with a minimum of ten murders under your belt.

So we started talking about it, I think, in season two, and we started tracking the scenes where Joe hallucinates in some way or he is under an extremely high level of panic or pressure. In season one, he’s hit on the head by accident and hallucinates his ex-girlfriend. And by season three, he had a fever, and the inner monologue became a whole separate Joe that was sitting there, taunting him. Part of the reason we did that is because we knew we eventually wanted to do this.

With episode seven, how do you make sure you’re based in reality and not entering, like, fairy-tale land?
On some level, if you’re not going to risk going too far, just go home. You can’t make a TV show and only do the safe stories you’re sure people won’t criticize. That doesn’t exist. You don’t want to break it, but you have to be willing to break it and then quickly put it back together if you make a story choice that doesn’t work.

But the story for this show has been heightened from the beginning. Our philosophy is that the characters have to make very recognizably human choices. The justification is their motivations and the way they treat one another. That part is not actually heightened. It doesn’t tip over into soap opera, where people just are slapping each other in the face all the time and there’s big emotions, bigger than you’ve ever seen.

If you ground your characters and make them very understandable to an audience that is really following along on their journey, you can do almost anything with plot.

When did you tell Penn about the second half of the season? How did you have people play the early scenes, and then again later?

Penn knew from the beginning. I wanted to pitch the season to him so that he could enjoy when it happened and have his reaction. It was a long conversation, but we always chat several times before the season begins. Even at the very beginning of the writer’s room, he and I check in, we do a postmortem on the previous season, and then I tell him what I know. Then I say, “When we know more or if something changes, let’s chat again.” And he gives me a lot of thoughts about the stuff he’s been interested in while he was playing Joe.

So we did all of that. And then I said, “Rhys Montrose exists, but you possibly haven’t ever met him.” And he was like, “Oh, yeah, of course. That makes sense for Joe.”

And then to the actors who were auditioning to play Rhys, we said nothing about that. It wasn’t until we cast Ed that we told him. The writer’s job is, among other things, to track everything backward and forward and in four dimensions. So we had someone tracking every version of every murder. But for the actor, you have to hand them something they can play or you’re done. They can’t get in front of a camera and play an idea.

And I imagine if the scene doesn’t work for Ed to play it in the second half, it’s not going to work to play it straight in the first half.
This is why we didn’t spring this on anybody episode six of season one. Penn and I now have a long history of holding hands and doing something crazy, so he was like, “All right, let’s try this. Let’s do it.”

What I first said to Ed was, “I promise, you won’t have to worry that what you’re doing doesn’t make sense. Your character will track for you the same as if he were a real person who then went home and turned on a TV and sat down and had dinner. There’s not going to be any tricks.”

Then Ed is like, “So who is ‘Rhys,’ and what is his justification for being a serial killer? Because that’s what he’s trying to impart to Joe. But also ‘what’ is Rhys, who sprung out of Joe’s unconscious? What is he trying to do?” And I said, “You are always trying to help Joe. Sometimes it’s very tough love, and the two of you do not have the same sense of humor. But you are a grotesque manifestation of the kind of survival tactics this person had to develop.”

Why did you know Ed Speleers was right for the role?
He’s a really compelling, charismatic actor. You have to believe both sides of it. You have to believe he’s somebody who’s done bad things but really wants to be better — the aspirational Rhys Joe met in the first half. And then you also have to believe that he’s done these things to people and not felt bad at all.

So when actors were auditioning, we saw scenes of them where we were asking ourselves, “Would I vote for this guy for mayor?” And then scenes where I was like, “Am I terrified? Do I think he would kill me?”

So you had a full-time writer tracking all of the murders every single, possible way?
Neil Reynolds also has a full-time job as a writer and executive producer on the show, but early on at the beginning of the season, I realized I should not be the one who is also tracking all that stuff. We had appendix pages for every episode. For example, there’s the scene when Simon is found stabbed, and then there’s the scene later where Roald is saying, “Here’s how I think Joe did it.” And then you need to sub in Rhys. There are a lot of pieces.

We had to figure out how to present these scenes like the A and B version of the same scene, but it’s the same camera setup. But we were figuring out how to effectively communicate this to the producers and the crew as we were doing it, and distributing those pages only to the people who had to shoot them, basically. At the beginning of the season, I got a lot of actors asking me if they were the murderer.

A writers’ room has never looked more “A Beautiful Mind” than ours. And we would frequently have to pause and take a deep breath and do the same thing that we were trying to help our actors do, which is, “Go back to the heart of the story. Don’t worry about all these details. It will very quickly start to break your brain. ‘But Rhys did it. But Rhys isn’t real. But Joe did it.’”

Were there cheeky bits in part one where you were like, “This will be fun later when people know”?
No, we were not arrogant enough to dangle it, because then you would just get it. But his scenes with Joe play even better when you finally understand why he’s really saying these things. It rewards a rewatch. There are little Easter eggs all over the apartment, but you’re not going to see them if you’re watching on a small screen or on your phone. And we don’t really linger on them. There’s a copy of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” lying around.

Then you have Nadia, introduced in part one as a student who’s useful because she knows so much more about a whodunit than Joe. (It’s very funny to me that Joe, despite his belief that he knows all the great literature of the world, does not know these tropes and has to ask her.) Can you talk about developing her character?
Whenever we create a circle of privileged, clueless people, we need to create people Joe likes better and feels more at home with. For this season, we wanted to situate them in the university where he was working. Joe is the best version of himself when he’s mentoring young people, and it’s good to have him care about somebody for comparatively selfless reasons.

He doesn’t know the whodunit tropes because he hates them and thinks he’s above them. That was a good excuse for her monologue about how misguided people are who think they’re above different kinds of literature.

“Whenever we create a circle of privileged, clueless people, we need to create people Joe likes better and feels more at home with,” Gamble says of Nadia, played by Amy-Leigh Hickman. Photo: Netflix

Joe usually has paternal, caring feelings toward characters who are much younger than he is. Did that change your development of her as a character?
We’ve had characters like that before, and we were interested in Nadia being a little bit older, so that you couldn’t quite chalk up her problems and the mistakes she was making to her being a child.

The big concern was we didn’t want you to think that they were going to sleep together. Joe would never sleep with a student, and we wanted to make sure that their relationship didn’t feel like it was twisted the same way that her relationship with Malcolm had been.

She becomes the key to how part two unravels. Did you already know Nadia was going to be doing both sides of that? How did that affect how you built her?
Before we started writing the season, our first idea was that in the back half of the season, he would have to make a move that would really hurt him. He would put himself in hot water to help her because he cares about her.

But as we started to write these first episodes and think about what the character represented, it’s like, “Oh, she’s the detective. She’s going to be the key in the lock of the whole thing.” So all of the work we did to make you worry about her, it’s simply that something bad happened to her. I feel the same things when I see her poking around. Then the person to save in the second half ended up being Phoebe.

By the end of the season, Joe is legitimately afraid of himself in a way he has never been before — or at least has never let himself be to this extent. Because this show’s thesis has always been that he can’t change or doesn’t know how, is this a huge turning point for him?
I think we believe people can change. But that’s a tall order for Joe. At the end of the season, there is a level of being honest with himself that’s higher. The fact that it’s Rhys you see in the reflection — Rhys doesn’t walk into a room and pretend he’s not there to kill you. He plans. He does it well.

After four seasons of seeing Joe trip over his own feet and, oops, accidentally kill people and then almost get caught over and over again, a huge reason Rhys exists is to be like, “Wake up, stop doing this. We’re going to end up in prison or dead.”

So what happens if Joe the Killer levels up? Joe the Romantic, Joe the Mentor, Joe the Good Guy, that’s all still there, too. But we wanted to really change his own relationship to what he needs to do.

The other major shift is that now he has money. Where did that idea come from? How long have you been thinking about that as a turn for him?
We thought of season four as “Joe goes far away to come home.” The other thing Greg said in our first conversation was, “We need a big shift coming off the Love-with-the-Capital-L story. It’s going to be a great way to move him where we want him to be by the end, but it’s also going to feel like a departure and it will be polarizing.” He was warning me that we would be asking the audience to stay with us as we got further away. Even having Penn grow a beard felt like saying, “He’s not exactly the same Joe, but stay with us here.”

The idea was that when you saw him at the end, after he marries Kate, that’s Joe Classic going home. He has his name back. He looks like you remember, and he’s in New York, but now he has the resources he never had before. He’s in with the people who saw him from very, very far away when he was that Brooklyn boy. That is a huge double-edged sword for him. And it’s dangerous because he can get away with more. But there’s also a level of anonymity that he never had to question before. He was that generic, good-looking, trustable-face white guy on the street who happens to be shoving somebody in a trunk, but you don’t even notice. That’s different if he’s married to one of the most powerful CEOs in the world.

What kind of opportunities does this create for the character going forward?
This is the thing about Caroline’s book. It lines up really elegantly with something that’s very true in our culture. The first season premiered at the same time everybody was talking about Me Too. Now, several years later, the conversation is much more about, Has there been a level of consequence that will make any of these people change?

Now it’s the morning after and everybody’s a little deflated. We don’t give up the stuff that’s working for us as people, psychologically and in the world, unless we absolutely have to. And Joe isn’t having the most restful possible lifestyle possible, but it’s fundamentally working for him. This is a bummer of a statement, but I just don’t know that guys like him face the consequences we want them to all the time.

I’m curious about how you thought about making that a part him forever this season. In a way, TV also has to run from consequences as a form.
This is why we have no intention of making 15 seasons of this show. This is not CSI: Joe Goldberg. It’s not procedural. He changes over the course of the show. And there’s a point where we’re done.

When is that point?
I won’t say.

But you know.
I am superstitious about that. Sorry. I worked on Supernatural. I’m the person who ran the show right after we said we would be done. We all learned from that. I wouldn’t do that to another person.

This is a show much more in the image of “antihero” shows, where the arc of the series is the arc of the character, and when that arc is complete, so is the show.

And you’ve now given him this consequence that he can’t run away from and the show will have to continue to reckon with. He’s not just going to be able to suddenly shake his split personality or whatever this … Is it a dissociative disorder? Is it imagination?
The goal that Rhys pitches to him is integration. Joe has always been pushing away this part of himself. It got harder and harder until it finally did completely split off. He was unaware of what he was doing.

But Rhys’s contention is that he doesn’t have to stand there talking to Joe if Joe can just be honest with himself. The way we thought about this in the first half is that the “You” of the season will change over the course of season four: It’s a mysterious texter, and then it’s Rhys, and then it’s Kate.

But you realize in the second half that the “You” of the season is Joe all the way through. This is the season where Joe faces himself. So yes, what that means for a season moving forward or how that changes the character — the fun will be to explore that.

How do you as a showrunner think about when a sex scene is necessary for the story?
There is no point in trying to do a sex scene just to be sexy on a TV show. There is an unlimited amount of porn on your computer that will give you much more convincing sex. It is, like so many other things, a way of getting at the story you’re telling between the characters. I have written sex scenes that were about how a character was feeling self-destructive or impulsive or vulnerable. It’s always about, What are we illuminating about these characters and how does this move their story forward? The job of a TV writer in production every single day is to figure out, What version of this scene can we do? What will look the best? What will tell the most in the least beats?

We are making a show about a guy who violates boundaries. This is not a love story. We’re poking at the classics. We’re ripping the skin off romantic comedies and wearing it like Silence of the Lambs. We would lose credibility immediately if we were telling you a story about how this woman is a complete person who should be able to make her own decisions, but then as soon as it’s a sex scene, we shoot with a male gaze and we’re lingering on these body parts.

It’s Joe’s gaze, in this case, but the show’s gaze is not the lecherous male gaze. It’s very important to us that, if we’re going to do it, we do that right.

Could you give me a visual example of what you mean when you say “Joe’s gaze is different from the show’s gaze”?

Going back to the pilot, his inner monologue is talking about Beck’s body. When he is watching her through the window, there is a classic peeping-Tom aspect to it. And we see much more of that actor’s body in those shots. We’ve got a running thing about him watching women masturbate, and the way you see Kate or Beck — because he’s spying on them and he’s invading their privacy — is different than, for example, the sex scenes he has with Love, where we had conversations about female pleasure. There, the focus of the camera is on the connection between the characters and what’s happening to her emotionally and what she’s feeling.

When you’re talking about Joe watching women masturbating, the camera often frames them inside a window so we can see the barrier he’s violating. Talk to me about the visual language of that.
Our scripts are littered with action lines that start with Joe’s POV, so we’re very clear about that. That’s also the case when he’s fantasizing, and that’s when you’re likely to see a character in a bikini or something.

I often have a feeling of frustration when I am watching movies or TV shows and I am putting myself in that woman’s shoes as I’m watching the story, and then suddenly there’s a shot that develops off her feet or starts with her body and doesn’t include her head. I feel a little sense of deflation. Our producing director for seasons two and three, Silver Tree, had a lot of conversations with me about this. As a director, she’s taking the script apart on a shot by shot basis. The editors are thinking about this all the time, that we want to discern the difference between story from Joe’s point of view and story from the point of view of the show. The point of view of the show is that Joe is unhinged and his behavior is criminal.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

A (Now Unredacted) Interview With You Co-creator Sera Gamble