How Long Can You Keep Doing This?

Photo: Netflix

For a man who vows over and over that he’ll stop killing, Joe Goldberg sure keeps adding to his body count. The fourth season of You (which concluded its second part on March 9) included an across-the-pond location change, a job-switch to academia, and a split-personality manifestation of Joe’s murderous tendencies. But at its core, You was the same as it’s always been, to somewhat tedious results: Joe gets obsessed; Joe believes he has found his soul mate; Joe murders a frankly unbelievable number of people; Joe suffers no consequences for his actions. “My circumstances have changed,” he tells his student Nadia as he pins a killing on her before returning to New York City newly rich and famous. But how long can You keep getting away with this?

Since its debut on Lifetime and shift to Netflix, You has used an arch tone and a mercurial performance from Penn Badgley to satirize “nice guy” narratives. In the first season, we learned about Joe’s abusive childhood and watched as he seduced aspiring writer Beck; he eventually killed her, framed her death on the therapist with whom she cheated on Joe, and finished and published her book. Because this is a world seemingly without Google Images or online newspaper archives, in season two Joe traveled cross-country, established himself in Los Angeles under an assumed name, and fell for nepo baby and chef Love — ultimately revealed to be a serial killer in her own right.

If we’re tracking suspension of disbelief, then the third season is where You got a little too wild for its own good with the immediately unhappily married Love and Joe settling down in upper-class suburbia, parenting their infant son, and killing as they pleased. Wouldn’t more of these incredibly nosy neighbors, so prone to gossiping about Love and her parents’ sudden money problems, get curious about her husband, too? But the most incomprehensible elements of those ten episodes, like Love’s affair with a college student and her choice to open a bakery in a town where everybody avoids carbs and gluten, are more believable than most of season four. Even as You switched its frame from true crime to murder mystery, the series fell back into a sameness that felt repetitive rather than riveting, exposing limits of its central conceit.

Joe falling in with the very wealthy and sneering at their excess: check. Joe getting obsessed with a woman damaged by the men in her life and vowing to eliminate them to make her life easier: check. Joe making that woman’s life actually better by killing those guys around her: check. Joe wriggling out of punishment and ending up with a devoted romantic partner who knows a surprising amount about his prowess with a knife: check. Joe’s unreliability as a narrator (especially when it comes to his definition of romance) has been baked into You from the beginning, so his claims to want to change have always been suspect, especially so in season four with the reveal that new friend Rhys Montrose is actually a Fight Club–like alter ego Joe is using to disassociate from his capacity for violence. But the problem is that You can’t divest itself from Joe and its contradictory treatment of the character — making him monstrous while also depicting his monstrosity as a kind of necessity against other, more monstrous people — and the series seems unwilling to imagine a path forward for the character that doesn’t follow the same beats.

To be fair, You does try to temper its familiar ending in finale “The Death of Jonathan Moore.” Although Joe is back in New York City, using his birth name because romantic partner Kate is spending her billions of inherited dollars remaking his identity into one of an innocent man, his new public profile is a shift for someone who previously stuck to the shadows. Does Joe’s celebrity mean that the fifth season of You goes into a kind of Batman direction with Joe working at his bookstore during the day and using his affluence to kill “bad” people by night? Did Kate’s “We’re largely focused on changing the world” statement signal that the pair will be in on it together, in a deviation from how Joe and Love were always at odds when it came to murder? Maybe Joe and Kate together track down people who “deserve” to die, such as Kate’s father, Tom, and collaborate on their elimination? That would finally push You into a different kind of narrative, though it sounds mighty close to one we already had for eight seasons and a limited-series continuation and will soon be getting a prequel for: Dexter. Could Joe cut it as a lumberjack? We already know he can grow a beard! But with all respect to Badgley’s genetically blessed follicles, You is going to need more than a new hairstyle to interrupt its monotony.


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How Long Can You Keep Doing This?