a long talk

Sera Gamble Is Comfortable Inside Joe Goldberg’s Head

You’s showrunner gives the lowdown on the low-down stalker-murderer we can’t stop watching.

Photo: Maarten de Boer
Photo: Maarten de Boer
Photo: Maarten de Boer

This conversation contains many specifics of You, including all kinds of spoilers about who dies and who doesn’t. 

You might think that living in Joe Goldberg’s head for three years would have been taxing for Sera Gamble, showrunner and co-creator (along with Greg Berlanti) of You. That the twisted, obsessive, and egocentric Joe — played by the enigmatic Penn Badgley — would haunt her thoughts and cause her to fear the world even more than she, as a woman, already must fear it. But you would be wrong. It seems that there’s almost a reclamation happening for Gamble, known for her work on Supernatural, The Magicians, and the recent Rose Byrne Apple TV+ series Physical. Writing in Joe’s voice and looking at the world through his eyes has afforded her the power of insight and the chance to show the world just how bad fairy-tale heroism can be.

In the third season of the Netflix show, Gamble is blessed with a big, juicy onion in the form of a white picket fence. The eye-stinging layers of marriage and monogamy, parenthood and pleasure, were ready for peeling in what she calls the “mostly heteronormative American fantasy of the privileged suburban nuclear family.” (Joe just calls it “white-picket purgatory.”) And peel she did: Joe and Love (Victoria Pedretti) find themselves in increasingly complicated situations — thanks to their own violent hands, of course — which they must clean up and cover up, all while trying to raise their baby, make enough money to afford that white picket fence and all that comes with it, and not kill each other. Literally.

As Gamble observed in our extended conversation about the third season, viewers have been up for the trip down subversion lane from the outset of the series, based on the best-selling book of the same name by Caroline Kepnes. While the second season continued to pull from Kepnes’s pages, by the end it had veered off into new narrative territory, revealing Love as an obsessive, stalking murderer to rival Joe and launching You to a new level of must-see TV as we all followed them deeper into the abyss. I devoured this season as soon as I could get my hands on it, and I’m thrilled to hear that season four is a go too.

I loathe Joe Goldberg. But I can’t stop watching him. So naturally, before Gamble and I got into Pedretti’s impact on You, that anti-vaxxer storyline, and just how they manage all that voice-over, my first question was …

What is it about obsession that TV viewers are obsessed with?
I don’t know if there’s one answer, but I think we all feel a little bit obsessive sometimes. Joe is just the very extreme version of impulses many of us have. There is something fun about watching someone actually do the things you would only ever think about; there’s something enjoyable about watching problematic people on TV do problematic things.

We’ll get into all those problematic people for sure, but first, I’m curious what you’ve observed about the way people talk about the show. Has any reaction surprised you?
There is always going to be a point of view you didn’t expect. There’s no way to predict what all those different brains are going to think. But there was a moment of great relief, I think, for Greg Berlanti and me, all the writers, everyone making the show in season one, when it came out and we found that the audience was sort of in on the experiment of it. Whenever I’m doing something that’s a bit subversive and reliant on a super-specific tone, I’m always a little worried that maybe it won’t translate. But by and large, the audience has been onboard with what we’re trying to say from the very beginning.

And what are you trying to say? 
[Laughs.] More than one thing. But about Joe, that we have absolutely lionized this type of romantic hero, and if you scratch one centimeter under the surface of his heroism, he’s an egotistical, self-centered, violating person who is doing many things that would not be okay in real life. And yet all those behaviors — not only do we overlook them, but we also tend to see them as proof that he is really in love with the girl. I’m talking about basically every great romance in the Western canon, and Joe has read and been informed by all of them.

There’s this strange perverseness to the show’s central point: A man continually stalks women and then ends up in relationships with them, and/or kills them. Was that a hard place to not only start from, but to keep making up stories about?
No. Because I’m a woman. Because I walk down the street and worry for my safety. I have yet to ask a woman, “Do you worry about your safety when you walk down the street?” and have the answer be no. And that includes third-degree black belts. This is just a part of what women and femme people carry. We don’t feel safe. And I think that there’s a relief and a bit of a thrill in deep-diving into it. I recognized a buzzy feeling when I was reading the book, and the first time I talked to Caroline [Kepnes], I asked her, “Was it kind of subversively amazing to be inside this guy’s head and to be totally honest about all of his worst impulses?” And she was like, “Yes, yes it was.”

I’ll tell you a little story about that, actually: When we were in New York shooting the first episode, Caroline was there, and we had wrapped for the day. We went to a bar, sat down, and were having a drink and talking about the ways in which we feel unsafe as women in the world and that very particular dance that we do when a stranger enters our space and we handle them politely. And as we were talking about this very thing, a drunk man at the bar decided that he needed to enter our conversation. So we politely let him know many times that we were catching up, we were discussing work, and he would not leave us alone. It was sort of like the universe saying, “Please talk about this. Please open up the conversation so people can talk about it.”

And of course, had you told him to get the fuck out of your face, that could have escalated into something dangerous.
I’m not somebody who loses a lot of sleep over the idea that some person in the world would consider me a bitch. It really is about toeing a line of safety. And there are many times in the show where we try to capture that feeling, when someone may feel like a line is somehow being crossed, but they’re trying to walk that line politely because if they’re right that there’s a problem, they don’t want to escalate it.

It felt necessary to have Love be this stalking, murderous person as well. Otherwise, we just had a really unlikable but highly watchable male lead, and how long can we go with that? How early did you decide to make Love a driving focus and turn this into a two-hander?
From the start of season two, we were discussing this — at Victoria’s chemistry read with Penn, in fact. Season one is not the kind of thing you can repeat. The special magic of that season happened because it was the first time you saw it, and it was surprising. But you have Joe’s number by the end. Even when we were pitching the show under the auspices of an exploration of love and obsession in all its dark facets, we knew there were different kinds of stories we could tell.

What did Victoria Pedretti bring alive from the page — what did she make her own? Did she have input and questions that influenced the character? 
I think any time on this show that we are talking about a woman who would captivate Joe’s attention, she needs to captivate ours. In blunt terms, we need a really charismatic actor whom we want to watch for a long time. Part of that is instinctual: Do all the producers, the casting directors, everybody who is watching, want to see more Victoria? And we did. She is reliably surprising; she brings twists and turns and depth to each scene. It’s her facility as a performer to find colors that you don’t expect. As soon as you start seeing dailies from an actor, you start writing toward their strengths. It becomes a real-time collaboration. By late in the season, we have a direct conversation with them on every action line of the scripts they’re getting because we’re trying to tailor everything for them to do their best work. Also, with Victoria, there is some sexually explicit material in this, and she is really engaged in a conversation about how we portray female pleasure. It was exciting to have those conversations with her, and also with Shalita, this season.

Yes! Let’s talk about Shalita Grant’s Sherry. That character hit some very real-life tropes about moms and motherhood, social media, and privilege. How did Sherry come together for you?
There was a lot about Sherry that was exciting to write, but one of the threads that we’re following in the show is looking at the differences in the way we judge men and women. The needle is kind of impossible to thread for women. That was a huge part of what we were trying to say with Beck’s character in season one. And with mothers, there is a very high level of scrutiny to all the ways that people can quote-unquote get it wrong. The online chatter about being a mom is pretty famous for always being controversial. From breastfeeding to what material your diapers are made of to how long you should let your baby cry — every single thing about how you’re raising your child is subject to judgment. I think we just eat mothers alive as a culture. I don’t have children, but the writer Mairin Reed, whom I wrote episode one with, has three, and we talked about how she felt like shit when she read this stuff online. It was irresistible to take Love from L.A., where she was the queen bee, and put this new mother into a totally different playing field. And then here’s Sherry, who has put herself in a good position, part of which is how she subtly is able to make other people feel a little bit bad sometimes. Like, she’s got the answer, and she’s being really nice by pointing out that you’re getting it wrong.

I could unpack Sherry all day, but let’s skip to the end when she has that moment in the cage where she has to try and play all her cards to get out alive.
I love that. She sort of confesses. She was well aware that by putting herself out there as a mother, she was offering up aspects of her life to be judged harshly. And that was her solution to being judged harshly. No matter what she did, she was picking and choosing the aspects of herself that she would expose. And in that way, she’s creating actual privacy and control for herself.

At one point early on, I thought, Why don’t Love and Joe just have an open relationship? And sure enough, by episode seven, the topic of an open relationship is broached — which is my way of asking, how do you plot out the progression of each season? 
Basically, we start with the widest possible picture — what are the themes this season and where do we want to end? — and then we zoom in. We start planting flags and then we zoom in closer and closer until we know what each episode is. This season, we have this incredible gold mine of marriage, parenthood, and that white-picket-fence, mostly heteronormative American fantasy of the privileged suburban nuclear family. The brochure for the suburbs is this vision of monogamous perfection, but I’m interested in the secrets that each house on the block has. Nobody is actually perfect, every family has problems, and no marriage is perfect. We wanted [Joe and Love] to be entirely on the same team and entirely on opposite teams and all these places in between. Questions about monogamy and opening the marriage came up because I think that’s a pretty common conversation when you’ve been in a relationship for a long time, even if the answer is a hard no for both people.

Ah yes, that disastrous foursome. Do we still call it swinging, by the way?
We did a lot of research into the terms. And even though swingers sounds a bit old-fashioned, it’s still one of the terms used for that lifestyle. There are a lot of different forms of [being in an open relationship] — and by the way, it doesn’t always end with an arrow in your ass. We certainly have no intention of telling people to not open their relationship up. Sometimes it’s the perfect solution for people — for people who are in a relationship with honesty. But Joe and Love, with the number of secrets they have, no.

How about adding in other contemporary, real-world issues? You have that anti-vaxxer storyline, which feels so right for the moment. How do you decide what to put in or leave out?
Our writers’ room for season three opened in February of 2020. The last day of being in the office, we were breaking that very episode. So it was not at all inspired by the conversation around the COVID vaccine because we weren’t there yet in the real world.

No way! It’s so perfectly placed, though.
Look, we had no idea what the pandemic was going to be. At that point, when we all went home, we could not even imagine still being mostly at home 18 months later. There was certainly talk of needing a vaccine, but no, it was not at all a specific inspiration. The inspiration was a conversation about being a parent and how it is, full stop, the most terrifying thing to happen to people. So what story would be fun to tell when you have a mother and a father who are willing to cross the line into extreme and creative violence if they need to — what would terrify them the most? What would inspire them in the moment to knock somebody over the head and lock them in a cage? The parents in the room said that the first time their baby got sick was the most scared they’d ever been. There also had been some recent measles outbreaks in California communities like the one we were writing about.

Did anything have to be rewritten because of the pandemic?
In a certain way nothing, and in a certain way everything. The story remained the same. Though we knew we would have to make a couple of references to COVID in the first episode, just so you’d understand what the rules are in this universe. But the logistics of every single scene changed. The idea of a gala event at the library we kept, but the specifics of how many of their scenes take place before the guests arrive, how many people we will see there, what does a table of sweets look like and who can touch it — there was no aspect of production, no second of screen time, that wasn’t affected by COVID. We filmed from October or November of 2020 to April of 2021. The biggest spike of positivity in Los Angeles happened during our shoot. All credit goes to our production team and to the support of the studio. There was a very strict, mandatory PPE, social distancing, daily testing. And we had to get Penn and Victoria on the phone right off the bat and ask them, “Hey, we’re in the middle of an infectious pandemic. There is no show if people never kiss or occasionally get in very close quarters to one another. What is your comfort level, and can we even do this right now?” Every actor embraced a high level of personal responsibility to keep one another and everyone on set safe.

This show has more voice-over than any other show or film that I can think of. Did you have any influences for the use of the VO? 
The first influence was this piece of conventional wisdom that you shouldn’t use VO. [Laughs.] Writers like to say that VO is a crutch — that, like, good writers don’t use VO. But VO was absolutely crucial from the jump with this project because in the books, you’re inside Joe’s head. Greg Berlanti and I spent a lot of time talking about instances of VO in other shows and films that we love, like The Princess Bride and Edward Scissorhands, where the narration is helpful to the story. Mr. Robot was another one that we were able to look at and analyze what was effective about these stories’ VO, because there’d be voice-over in every scene Joe was in. And we were really hard on ourselves about asking the question Can the information in the voice-over be presented in any other way? And if it could, we cut that piece of voice-over. In a surprising number of scenes, Joe doesn’t even open his mouth once or says something that is a total lie. The voice-over has to tell us the truth of what’s in his head.

Was there ever any thought of not having VO as the main device to understand our leading man?
No. Never. Because the book takes place inside his head. I wrote the pilot with Greg, and I don’t think he and I ever had a day where we entertained the notion of getting rid of the VO. Also, it was fun to finally be working on something where I didn’t feel bad about using voice-over, where that self-critical voice left my own head. It opened this door of non-judgment inside me as a writer where I got to play with it and see what was possible. Thankfully, Penn is a genius of voice-over. Like, if he didn’t do it well, the show would not work.

I’m very curious about the timing of when Badgley records and how it works on set. 
It is complicated. It’s a process that we’re refining until we lock the final cut. And I can’t say enough about how great Penn’s instincts are. He records the voice-over long before he actually does the scene because we need a rough template version to be able to cut it together for timing. On the day, Penn’s stand-in, Danny Watters, reads the lines from off-screen in order to get the timing. It looks seamless when you see the cut, but when you’re on set, sometimes the actors are filling unnaturally long pauses with natural human behavior. It can be really funny watching Victoria just waiting for an answer to her question, and meanwhile we’re reading three complete sentences of text which is Joe’s VO. Sometimes we need Penn to re-record, but it’s shockingly infrequent, and it’s not usually about performance — it’s about tweaking the line a little bit.

In the finale, Joe says about taking the antidote to the aconite before Love poisons him, “A little voice in my head told me to take it.” Is that a nod to the VO? It felt very meta to me.
I mean, I do not show the most restraint when there’s the opportunity to be a little meta. [Laughs.] The most meta we got this season about the voice in his head was when he spiked a high fever because he had measles and the voice in his head gets a whole body, becomes a separate person.

By the middle of the last episode, we’re wondering if Love is going to kill Joe. Was that twist always the ending in mind?
Some version of it, yes. We knew we had an idea for a two-season arc with Love Quinn, and along the way, we auditioned other ideas for her. We all kind of think of this show a little bit in horror-movie terms. One of the fun things when watching a horror movie is there is less of a guarantee of safety for the main characters. That’s a genre where the hero dies all the time, and we wanted to earn that uncertainty in the audience — that it would cross your mind that maybe Joe is the one who doesn’t get out of this season alive. I guess we’ll hear from people who watch it whether we pulled it off, but we tried to play fair with the story and set the stakes such that it would be believable that Love might come out on top.

We have to talk about Marienne, played by Tati Gabrielle. How and why did she come alive for you? 
Well, the why is because Joe will never stop looking outside of himself for the answer.

True. And that makes for good TV! But Marienne — we think she’s going to be this antagonist to Joe at first, but then we find out, and they connect over, their similar backgrounds of poverty and abuse.
Every time we work on constructing and deepening a character who will be a love interest for Joe — because Elizabeth Lail was so iconic playing Beck — we have to make sure each subsequent person is just as interesting and compelling and that the reasons for his obsession make perfect, logical sense in his mind. But she also has to be really different than the last love interest. So it’s exactly what you’re talking about: Why would Joe connect with a woman who’s very different from Love? Inasmuch as Love and he connect and really love each other but come from totally different worlds, he fell in love with Love despite her being a rich, privileged woman, not because of it. So we thought of the library as a little oasis of people who felt more real and similar to him, and that he and Marienne would connect on a soul-deep level because they had a very private, shared experience of their early life that they just don’t advertise and that they both are trying to overcome.

Was Gabrielle always the person you had in mind for that role? 
No. We auditioned a lot of incredible actors for this role. To his credit, David Rapaport, our casting director, who works on a lot of Greg Berlanti shows, brought up Tati from the very beginning. It’s the epic patience of a casting director that they bring someone up right away and then a whole process happens, and eventually they’re proven right. As soon as we talked to Tati, though, we were like, Oh, of course. Honestly, it was just that she was busy shooting a big movie when her name came up, so there were a lot of logistics involved in even hopping on a Zoom with her. We had to do her and Penn’s chemistry read over Zoom. I think Penn was in a national park and Tati was in Europe. It was the most bizarre situation, but if we could believe these two people were into each other in this version of a terrible situation for a chemistry read, then we knew we were definitely going to be okay.

Can we assume that the next season will be about Joe stalking her in Paris? I mean, how are you thinking about the long game of the show? 
We have some ideas. [Smirks.] I don’t think we’re done telling the epic tragedy of Joe Goldberg. There’s a lot of gas left in the tank. Nobody has any interest in continuing to squeeze that sponge if it starts to feel redundant, but it feels to us like Joe, in a certain way, is walking closer to a level of self-awareness that would totally transform his life. And then when he pushes that away and grabs back onto the stuff that makes the show exciting but his life a complete fucking mess — it somehow gets worse and worse every time he does it. When we first sold the show, we said that each season we’d like to put him in a new environment and explore love in a new way. And as it turns out, there are a lot of environments, and there is a lot of stuff to say about the dark side of love.

Anything you can tease us about season four?
Here’s the thing: Everyone was really excited to leave Joe smack-dab in the middle of Europe, right? He was chasing somebody who had disappeared into thin air, whom we have no reason to believe will be happy to see him again. That’s a really good place to start. We are still in the middle of a pandemic, and the rules of where you can go and how to get there change every day. So I’m being cagier than usual about promising what the direction will be, but I will say that we’re really excited about the idea of putting him in an environment that is different than everywhere he’s been, and definitely different from Madre Linda. And it’s going to be somewhere that connects to everything that is snobbiest inside of him, and he would believe that this is a good place for him to be, but he also is stepping into the old world where there’s a different class system and sense of who has privilege and why. We’re very attracted to dropping our little fish into those waters.

This might be reductive, but, why can’t Joe and Love ever stop wanting other people? 
If we all knew the secret key to stopping looking outside of ourselves for happiness, every therapist in America would be out of business. It’s not just them, but it’s certainly the mistake they both keep making. If Joe woke up one morning and realized that he had to look within himself, there would be a lot fewer dead bodies in the world.

I guess there wouldn’t be a show.
I always joke with Penn that it would just be a show about Joe opening a dog rescue, and each episode, he finds a home for a different troubled dog. Which, I would watch that show. But it’s not this show.

You’s Sera Gamble Is Comfortable Inside Joe Goldberg’s Head