The first season of Netflix’s You was a huge hit and a terrifying meditation on the toxic nature of the romantic comedy myth. In season two, the series manages to up the ante while simultaneously demanding that we interrogate the ways that we can project upon our partners in relationships.
This story contains very mild spoilers for season two of Netflix’s You. If you don’t want to have anything spoiled from the second season, stop reading now. But if you don’t mind learning a few very minor details about the plot, keep reading. Happy binge-watching!
How do we solve a problem like Joe Goldberg?
We left the man, played with livewire unpredictability by Gossip Girl’s Penn Badgley, at the end of season one of Netflix’s You on the run. His tendency to obsess over his partners to the point of pure fantasy projection had backfired spectacularly. Instead of becoming the perfect boyfriend to Beck (Elizabeth Laill), Joe had killed her, along with a few of her friends.
Now Candace, another of his exes, is back quite literally from the dead, hellbent on making Joe pay for what he did to her. That’s why, in season two of the hit Netflix series, Joe finds himself in hiding in Los Angeles. And that’s when he falls in love.
Joe just can’t help himself, can he? That’s what makes him such a compelling protagonist. In any other story, Joe would be the unimpeachable romantic comedy hero. He would be the perfect boyfriend, charming your friends and knowing your every quirk and dispensing great oral sex at the drop of a hat.
But You is a story of obsession, compulsiveness, deceit and desire. It’s an evisceration of romcom culture with plenty of bite, an interrogation of just how much we might project onto our partners when we’re in a relationship. And no more so than in season two.
Everything is sunnier in Los Angeles, and that includes Joe. Here, he goes by Will Betelheim, and instead of working in a dingy New York bookshop he works at Anavrin – that’s Nirvana backwards, naturally – a green smoothie selling, reiki healing health food store that just happens to have a Russian literature department.
That’s where Joe meets Love (Victoria Peretti from The Haunting Of Hill House), heiress to the Anavrin fortune and the store’s in-house chef. She’s the dream girl to end all dream girls, a caring, spontaneous, intelligent, funny, sexy cool girl with just a hint of difficult family trauma. She makes fantastic muffins, is a wonderful friend, and spends the entirety of season two clad in fresh-off-the-runway Reformation threads.
Love is… perfect. No wonder Joe falls for her, hook, line and sinker. This is a Sunday love, the kind that lasts past Saturday night, and for a while You seems to suggest that together, these two crazy kids could make it. Love might, just might, change Joe.
Would that it were so simple. Joe can’t help himself, so even when things are going well with Love, he starts obsessing over every detail of their relationship. He buys a telescope so he can spy on her from a distance. He stalks her friends on social media so that he can engage them in intelligent conversation. He becomes embroiled in the LA douchery of her brother Forty’s production company. He decides that the only way that he can become a better person is through subsuming himself entirely to Love’s desires. He will be everything Love needs, her family and her best friend and her soulmate. Because that worked out so well for him in the past, right?
Season two of You, produced entirely until Netflix’s watchful gaze – season one was made by Lifetime, before transferring to the streaming platform: originally, they passed on the series – is definitely more bingeable than the first.
There are subplots, one involving the real Will Bettelheim’s bizarre burgeoning friendship with Joe and another involving a #MeToo exposure of a comedian, with Joe’s journalist neighbour and her teenage sister caught in the middle.
But the real narrative thrust of You is Joe and Love’s relationship. Where Beck was a blank canvas for Joe to project upon, Love is a fully formed woman with wants and needs of her own, both of which she is upfront with Joe about.
Their relationship has all the hallmarks of a normal one: he meets her friends, they question his motives, there’s an awkward family get together, Love is worried that her baggage will scare Joe off. You cunningly gives you enough normality – lingering kisses, swelling orchestral music, adorable meet-cutes – to make you want to root for Joe and Love. Even when you know that Joe has done unspeakable things to women that he is in relationships with. Even when one of those women comes back to haunt him.
As in season one, Badgley is doing great, jaw-clenching work here. His Joe/Will is terrifying, all pent-up, chaotic energy that, when punctured, is perfectly diabolical. He stares just that little too long, and too intensely, as a reminder of just how bad he can be. Peretti, too, is fantastic. It helps that Love feels a little more lived in than Beck. Peretti’s wit and warmth helps to soften the perfectness of Love, taking the edge off just a little bit.
Season two works best when it plays off the chemistry between its two very star-crossed lovers to make you question what kind of show it is that you’re watching. You knows that Badgley is a classic, archetypal leading man and it uses all of his good looks and charm against unsuspecting viewers. All of a sudden, you’re watching a character you’ve already seen kill many, many people – some in the first few episodes of season two – and you’re wondering whether this time he might have changed.
“Will, you cannot hurt me,” Love tells him at one point, early on in their relationship. (Oh, how little she knows.) Joe has been putting her off, telling her that he can’t be with her because he is too damaged to love somebody again.
Love takes this as a sign of fear and anxiety. “Relationships are scary,” she agrees, nodding sagely. “I’ll try not to hurt you. You try not to hurt me.”
You season two streams on Netflix now.
Hannah-Rose Yee is a writer based in London. You can find her on the internet talking about movies, television and Chris Pine.
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