Netflix's 'You' brings back stalker Penn Badgley for an unsettling season two

By the second half of the season, audiences may be shocked by how much they cared for someone who turns out to be evil.
Image: You
Penn Badgely from the first season of "You." He's just as creepy in season two.Netflix
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By Ani Bundel

When “You” became a zeitgeisty hit at the end of 2018, it was as much a statement on the power of streaming as on the continuing ability of TV shows to drive pop culture conversations. The series, which arrived on Netflix just after Christmas, was one of the first to have viewer numbers publicly announced by the streaming service — around 40 million in the first month. On Dec. 26, the show returns for season two, with Penn Badgley back as Joe, the obsessive romantic whose stalker behavior reveals the lie behind stereotypical romantic tropes. But the show doesn’t seem to have learned much from its move to Netflix.

The show returns for season two, with Penn Badgley back as Joe, the obsessive romantic whose stalker behavior reveals the lie behind stereotypical romantic tropes.

“You” started out on Lifetime, one of the longest-running basic cable networks. Lifetime was launched as “a network for women” — albeit one that presented a patronizingly patriarchal vision — and it remains exactly that to this day. Most of Lifetime’s programming falls into one of two categories: stereotypical romances or stalker crime stories. In this context, “You” was the perfect, straight-faced sendup of everything the channel has long delivered viewers.

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Lifetime loved the series and greenlighted a second season before the first one even aired. Critics raved about it. But audiences didn’t notice it in the insanely crowded landscape and Lifetime sold off the second season to Netflix, along with the rights to the first one.

The world will never know if Lifetime should have held onto the series. More than one critical darling has found increased success on Netflix, from “Breaking Bad” to “Riverdale.”

In an effort to make “You” into a hit, Netflix’s algorithm went all in, and by mid-January, “You” was one of the most talked-about series of the year.

But “You” had narrative problems devoid of the Lifetime context, and these issues continue in season two. Joe is not supposed to be a hero or a romantic figure for audiences to sympathize with. And the conceit of showing the series from his point of view was supposed to show viewers how acts sometimes framed as romantic can actually be psychopathic.

Simply put, Netflix needed to make sure no one would be tweeting about being “Team Joe” come season two. Unfortunately, the producers instead doubled down on Joe’s likability (when he’s not committing murder). In fact, the show has committed to that so much, Joe seems to almost have a split personality.

The producers instead doubled down on Joe’s likability (when he’s not committing murder). In fact, Joe seems to almost have a split personality.

Joe, now going by “Will,” has fled New York for Los Angeles. He needs a fresh start, but he also needed to disappear as the end of season one unearthed a previous (and very alive) victim, Candice. Candice says she isn’t going to the cops or trying to get Joe locked up; she’s planning to stalk him back. One could see this as a commentary on how the law doesn’t help abused women. But by showing her only through Joe’s point of view, Candice is instead painted as the “crazy ex-girlfriend.”

The show has its strong points: Joe’s running commentary skewering New York’s faux intellectual scene was a highlight of season one, and his move to L.A. gives him a whole new superficial milieu to pass judgment on. His adventures on dating apps are some of the season’s funniest highlights. And then there’s his new obsession, the oh-so-subtly-named Love (Victoria Pedretti). Unlike season one’s victim, Love plays a different stereotype: the “cool girl.” But Joe’s fantasies about Love’s impulsively perfect behavior are just as demented and dangerous as they were last year.

But the move to L.A. also exacerbates the show’s main problem — that Joe is being treated as a sympathetic figure. At least in New York, Joe made sense. His creepy personality and vaguely eccentric if egotistical behavior fit into the intellectually snobby landscape; it was easy to see how he could get away with it. In L.A., he sticks out like a miserable sore thumb. And Joe’s failure to lay low somehow makes him even more sympathetic — a person who just moved to a new town and feels like he’ll never fit in.

Perhaps that’s supposed to be the point. By the second half of the season, audiences may be shocked by how much they cared for someone who turns out to be evil. But this strategy already failed in season one. As the series ends with the promise of a season three and yet another woman for Joe to chase, the show's biggest lesson seems to be that in our society, men like Joe will just keep getting away with murder. Especially if audiences keep being encouraged to cheer them on.