If storytelling’s golden rule is “show, don’t tell,” narration is the rebel without a cause, sticking its middle finger under the principal’s nose in open defiance of that rule. Except narration runs the dangerous risk of proving why showing is superior to telling, sticking that middle finger in a live power outlet instead of towards The Man, and making the rebel much less cool. Netflix’s You, however, bucks this rule with incredible style, delivering a narrator that isn’t just good, but possibly an all-timer.
You is a thriller that follows Penn Badgley as Joe Goldberg, a bookseller who, maybe more so than most, considers himself to be the hero of his own story. And his goal in the grand novel of life? To sweep the woman of his dreams offf her feet. Over the course of You’s story, that woman changes, because he spends all his free time stalking his latest target, and killing anyone who gets in between him and his fantasy of being with her. How the audience knows this is simple: Joe handily narrates nearly every waking moment. Even the awful ones.
Joe’s narration is also an elegant solution to a persistent problem with anti-hero protagonists: the natural tendency to sympathize with — and root for — a point-of-view character you spend a significant amount of time with. Like lots of shows about terrible people (Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, Friends) a lot of the tension in You stems from Joe Goldberg, actual murderer, escaping consequences for his actions for three seasons and counting. And while Joe narrates the show, he’s not the only character it follows. Joe is always part of a community — and because You cares about the characters in that community, no matter how charming he is, he is always ultimately a cancer.
One could accuse the show of repeating itself every year if it weren’t for the fact that You’s writers aren’t interested in exploring a story where a bad guy gets away with it. They’re interested in a story that chronicles the many ways in which a nice, bookish white guy is conditioned to see women as objects of attention and obsession, and their fixations as normal or invited — to the extent that it can lead to murder. (This is where You is most like showrunner Sera Gamble’s previous series, The Magicians, which, among other things, was a deconstruction of the white male protagonist in genre fiction.)
Joe’s stream of consciousness is propulsive; the joy of listening to it is in hearing him slip between his performed self (a nice guy), his actual self (a killer, with a few other problems I am not qualified to name), and his spur-of-the-moment feelings. This manifests most potently in stressful moments, where Joe — who is in denial about his ability to leave his murderous ways behind — has to clean up a crime scene he blames his partner for, sliding between assured damage control and profane whining: “fuck this, FUCK this, fuck my LIFE.” You likes to make it clear that even if Joe is capable at times, he’s also pretty pathetic.
Across three seasons, You puts Joe’s toxic obsessions in different contexts, each showing a subtler form of toxic masculinity. As his environs change, Joe becomes a more complicated sort of monster; from the distant obsessive of season 1, to the wildly unhealthy (yet eerily true-feeling) marriage and parenthood that he’s settled into in season 3. This is another one of You’s delicious ironies: by crafting such a well-realized awful relationship, it has become one of the best shows about relationships, showcasing the delicate balance between individual fulfillment and collective happiness that comes with marriage and a baby. Just replace “murder” with an actual, healthy ambition.
Photo: John P. Fleenor/Netflix
And Joe’s narration carries us through it all. As portrayed by Badgley, Joe’s voice operates at a wonderfully sardonic baseline, one that’s witty and acerbic but too clever for sarcasm, with withering disdain for deserving targets like the Wellness Industrial Complex or alpha-bro bonding exercises. This narration is so charming, so downright funny, that the whiplash that occurs when Joe is openly, nakedly a delusional creep projecting his obsession onto some random woman just living her life is more horrifying than any jump scare, because it feels like complicity: Did you just let yourself be charmed by this awful man?
Thirty episodes in, You has walked this tightrope with dazzling aplomb, winning the audience over with one of the most richly realized voices on television — Badgley’s gift is in a tremendous knack for delivery, his self-centered perspective leading to spiraling allusions, his resentment embodied by a guttural growl, his exasperation in the most cathartically voiced fuck you’ll hear. I would love to have him narrate my own life, if I didn’t know what that level of attention from him would mean for me.
You season 3 premiered on October 15 and is streaming on Netflix. A fourth season has been announced.