Created by Sera Gamble & Greg Berlanti
Release Date: 15th October 2021
There is no denying that the long awaited third season of You will have you on the edge of your seat, binging through all ten episodes as fast as you can with its plethora of plot twists, high body count and constant threat of violence throughout.
However, it’s a season of a television that will leave you going ‘but’ throughout its duration. For all the dark thrills offered by its suburban setting that sees Joe and Love playing in what is effectively an R-rated version of Desperate Housewives, with murder, dismemberment and even spouse swapping all getting a workout, it’s hard to escape the feeling that the series is somewhat running in circles, offering the same again but in a different locale.
Maybe that’s the larger problem with Sera Gamble and Greg Berlanti’s adaptation of Caroline Kepnes’s bestselling book series; there is maybe nowhere else to go but to make Joe’s toxic brand of masculinity and obsessive qualities something that he now takes on the road. In the span of three seasons, we’ve watched the character go from New York to Los Angeles, and now to the suburbs of San Francisco, eventually culminating in a blood fuelled and (literally) explosive climax that sees him escaping to a life in Paris.
Given the levels of toxicity that comes with You’s main character, it wouldn’t be a surprise if he ran into Emily in Paris while on his travels there.
It’s safe to say that Badgley as Joe Goldberg has reached borderline iconic status, right up there with Michael C. Hall’s portrayal of Dexter and Bryan Cranston’s performance as Walter White in Breaking Bad. That many fans of the series seemingly adore Badgley because of his good looks and their proclamations of ‘I wish I was stalked by him’, there would suggest that there is a weird dichotomy between what the audience is feeling and what the story is telling us, although it’s sometimes hard to shake the feeling that even the writers here are quite enamoured with their psychotic lead character.
Then again, after a first season that effectively had the character brutally murder (off-screen thankfully) Beck in the first season finale, the writers have tried to frequently filter the character’s more violent tendencies towards other toxic characters that are seen to deserve death. Last season it was a comedian played by Chris D’Elia in a story that weirdly predicted real-life events, and this year it’s an abusive husband, played by Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Scott Michael Foster.
It once again shows a willingness of the writers to take the time to revel in real world criticisms, but for all the justified anger it throws at characters like the one Foster is playing and even having dialogue pointing out the horrifying nature of Joe’s obsessive nature in the finale, it still needs him to succeed to ensure future storylines for the series, and for that to happen, he needs to kill Love.
Walking into the series for the second season as a new obsession/victim, the series brilliantly wrong footed us and revealed Victoria Pedretti’s character to be every bit as psychotic as its lead. For season three, Gamble and her writers reformat the series to be a double-led one as the characters settle into family life in the suburbs and bring their psychotic obsessions to a town that looks suspiciously like Stars Hollow or where the Pretty Little Liars live (yes, it’s the WB lot in Burbank).
That the ad campaigns for the season place Pedretti equally alongside Badgley indicates just how important she is to this season and unsurprisingly the actress and the writers go to town with a character that is simultaneously psychotic in an enjoyable manner but who also comes with violent tendencies that are parlayed into something complex.
However, you cannot help but have a nagging voice in the back of your mind that this marriage, not to mention Pedretti’s role in the series, is a temporary one. The series is unafraid to lay bare the toxicities that come with both Love and Joe being a married couple and being in each other’s orbit (I mean, people die all around them).
There is an even a tragic undercurrent to their relationship; their union is so unhealthy that they really shouldn’t be together, and yet they’re such horrible people capable of doing terrible things that there is really nobody else in the world that they could be compatible with other than themselves.
Sure enough, there is a trip to a marriage counsellor and attempts to keep their marriage and sex life on point, but that eventually gives way to Love’s flirtatious friendship with the college student next door that inevitably turns sexual, Joe’s inability to stop himself from fixating on new women to be obsessed with and Love’s go to defence mechanism being murder whenever things don’t go her way.
At first glance the series plays with the audience, seemingly subverting expectations by having Joe turn away from becoming obsessed with his neighbour, as hinted at the end of last season, and trying to forge a new path for himself as a husband and father. That doesn’t stop Love from killing her anyway and creating new problems for them that for the first four episodes (the best stretch of the season) sees the series put the characters through the type of pressure cooker scenario where they must cover up their crime to darkly comedic and entertaining effect.
But then the series goes and plays the whole plotline of Joe becoming obsessed with someone new anyway, and that begs the question as to why it had to go down a rabbit hole that feels like a stopgap that eventually circles the season back to playing like a greatest hits package?
Scenes of Joe stalking while wearing his cap? Check. Joe having to murder a potential obstacle in his way? Check. Penn Badgley’s arch voiceover filling in his thoughts and inner conversation with his new obsession? Yep, that’s there too.
Marienne really ought to be a better fleshed out character, but it’s Tati Gabrielle that ends up doing most of the leg work when it comes to making her feel real.
Her history of drug problems and abusive relationship with her ex-husband gives the series a chance to play with themes of how the system is rigged against her, but at times it almost feels like an excuse for fans of You’s monstrous character to cheer him on in killing someone who deserves it, which brings us to the finale.
The season is only going one way and that’s building towards Joe vs Love in the final episode. It’s a great hour of television, but it comes after some filler in which we witness the two trying spouse swapping with their image and social media obsessed neighbours in an attempt to keep things spiced up. At the very least it ends up going somewhere interesting when their neighbours discover their murderous behaviour and since this is You and it’s not above some sense of silliness, we even get a bow and arrow battle in the back garden (yes, really).
An evening dinner in the final episode itself sees the inevitable use of poison, hidden syringes, suspenseful moments involving supporting characters calling at the house at the worst possible moment and an eventual rug pull that involves a certain amount of retconning of previous scenes that at the very least do work because they still somewhat play by the series’ rules.
It does mean that given the nature of the series, Joe must get the upper hand and run off to pastures new, although not without having to abandon his child Henry who, as television parental responsibilities dictates, is constantly with babysitters and child minders who are conveniently kept off screen for most of the season while Joe and Love can go about their psychotic business unabated.
Inevitably, there will be a chunk of the audience mourning the loss of Love and believe her murder here is another tragic death at the hands of Joe. It isn’t. Unlike season one’s Beck who was a genuine victim of Joe’s psychotic tendencies, Love is every bit as toxic and problematic as her husband, where her only resolutions to any problem presented is violence. Like with Joe, some of this is doled out to characters who seemingly deserve it (an anti-vaxxer neighbour being a prime example), but we also must watch her kill a potential victim of Joe’s in the opening episode and then manipulate her nineteen-year-old neighbour with promises of sex in scenes that play in a seriously icky fashion.
In the end, You remains a trashy soap of sorts, but one that is hugely enjoyable, However, it’s also increasingly becoming a series that cannot help but leave one queasy. When audiences’ hero-worshipped Walter White, for instance, it was a fanbase that was misreading the intentions of Breaking Bad’s writers. With You, one cannot help but feel that not only are a large chunk of the audience misinterpreting how one should feel about these characters, but maybe the writers are beginning to as well.