Netflix’s You originally set out to prove that romance fans have been programmed to root for the guy to get the girl no matter what—even if he’s a serial killer who breaks into women’s apartments and locks people in his basement cage. The show, based on Caroline Kepnes’ series of novels, was intent on demonstrating and deconstructing the eerie, extraordinary pull of romance tropes. So long as the hero initiates a meet-cute, flings pebbles at windows, and runs in the rain, we are practically hard-wired to root for him.
In the first episode of Season 1, for instance, bookstore manager Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley) stalks aspiring writer Guinevere Beck (Elizabeth Lail) all over New York, and so when she drunkenly falls onto the subway tracks, he is unsurprisingly close at hand. In the nick of time, he pulls Beck out of the train’s path, and she tumbles onto his chest. The sound of the passing train gives way to a swell of orchestral strings, wind tunnels through their hair, and they lose themselves in one another’s eyes. But for Beck, the subway rescue is the beginning of the end. Joe becomes ever more obsessive until, in the Season 1 finale, he kills her.
You skeptics have long raised concerns that the show romanticizes Joe—the very hero it means to critique. Such accusations are driven by dread that Joe could inspire real-life copycat stalkers and abusers, or that he could become a romantic model for impressionable fans. These indictments of You are not unlike the accusations—including one by Badgley himself—that Netflix’s true-crime portraits tend to sentimentalize killers like Jeffrey Dahmer and Ted Bundy. In the shadow of mounting criticism, each new season of You has emerged less romantic and rose-tinted than the last, suggesting that the showrunners have taken this criticism to heart.
But Season 4 goes 10 steps further. It makes a clean break from the romance genre and reluctantly rebrands itself as a whodunit in which Joe takes on a new role: victim. A fugitive from justice after murdering his wife Love (Victoria Pedretti) and faking his own death, Joe has rebranded himself as well, taking a job as a professor of English at a British university. In short order, he finds himself circulating among the Oxonian elite, including heiress Kate Galvin (Charlotte Ritchie), who an apparently reformed Joe is trying very hard not to make his latest obsession. But while he’s doing that, a mysterious figure called the “Eat the Rich Killer” starts to fixate on Joe, murdering Kate’s wealthy influencer friends and framing him for the deeds.
This season is also one long, and possibly unwarranted, apology. It’s a parade of redos and second chances. When Kate trips and tumbles onto Joe’s chest, he murmurs, “As far as women falling on me goes, this was pretty gentle,” reminding forgetful viewers that this isn’t the first time we’ve seen a woman lose her balance around him. This time, though, no wind tunnels, no orchestra. In fact, when Kate looks down at Joe, it’s only to tell him that she is not, under any circumstances, interested in romance.
Season 4 Joe still slips into the role of savior from time to time, but now his rescues are comparatively cold and utilitarian. In the first episode, Joe intervenes in a mugging and saves Kate’s life. But unlike when he stalked Beck to the subway, this time Joe genuinely just happens to be in the right place at the right time—and when Joe does later follow Kate, he does so openly and, ostensibly, to protect her from the Eat the Rich Killer. This rescue is a far cry from Joe’s gallant, romantic performance in the subway. Rather than fighting off Kate’s assailants, he honks a car horn to scare the muggers away from a distance. No music plays when Joe moves to give Kate a comforting pat on the shoulder, and before he can touch her, she jerks away and shudders.
Kate treads in Beck’s footsteps much of the time, but in the end (or at least the middle, since Netflix released half the season’s episodes before a monthlong break), Kate is allowed to go free. In the last episode, Kate asks Joe on a date. He turns her down with a simple, out-of-character explanation: “I don’t want to hurt you.” As he shuts the door, he laments, “In another life, I would run after her.” Indeed, the viewer might remember a younger Joe running through the streets of New York after Beck, thinking to himself, “This is it. This is that moment in the movie when I run through the rain to get you back.” With Kate, however, Joe stops himself and finishes the thought: “But I can’t.”
Marienne, Joe’s Season 3 obsession, shares Kate’s good fortune. The first episode finds her cornered by him in an abandoned building in Paris, where she fled after Love tipped her off to Joe’s true nature. She pleads with him to understand that she can never love him, because “You’re a murderer.” At the end of Season 1, Beck, trapped alone with Joe, told him the very same thing. But things, evidently, are different now. Joe lets Marienne walk away.
We’ve seen Joe address his epistolary thoughts to a “you” before. This isn’t the first time an apron-clad Joe disposes of a body in his kitchen. Nor is this the first time Joe has watched a “sexually frustrated” woman masturbate through her window and then broken into her apartment. Roald’s secret, creepy photos of Kate—the well-loved collection of a friend who longs to be something more—are Peach’s photos of Beck all over again. It’s not Joe’s first time fleeing from a burning building. This isn’t even Joe’s first stalker.
But this time, the “you” who occupies Joe’s thoughts isn’t a woman he’s obsessed with. The body in the kitchen isn’t Joe’s wife. He doesn’t kill the woman in the window. He doesn’t even kill Roald, though he is explicitly invited to do so. He doesn’t set the fire to cover up his uxoricide. And his stalker isn’t a crazy-ex-girlfriend stereotype.
This latest season may not be completely squeaky clean: Watching women’s windows is still Joe’s favorite pastime and we’re still supposed to empathize with him—to chuckle at his sardonic inner monologue, smile at his earnest dedication to his students, and nod along when he condemns Kate’s frothy, privileged friends. But the show has bent over backward to scrub most of the romanticized gender violence from the script. It feels like, in Joe’s own words, a “new path,” an “opportunity to make better choices.” Above all, Joe now craves “redemption.” And it’s not just Joe. Season 4 is You’s do-over. You is working diligently to redeem itself.
But does You actually need redemption?
Well before You, we knew that the romance genre had a penchant for romanticized gender violence. Not long ago, Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey topped bestseller lists, and a few decades before that was the bodice-ripper boom and the rise of the soap opera supercouple.
But You gave us a much longer, more accurate measuring stick for sizing up the problem. A typical romance hero is often brutal toward the woman he loves, but he never, ever kills her.
When Joe killed Beck, his behavior was wildly and unmistakably out of bounds. The show makes us see romance tropes–which so often feel frivolous, flimsy, and trite–for what they really are: machines of tremendous influence. Even though I know what happens in the end, I still get goosebumps when Joe saves Beck from the tracks, when he runs through the streets of New York calling out for her.
You forced me to ask tough questions about my relationship to the romance genre.
And even if not all viewers were pushed to the same point of inquisition, I remain grateful for the questions it made me ask. That scores of viewers were and are able to love Joe in the aftermath of Beck’s death—not to mention the deaths of Love, Candace, Benji, Peach, Ron, Jasper, Henderson, Natalie, Gil, Ryan, and Elijah—tells us something we needed to know: Romance fans are willing to love much more brutal heroes than we had heretofore realized. Romance tropes are mightier even than we knew.
Even if You and if Joe were ever able to fully reform and redeem themselves, I worry about the message that might send. For all those loyal, uncritical viewers who have soldiered on for seasons in their love for Joe, it might confirm that they were right about him all along.