How Does YOU Work?

Warning: there's totally a lot of spoilers in this article.

Trigger Warning: murder, abuse, stalking

Whoa! A show about a man who murders the woman he loves. In the #metoo era . . . how does that work exactly? How does a show like this get produced?

How did I binge watch both seasons in three days and LOVE it?

The fact is that You is walking a thin line when it comes to getting produced and watched. There are a lot of techniques that the writers, actors, and directors take so that You stays on the acceptable side of that line line.

This is where this article comes in. Here, I'll deconstruct what techniques the writers/filmmakers use to get us on board with Joe Goldberg—the questionable, charismatic, protagonist of You.


A lot of You is voiceover narrated by Joe. There are several reasons why this is important. First, as our narrator, we are more likely to sympathise with Joe because we understand why he does the things he does. Second, Joe can hide information from the audience. Case in point: Candace. Joe says Candace hurt him. It's not until later in the series we learn that, indeed, she did hurt him—but not in a way that warrants burying her alive. Third: is Joe a reliable narrator? We see things from his perspective, which begs the question: are the other characters really as shallow, dangerous, and stupid as Joe pegs them to be? Fourth: we see Joe striving to be a good person. It's his innermost thoughts. He wants to be good, but he just doesn't know how.


Blake Snyder has a book named Save the Cat, which explains how to get an audience to like the main character. All it takes is a moment where the main character "saves the cat." Basically, if the audience sees the main character save a cat, or a child, or do something kind, we get on board with that character. To that end, Paco (the abused tween) is the most important character in the first few episodes. That scene where Joe gives Paco his meatball sub because he sees Paco is hungry? That's Joe's "save the cat" scene. That one act of kindness gets the audience to empathise with Joe. We give Joe the benefit of the doubt because we see an example of him doing a good thing.


Joe doesn't start with breaking into Beck's house. He starts with something the average person does: looking at her Instagram and social media. From there, Joe starts to go extreme. But it's a bit of a slow process. Therefore, the audience journeys with Joe through something we agree with, to something we might agree with, to something we're not sure we would agree with, to OMG now someone's dead. The structure and pacing of the story are impeccably done, with events unfolding at the right pace. Slow enough we are eased into moral ambiguity, fast enough it's not boring. This technique deals with the structure of the story, and the pacing.


In a typical story, we might separate characters into "good" and "bad". In You, we can't do that. It's partially because of Joe's narration, and partially because of the character development. Joe is complicated. He wants to do the right thing, but he also wants to be loved, only he doesn't know how to get love, and he sees others in danger, so he steps in and almost makes things worse . . . Joe takes one step forward, two steps back, and then a few cha cha steps to the left and right. It's hard to pinpoint Joe's true character because he's not cleanly good, and he's not cleanly bad. Maybe we could say "overall" he's good or "overall" he's bad. But we can't say he's "entirely" good or bad.


Sometimes, a character isn't "good" or "bad" because of their individual actions. Oftentimes, their character is determined by how they stack up with other characters in the story. One of the reasons we can sympathise with Joe is because there are worse characters in You. Joe recognises that Peach is stalking Beck. Joe takes care of Peach (not even seeing the irony that he's also stalking Beck). Then, there's Paco's step father, who is absolutely terrible, and Joe is Paco's defender from this villain. In the second season, Joe meets his match with Love. He wants to protect her from being taken advantage of, only she ends up protecting him. If Joe were alone in a sea of "good" people, we would have an easier time hating him. But, compared to the other characters, he actually rates somewhere in the middle.


Joe has a general disdain for the way the world works these days. He likes good old fashioned books. His criticism for social media, self centred-ness, and fake-ness mirrors what most people think. It's an everyday problem right now. Every time Joe criticises modernity, we get a little more on his side, because he's combating an everyday problem that we see and touch on a daily basis. Then, you have what's a seemingly larger than life problem: a high functioning sociopath, whose stalking is elaborate, who has a soundproof cage in his basement for heaven's sake! It's hard to take some of Joe's behaviour seriously sometimes. I mean, we see social media's impact on our lives everyday. What we don't see everyday is the inside of the cage, staring down our own death by the hands of a guy named Joe. In that way, Joe seems somewhat . . . less evil. Statistically speaking, we probably won't experience what Beck does in her lifetime. Therefore, it's easier to connect with Joe because his criticism for modernity mirrors our own.


When we look at Joe's past, we see Joe isn't pulling evil out of a proverbial hat. Rather, he's repeating behaviours from his childhood. When he advises Paco about his step father, he's advising from a place of experience. When Joe locks people in the book return, it's because it's happened to him, and he believes he's better because it happened. Again, it's looking from Joe's perspective, and seeing how his intentions are good but the execution (no pun intended) is flawed. It doesn't excuse his actions, but it helps us get on board to see what Joe's going to do next.


In both season one and two, Joe has moments where his stalking appears to pay off. He's happy with them, and the women he's with are happy with him. It's, like, if they never discovered Joe was a killer and stalker, they would live a long happy life together. It's easier to see Joe as a villain during the parts of the series where Beck is disgusted with Joe. When we see her loving Joe, there's a little voice in the back of our heads that says, oh, Joe had to do that so that they'd be happy together. Naturally, followed by a smack to the forehead to snap out of this misogynistic narrative. But still, audiences are momentarily fooled.


Let's be honest. Like, brutally honest. You, as a concept, wouldn't work if Joe wasn't played by Penn Badgley. You know, a conventionally attractive white man. It's even commented on in the series: nobody suspects a white guy. The series is self aware in the white privilege that allows Joe to go moderately unnoticed. Joe is also conventionally attractive. If Joe weren't, he would be an ogre, and we would find all his behaviour unattractive. Badgley's attractive face makes us see him (at least momentarily) as a hero, an unconventional prince. You only works because Badgley is a conventionally attractive white man.


Probably the greatest quality You has it that it's self aware. Joe is aware he's not a good person. Joe is also aware of his white privilege that, even though he benefits from it, he also scorns it. The series also has Beck talking about herself as a princess, but recognising that Joe . . . is not her prince. Even if he does the things princes supposedly do, he crosses the line. You is self aware that the narratives and prejudices we engage in are problematic. They allow people like Joe to exist and thrive in society. In that sense, You serves as a wakeup call that we can be better, that we need to be better, or people like Joe will continue to exist. Not just exist—but continue to kill, and we will continue to allow it to happen. And, even though we have walked this journey with Joe, we also don't agree with him or his actions. They say you need to walk a mile in someone else's shoes before you judge them. Well, we walked a mile in Joe's shoes. We saw he was potentially redeemable. But we also saw him murder, stalk, and abuse. We can safely say now that he is not the prince—same as any man like Joe Goldberg.


Clearly, the filmmakers don't support Joe's actions. Joe doesn't even support Joe's actions. It's written right into the script: from half of season one onward, he's telling himself to dial back. He recognises the toxic stalker and abusive behaviours in others. Ironically, he doesn't connect the dots and realise he's just like them until the end of season two. The end, where he realises he needs to pay for what he's done. Clearly, we're supposed to understand Joe, but when we root for him we're rooting for him to realise there's something wrong with what he's doing. We're rooting for him to become a better person, and turn himself in. To this end, You is self aware in how it's problematic. The filmmakers put it into the script, into the story, and into the series. Because the filmmakers clearly aren't rooting for Joe, the audience is sitting on the sidelines waiting to see what happens next.

Have any techniques to add? What did you think of You? Write your thoughts in the comments below!


©2019 by Makrenna Rose