Review: The second season of Netflix’s ‘You’ lacks a cohesive focus

by Lucy Turnipseed | 1/10/20 2:00am

Penn Badgley once again delivers as the serial killer that a part of you just doesn’t want to hate in Season 2 of Netflix’s “You.” The season’s 10 episodes follow Badgley as Joe Goldberg in his new life in Los Angeles. Fleeing from the mess he made in New York — murdering his ex-girlfriend and publishing her book posthumously — Joe falls right back into his old habits in Los Angeles, fixating on a woman and indulging his psychopathy. This includes periodically imprisoning people he views as potential threats in a glass cage and keeping them as his captives. 

Released on Netflix a day after Christmas and just over a year after the series debut, the captivating second season came to be the perfect mid-holiday show to stream. However, though the producers found creative ways to keep viewers on their toes this season, I was disappointed that the second iteration of “You” devotes so much time to suggesting that some of Joe’s actions are justifiable. The show’s attempt to display both Joe’s good and bad sides were not only ineffective, it also watered down the narrative focus the first season had by singularly focusing on Joe as a stalker and killer. The second season, full of plot twists that differentiated it from the first, was still enjoyable; it merely lacked the novelty and direction its predecessor had.

While the series never blatantly says anything Joe does is acceptable, the choices to add in flashbacks of his troubled childhood and have him pose as a protector figure to a couple vulnerable characters imply there is a sort of reasonable explanation behind Joe’s actions. But the fact that the method to his madness is far from noble doesn’t change. Though it is hard to ascertain the impetus of the scenes that seem like they enforce Joe’s redemption, these choices may just be a way to further complicate the story. They definitely forced me to think about the complexities that make someone not all one thing or another, but the show lost focus from the main plotline of Joe’s obsession with his love interest. Instead, the show focused too much on redeeming Joe — fragmenting the plot — which should have been auxiliary. 

The second season of “You” should have focused more singularly on Joe’s newest fixation, Love Quinn, portrayed by Victoria Pedretti, much like the first season. However, the narration, which consists solely of Joe’s stream of consciousness, shows the viewers that Joe is trying to change. When he first meets Love, Joe shows a sliver of self-awareness that gives viewers a bit of hope that Joe also realizes the creepiness he exudes and wishes to stop. Though that may be a positive in the real world, this half-baked attempt at turning his life around left the show without the distinctive purpose the first season had.

“Hello you,” Joe says, looking at Love. He follows this up quickly with: “No, f—k, no. I’m not doing that.” But then he dives right back into his stalker ways, analyzing Love: “You have a way with people; they like you. Your shirt is faded, but fresh. You like to take care of things. Your shoes are clean, but worn. You walk in a town where nobody walks.”

Additionally, as part of the show’s efforts to be relevant and again attempt to redeem Joe of his actions, the series uses plotlines connected to the #MeToo movement and substance abuse, in which Joe seems to be on the right side. Despite Joe’s valiant efforts to help people, he still indulges his terrible impulses and, in the end, his so-called acts of altruism fall short of changing anyone’s life for the better, leaving these plot lines unfinished, futile and cluttered. 

For example, in one plotline, Jenna Ortega plays Ellie Alves, younger sister to building manager and journalist Delilah, played by Carmela Zumbado. The sisters live in the apartment below Joe, and their interactions with a famous comedian reveal a pattern of sexual assault that Joe attempts to rectify through his own twisted way of enacting justice. At one point, when Joe plans to protect Ellie from the comedian by carrying out a plan of his own making, it goes awry and he’s left with a situation that does more harm than good. In Episode 4, after Joe fails to safely bring the comedian justice — instead murdering him — he says “becoming a better person is way more aggravating than I thought.”

Later on, one of Joe’s captives weighs in on the comedian situation after Joe explains the incident, telling Joe, “You do bad things when you feel trapped, or... to protect someone, which we all hope we would have the courage to do that. To me, that makes you more good than bad. I think you’re a good man.” This moment, where the captive is obvious flattering Joe in hopes of being released from the glass cage, is exemplary of the complicated relationship with the truth the show’s screenplay has. I initially thought what Joe did was unquestionably wrong, but the justifications Joe offers in conjunction with this captive’s argument makes it harder to determine who was in the right and who was in the wrong. Though the concept of moral ambguity is not in itself a problem, the show failed to follow through on providing a satisfying resolution to these nuanced plotlines about moral gray area, and it ultimately brings nothing to Joe’s character development other than increase his body count. 

Another instance in which the screenwriters fail to execute a plotline is seen through Forty Quinn, played by James Scully, Love’s twin brother whom struggles with substance abuse. Episode 5 is one of the moments where Forty’s struggle with sobriety comes front and center. Although Joe initially tries to assist Forty in his quest to stay sober, Joe ultimately finds that the task too difficult and declares “altruism is dangerous.” This pattern of trying to assist but never fully commiting continues throughout the season, showing that while Joe is trying to be better, he always falls short. While there is an attempt throughout the series to honestly portray the difficulties of addiction, Joe’s lack of empathy and singular focus on Love typically precludes that story. Compared to the screen time Forty and his substance addiction has, this plotline again contributed little to the narrative of the series, indicating that mentioning substance abuse — a topical social issue — was more of a gratuitous demonstration from the creators rather than a carefully planned and executed aspect to the show. 

Finally, a major difference between Season 2 and the previous season is that viewers are introduced to Joe’s traumatic childhood, which the show seems to imply should be some justification for his actions as an adult. In the fourth episode, during a flashback to his abuse-ridden childhood, Joe says, “Growing up, I felt unsafe. Powerless.” It is clear that the intention is for viewers to sympathize with Joe, a serial killer. In addition to the story of his childhood, Joe further distances himself from his wrongdoings by attributing his actions to the concepts of “fate” and “destiny.” 

As the list of Joe’s victims grows throughout the season, the final episode, “Love, Actually” reveals there is a new murderer who kills a whopping three people. As viewers get used to the fact that there are now two people in the series to be wary of, Joe moves into a house with a white picket fence.

The promise of Joe in another new — and this time, suburban — setting for Season 3 presents itself in the last minute of Episode 10. I have to say I’m intrigued, but I also need to remind myself to be wary of how the narrative is presented, which is solely from Joe’s perspective.

This season’s additions to Joe’s character — a stereotypical tragic backstory and a supposed desire to be good — felt like haphazard afterthoughts that made the second season less refreshing and novel than the first. The creators certainly deserve credit for avoiding repetition and maintaining suspense, and by no means was the show boring. However, Joe was a more unique and compelling character before the show threw unsuccessful pleas for sympathy in the viewers’ faces. Joe is a serial killer and stalker — no more, no less.