If you’ve ever been interested in television of an unsettling nature, look no further than Netflix’s (or Lifetime’s, for our US readers) ‘You’. It’s a television show which has left me at a near-loss for words: a first for me when it comes to Netflix programming. I sat in absolute uncertainty throughout the whole experience, feeling unwaveringly that the show was nearing something along the lines of unwatchable. And yet, I watched. And I watched. And I watched, until the closing credits of the final episode crawled down the screen.
I had devoured the first season almost entirely in one go, and I felt… confused.
I could not, and honestly, still cannot decide for the life of me whether I loved ‘You’ or hated it… What I can say for sure, however, is that it never left me bored, indifferent, or uninvested — and for that, it is commendable. The show plays with several tropes: it takes from classic thrillers — horror films also — and perhaps, most interestingly, relies on conventions of romantic comedies. Our protagonist, Joe, is a bookstore manager who seems clever, yet pretentious. As the show opens up, the audience is privy to Joe’s inner monologue: he watches people, studies the way they dress and walk, and makes inferences about them. Already, an unsettling feeling takes over for any viewer who has ever encountered a strange man who believed he knew who they were based on the smallest of details.
(Pro-tip to those of male persuasion: the beautiful girl at the bar, singing your favourite song, wearing a t-shirt that quotes the book you’ve been reading? She’s not your soulmate, and she thinks the way you’ve been staring at her for the past 20 minutes is really, really creepy.)
Of course, his eyes fall on a woman, whom he assumes is looking for attention due to, of course, her bracelets. He then follows this woman and bonds with her over their supposedly superior tastes in literature. When she pays using her credit card, he assumes it’s because she wants him to know her name: Guinevere Beck. Or, as she tells him, the name everyone gives her: ’Beck’. It’s odd, a little uncomfortable, but still, overtly, cute.
And then he stalks her. Literally.
Joe becomes convinced that Beck is his soulmate, and proceeds to intrude on her privacy in every single way imaginable. He stalks her on social media, finds her address, watches her having sex with another man through the window, breaks in when she’s gone, steals her underwear, and follows her everywhere she goes for many days.
Of course, the show, at its core, is a thriller, not a romantic comedy. Joe goes on to commit several violent and terrifying acts, which, without spoiling the show too much, aren’t exactly redeemable. Those moments aren’t, however, what make the show so utterly creepy and uncomfortable to watch. The worst moments are the cute ones.
And there are many. Joe brings Beck avocado toast every morning, he encourages her to write, they share witty banter — it’s… adorable. In fact, as soon as Joe’s internal monologue is cut off, during his romantic scenes with Beck, one could easily mistake the show for a sunny, Meg Ryan-esque romp.
Which, of course, begs the comparison: how many times has a character who crosses into (or comes very close to) stalker territory “in the name of love” been portrayed at least mostly positively in romantic movies? Well, there’s Mark from Love, Actually, Edward from Twilight, Annie from Sleepless In Seattle, both Scott and Knives from Scott Pilgrim Vs The World, and all the men in There’s Something About Mary, just to name a few.
‘You’ is only the product of the twisting of this trend to its furthest extreme, of exploring where those kinds of ideas can lead to when they are seeped into the common consciousness. If men are taught, their whole lives, that if they are a rejected by a woman, they need to try harder, to follow her every move, to “save” her as Joe continuously tells us he is doing, then women lose all agency. They lose their sense of privacy, or their independence, to the control of so-called “benevolent” men. This is the kind of situation which allows for men to feel as though they are owed returns for the affections of the women they claim.
‘You’ takes the problematic tropes of romantic comedies and dials them up, throwing a violent, yet still handsome and charming man in the mix. A person who, because he can be sweet and charming in moments, believes that certain things are owed to him, and who is willing to utilize violence to ensure that he receives those things.
So, then… is ‘You’ a clever and progressive tale which exposes the horrors of profoundly toxic masculinity by bringing them to their natural extreme? Or a show which humanizes a violent and terrifying man in the name of romance? It’s hard to tell, and maybe it’s because it’s a bit of both. The men who truly do commit those acts are not cartoon villains, they are real people, who often believe themselves to be in the right. It’s only by acknowledging that fact that we can begin to teach the people around us how to unlearn those thought patterns and behaviours.
The show isn’t for everybody. It’s violent, upsetting, uncomfortable, and I would not recommend it to any woman who has been the victim of stalking or obsessive relationship partners, since it could be quite triggering. It is still a fascinating and very powerful critique of toxicity in commonly accepted romantic tropes.