Netflix’s You Has Outgrown its Original Premise in All the Right Ways

Addison Peacock
TV Streaming
TV Streaming Netflix

Note: Full SPOILERS follow for You Season 4 Part 1 and Part 2. 

Netflix’s You isn’t just a show that makes you sound extremely creepy whenever someone asks you what you’ve been watching lately (“Oh, I’ve been watching You”). The pulpy thriller has garnered a devoted fan base that kept the show alive during its transition from Lifetime to Netflix, and has kept it running for four seasons. As one of those devoted fans, I’ll admit to being a bit surprised by the show’s longevity. When I finished watching the first season, I was left shaken up, compelled, and impressed by the balance of soapy drama and gripping tension.

But when I heard that the show had been renewed for another season, I was more than a little confused. It was a great season of television, but it also felt relatively complete, like something best suited to a one-off limited series. But I tuned in and continued to watch as one season turned into two, three, and most recently four, and I let You prove me wrong. As You has progressed, I’ve taken notice of how it’s shifted and evolved over time – what it discarded when it didn’t work, and what it embraced and explored on a deeper level. You began with a premise that was highly entertaining, but seemed to leave little room to grow. But as it has progressed, it has not only lived up to the promise of its first season, it has blossomed into something far bolder and more interesting.

Where It Started 

The show began with an introduction to Joe Goldberg (or Will, as he’s known at first), a charming, bookish man with a secret penchant for destructive obsession. He stalks and later romances Guinevere Beck, a young writer that he manipulates into a relationship. Over the course of Season 1, Joe’s behavior grows more dangerous and erratic as he commits horrific acts, all while justifying them to himself with love or a desire to protect Beck from those that might wish her harm. But Joe is every inch an unreliable narrator, and his fragile justifications crumble as Beck discovers his true nature. Tense, dramatic, and at times crossing over into overt psychological horror, the first season of You rockets toward a stomach-dropping finale that cements Joe as a monster, no matter how much he tries to play the tortured romantic.

It also left off with a lingering question: how the hell do you follow a season of television that ended with most of its main characters dead and its murderous lead walking away from the wreckage unscathed?

All You Needs Is Love

The answer arrived with Season 2, which saw the show following the same basic formula as Season 1: Boy meets girl, boy stalks girl, boy does some murders and locks a few people (sometimes the girl in question) in a glass cage. Swap New York for Los Angeles, aspiring writer Guinevere Beck for Erewhon-style grocery chain heiress Love Quinn, and a predatory therapist for a predatory comedian, and the show’s second verse started out pretty much the same as the first. But just like Joe Goldberg himself, there is more going on here than meets the eye. The quirky, free-spirited Love has hidden depths that are just as dark as Joe’s, depths he gets a glimpse of toward the end of the season when Love murders his ex and confesses that she was stalking him and murdering people on his behalf the entire time. Love is to Joe as Joe was to Guinevere Beck in Season 1. This also, notably, marks the series’ first major deviation from its source material. Things play out quite differently for Love and Joe in Hidden Bodies, the novel that Season 2 was based on. This change not only caught fans of the book by surprise, but it added a welcome injection of drama and intrigue to the series as a whole.

Frequently, Joe has the upper hand on You, staying one step ahead of his love interests and potential victims. Throughout the show’s first season, he had several near-misses where someone almost had him pinned down, almost got an advantage over him, only for him to turn the tables at the last minute. In Season 2, however, the audience is treated to the sight of Joe stripped of his usual power. He is truly taken by surprise, and thrust into the role he has reserved for his unsuspecting objects of affection. The hunter, without even noticing, became the hunted. This subversion of expectations, both the audience’s and Joe’s, makes for a delicious twist. Even better, Joe makes the surprising decision to let Love live, to marry her and raise a child together. With the reveal of Love’s true nature, the show gave the audience a brief taste of what happens Once again, the show left itself with the seemingly impossible task of continuing the story past this shocking plot point, without letting itself become stale and predictable.

New Territory

Season 3 took Joe out of the city and into the wealthy suburban community of Madre Linda, surrounded by tech money and mommy bloggers as he and Love attempted to play out a fantasy of domestic bliss. This season saw Joe in an unfamiliar environment, not just geographically speaking. Finally, the audience got a glimpse at Joe after he got everything he claimed to want: a home, a family, and somebody to love who loved him too. But it didn’t make him happy. Despite her name, Joe was unwilling to love Love. Season 3 sacrificed some of the slow burn of the first two seasons in favor of roiling domestic drama, with a killer twist.

Love and Joe fight, cheat, try couple’s therapy and swinging alike, and they also occasionally kill people. The ups and downs of their tumultuous marriage, paired with the destructive old habits that refuse to die (no matter how high their body count gets) lend Season 3 a unique flavor that sets it apart from the previous seasons. From Love’s outbursts taking on an extra bit of Mama Bear rage – her killing an anti-vaxxer for giving her baby measles, for example – to Joe’s usual box of stalker trophies serving as evidence of his infidelity, the show retains its leads’ unique dysfunctions while also casting them in a new light. Writing a compelling follow-up to Season 2 was a tough challenge, but it was one that the show managed to rise to, and even surpass.

One of the things that allows You to continue topping itself successfully is its rich character work. Each season comes with a fresh ensemble of vibrant secondary characters, from Season 2’s precocious Ellie Alves to the breakout stars of Season 3, Sherry and Cary. But one of the saving grace of seasons 2 and 3 is, without a doubt, Love Quinn. Love took the show to unforeseen heights, both as a compelling character in her own right and as a perfect foil to Joe himself. His inner monologue throughout Season 3 is spent calling Love “crazy” and “a killer,” even though she has never done anything he hasn’t also done time and time again. In Love, Joe was forced to take a long, hard look in the mirror, staring down all of the parts of himself he is so desperate to pretend do not exist. Eventually, he couldn’t bear looking any longer, and chose to shatter the mirror rather than accepting the truths he saw there. So, Joe killed Love, faked his own death, and burned his old life to the ground.

The Latest Chapter

This brings us to the just-completed Season 4, a new chapter for Joe, or Jonathan, as he’s known in his new life. In London, working a cushy teaching position at a university, with no remaining ties to his former life, Joe has convinced himself that this time he’ll really be a different man. No, but really this time. Sure, he’s said that several times now, but surely his insistence on compartmentalizing the darker parts of himself and just pretending they don’t exist will work out just fine for everyone. You Season 4 could have been a retread of old ground, but instead it was the show’s most ambitious season yet.

Season 4 spent its first half throwing Joe into his self-proclaimed least favorite genre, a whodunnit style murder mystery where a faceless killer picked off a group of wealthy friends one by one, taunting him from afar. In spite of his protests, Joe finally got to play the role he spent the first three seasons wanting to play: the good guy, the tortured hero trying his best to fight the forces of evil at any cost. Sure, sometimes he had to do bad things to get the job done, but it was all in the service of a noble cause. The shift in tone and genre was refreshing, but also felt a little bit too convenient. After years of monstrous behavior, now Joe was going to be let off the hook and given permission by his circumstances to double down on seeing himself as a fundamentally good person? It just didn’t seem fair.

Well, as always, things with Joe were not exactly as they seemed. “Detective” Joe Goldberg, and the serial killer he was playing cat and mouse with, were one and the same. “It was all in his head!” is a twist that can feel hackneyed, but in this case the execution of it allowed the show to pivot in a new, ambitious direction once more. After four seasons of cognitive dissonance, of Joe hurting countless people while still seeing himself as “a good man who did a bad thing” and never learned from it, Joe finally made the choice to embrace his killer instinct. By the end of the season, Joe is a completely different person. Not just in name, or location this time, but as a man who is no longer lying to himself, and is far more dangerous for it.

With each new season, You has stretched itself a little bit further, gotten a bit more comfortable playing with its format and shifting into a very different show than it was in its first season. Though some fans of the show will likely be frustrated to see it veering so far off of its original path, I’m thrilled to see a show making big, bold swings (even if they don’t always hit). In a media landscape filled with remakes and reboots attempting to recapture the lightning in a bottle of their predecessors, You boldly plays with its own formula and refuses to take refuge in the familiar.

From the streets of New York, to a Hollywood romance, to Suburban Nightmare, dark London fairytale, and now, an American Psycho style climb to the top of the social ladder, Joe and You itself have both come a long way. I can’t wait to see where the show goes next, because now that Joe has reached the highest possible heights? There’s nowhere to go but down, and I hope the show manages to continue to top itself while simultaneously finally getting to see him fall.

Addison Peacock
Addison Peacock is a writer, voice actor, and podcaster. She hosts the romance game podcast Playing Games With My Heart (@heartgamespod). When she's not playing dating sims, she can be found writing about and making horror and comedy content all over this big beautiful internet.