With the wild popularity of its first couple of seasons, it’s no surprise that Netflix released the fourth season of You last week, with Penn Badgley starring as Joe, the charming and charismatic intellectual with questionable morals to say the least. Especially when it comes to his habit of stalking love interests and more often than not murdering those unlucky enough to get in his way. The first few seasons painted a fascinatingly unhinged picture of love and were completely binge-worthy as a result, but the new episodes – set in the UK after faking his death in LA – don’t live up to the well deserved hype of previous seasons. Maybe it’s the plot holes that London geography presents (like when he says he enjoys the ‘short walk’ from Surrey to South Kensington) or the lack of familiar characters replaced with distinctly unlikeable ones. Or maybe his creepy inner monologue has finally become too predictable to be entertaining. Whatever it is, the first half of S4 that is released so far isn’t immediately gripping, but patient viewers are rewarded with a satirical message just as intelligent and relevant as previous seasons.
Throughout all seasons there’s this central idea of manipulation – Joe is a satirical embodiment of toxic masculinity, a self-described ‘nice guy’ who refuses to take responsibility for his deeply controlling and misogynistic character. He never makes real attempts to heal from the trauma of his youth, or to consider the effects of his actions on anyone but himself – any guilt stems from the fear of his true nature being discovered by others. Yet we still find ourselves sympathetic, wanting him to escape punishment, a dichotomy on which the show arguably draws much of its success from: nothing quite so successfully conveys the confusing effects of narcissistic strategies and gaslighting as this show, as the viewer falls in love with the handsome and intelligent manipulator.
The first season showed us his compulsive and intensely obsessive nature as a manifestation of childhood neglect and abuse, and from then on one of the shows subtler strengths is its ability to address ideas of injustice. Season 4 particularly effectively hinges around its depiction of class and nepotism within British high society, employing some well known British actors to do so, including Charlotte Ritchie (Ghosts and Call the Midwife) and Amy Leigh Hickman (Ackley Bridge and the Dumping Ground).
In S4, Joe’s moved to London and assumed a new identity as a university professor teaching American Literature. The show takes on more of a whodunnit style than previous seasons – for once Joe isn’t the one murdering but being framed for it by a mysterious blackmailer threatening to reveal his true identity. Just like in New York and then LA, however, he finds himself quickly adopted by a group of the city’s ultra-rich elites. While the stereotyping and geography of London is quite obviously – well, American – the accuracy with which it depicts the British class system is startlingly accurate. Joe’s new friends exist in a haze of money, snobbery and indulgence, differing from Beck’s influencer friends from S1 or Love’s old money family in S2 by the pure ‘Britishness’ of their nepotism, a network of old money, private school cliques and entitled ignorance. There is a parallel to be drawn between Joe’s calculated but limited understanding of his own evil actions, to the less overt but equally perverted morality of his spoiled and selfish aristocratic friends – making his lofty disdain of them all the more ironic.
If you want top quality television, You S4 isn’t the place to look. If, however, you don’t mind struggling through the American cliches of British slang then it remains an intelligently crafted show with an important message behind its obvious shortcomings: that of the damage that can be done when individual ideologies are taken as objective truths, whether that be Joe’s careful justification of murder or the brazen entitlement of aristocracy and those attached to it.