Netflix’s “You” and what it means to be human

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We’ve all been there – we see a stranger’s profile on Social Media- and all of a sudden, we obsessively scroll down their feed. Maybe they’re attractive. Maybe we’re jealous. Whatever the reason, once we start, we can’t stop. When we’ve finished, it feels like we know their entire lives.

Obviously, we’re never going to tell the person, because then we’d have to admit to committing a cardinal sin: internet-stalking. Yet, we continue to think about this stranger: their glow-up photos, their first post from 2016, comments left by their friends and families. As we consider their social media narrative; we imagine this stranger entering our own life, as a friend, perhaps even as a lover.

We never act on these feelings – but what if we did?

That is the question the Netflix original series You attempts to answer. You follows Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley), a New York City bookstore-owner as he stalks and schemes his way into the life of his romantic interest Beck (Elizabeth Lail). The first episode begins with a meet-cute turned horror story, as a chance encounter with Beck prompts Joe to stalk and kill anyone he feels is a “problem” in Beck’s life, often locking his victims in the rare books “cage” in the basement of his bookstore. Despite his penchant for murder, Joe is otherwise kindhearted, with a significant subplot supporting his neglected young neighbor Packo through an abusive home life. He has a soft spot for neglected and traumatized children, as he was once one himself.

As I continued to watch the first season, I couldn’t help but wonder why I -and so many others- kept watching in the first place. Why did I continue watching You, even as I knew Joe Goldberg was the story’s villain?

Well, isn’t he? I don’t believe I’d be the first to say that I’m inclined to root for Joe, not simply because he is the story’s protagonist, but for reasons much more complex. Without a doubt, Joe is a Ted Bundy-Esque psychopath- yet his nonchalant, unthreatening manner invites us to see him in the light of normalcy. Deep down, he is a hopeless romantic driven by impulse. He’s wary of love because he’s been hurt in the past, he has weaknesses—but he’s self-aware–and he protects those he believes have been hurt.

Who on earth doesn’t fall into one of those categories?

These qualities in Joe draw us in. Enough to empathize, and as we experience life vicariously through him, and unknowingly see ourselves in him. You is a show you can never stop watching, not simply because of Netflix autoplay, but because we are simultaneously enthralled and repulsed by the extreme forces of human nature at play in Joe, at times barely a thread more extreme then the emotions we feel ourselves. The show is a screaming projection of what we are in our best and worst ways: loving, hating, scheming.

I want to be perfectly clear – I am not romanticizing Joe, nor is this an attempt to justify his flaws as “romantic” qualities. (Shockingly, a teenage girl can write in defense of a “troubled” male character without falling in love with him). I’m advocating that we see ourselves Joe. He represents all of us, with a story that’s simultaneously so inhumane, yet disconcertingly human.

Joe Goldberg, despite his few redeeming qualities, is not a good person. To modify the adage: “mental illness is not an excuse for being a bad person” “mental illness is not an excuse to be a serial killer.” Yet Joe—and You—remains a fascinating study of the human condition, and the animalistic impulses that drive the human experience.