Why do I feel bad for a murderous stalker?
The second season of the hit Netflix show “You” came out on Dec. 26, 2019. After the problematic, yet binge-worthy, first season, it was no surprise that most people finished the new season in a few days (me), then took to Twitter to immediately criticize it. For those of you who haven’t yet finished the season, stop reading here — spoilers lie ahead.
The show follows Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgely), a book-loving stalker on his quest to find his disturbing version of love. Once he’s reeled in his newest object of obsession, Goldberg will stop at nothing to ensure she falls in love with him while simultaneously protecting himself from being exposed as a stalker.
If the writers had any intent to highlight the troubling practice of stalking and the detrimental repercussions it has on victims, they were somewhat successful. Joe murders innocent people, sabotages people’s lives and manipulates the women he stalks into needing him and making time for him. The actions he takes to get close to these women are undoubtedly creepy and, at first, it was easy to be disgusted by Joe.
A couple episodes into the show, though, it becomes hard not to see things from Joe’s perspective — literally. Throughout almost the entire show, Joe is narrating his every move, explaining why he should be killing someone’s best friend or putting someone in a big glass cage in his basement. Despite how immoral and gross Joe’s actions are, his rationale can be somewhat convincing, or at least shed light on how psychotic he must be to defend what he’s doing. In either case, viewers see things from Joe’s perspective, not the perspective of the girl he’s stalking. This lopsided viewpoint makes for an uncomfortable viewing experience, in which viewers sympathize with a narcissistic killer. Joe’s narration justifies every action he takes, writing off murder, kidnapping and general creepiness as caring, selfless acts of love.
In season two, Joe has numerous flashbacks to his childhood. We see him neglected by his mother, who he watched get abused by various men, one of whom he killed at the age of nine. His undeniably traumatic childhood explains why Joe is the way he is, yet the picture it portrays is concerning. The message is pretty clear: Joe’s unforgivable behavior is justified by his troubled upbringing and we should feel bad for him.
Joe also develops a relationship with his 15-year-old neighbor this season. His intentions truly don’t seem pedophillic, and despite it being creepy, he does end up saving her from an unsafe situation with an older man. As honorable as his motive is, the plotline really glorifies stalkers by arguing, “Hey, sometimes the selfish need to ‘protect’ women you barely know turns out to be moral after all.”
Of course, most of the time, we don’t support Joe in his endeavors. What we watch him do is repulsive, but the sympathy cards and rationalization of his behavior paint Joe as a regular, even compassionate guy, with some bad habits about which he might want to see a therapist. This is a problem.
Joe’s fervent explanations without any condemnation of his way of thinking is encouraging to others who might face similar thoughts. Even if most people don’t have as extreme of tendencies, the obsession, possession and sense of entitlement Joe has over women isn’t uncommon at all. The show’s way of excusing or glorifying this behavior normalizes it, especially for men. Moreover, because the show is so extreme, it baits social media into making light of the obscene actions Joe takes, again diminishing the gravity of his deeds and the impact it has on the people he preys upon.
When producing shows that shed light on social issues, writers have an opportunity to give insight into why a phenomenon like stalking happens, and why it’s problematic. Stalking clearly isn’t a healthy pattern and it’s harmful to victims, so maybe it doesn’t seem necessary to condemn it outright. That being said, the structure of the show doesn’t give us the chance to come up with constructive ideas on our own. We’re constantly feeling sorry for Joe or understanding where he’s coming from, and we rarely see what it’s like for the women on the receiving end of his behavior. We don’t experience her fear or suffering through a consistent internal dialogue in the way we do with Joe.
There is a touch of political commentary that comes through Candace’s character, the woman Joe first obsesses over, then abducts before “accidentally” almost killing her. A flashback in season two shows Candace trying to report Joe to the police, but is told nothing can be done without evidence, and the cop advises her to play dead to stay safe from him. This is one of the many ways people in situations of stalking or sexual assault can be failed by our law enforcement system.
Although there are fundamental downfalls of “You,” I still enjoyed watching it. The psychological look into a stalker’s mind, even if counterproductive in its execution, is haunting and incredibly entertaining. The masterful plans Joe creates to infiltrate others’ lives and the way he adjusts to obstacles is suspenseful and satisfying, even if I feel like I’m rooting for the wrong person. All in all, I’m excited for season three, but hoping for a little less consideration for the stalker and a little more for the victims of his behavior.
Written By: Allie Bailey — firstname.lastname@example.org