Netflix’s dark stalker thriller dramedy heads across the pond to encounter a new strain of awful rich people.
The first season of You was a chilling and remarkably trenchant look into the mind of a misogynist. It followed toxic Nice Guy-slash-psychopath Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley) as he stalked the object of his affection through New York City’s elite literary circles. An almost Humbert Humbert-like figure, Joe used his narration to manipulate the audience and try to win them over. Even as he began killing people who stood in the way of his desires he kept up the seduction.
Since that first season spent terrorizing artsy rich kids with names like Peach Salinger, You has become more of a winking satire about privilege. Subsequent seasons unleashed Joe on snobby California wellness gurus and bitchy suburban parents, leaving no stereotypical wealthy person unscathed. At least, no stereotypical American wealthy person.
In You’s delightfully decadent fourth season, Joe makes a new life for himself in Europe. After killing his wife and giving up his infant son in the third season’s finale, Joe flees to Paris in pursuit of his new love, sensitive librarian Marienne (Tati Gabrielle, the breakout star of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina). Complications arise. As a result, Joe finds himself living in London instead, teaching a university-level short stories course under the assumed name Jonathan Moore.
You’s move to London is, in a word, inspired. The posh Brits Joe encounters in his life as Jonathan are vile even by the show’s standards. They’re unable to even feign the slightest concern when their friends start turning up violently murdered. They change their tune when evidence mounts that the murderer the press dubs the “Eat the Rich Killer” has targeted them. Yet, even then, Joe’s new friends are only truly fearful for themselves.
Of course, everything is a tradeoff. Sidelining Gabrielle proves a genuine disappointment. She’s always been a fan favorite and a welcome non-white romantic interest for Joe. So one can’t help but miss her when the story swerves. Still, while her absence is felt, especially early in the season, the new ensemble is undeniably entertaining.
You’s move to London is, in a word, inspired.
Joe is drawn into the group by noxious co-worker named Malcolm (Stephen Hagen). Our protagonist suspects Malcolm of sleeping with some of their undergraduate students despite being in a relationship with fellow professor Kate (Charlotte Richie.) The professors’ social circle of former Oxford chums includes aristocratic party girl Phoebe (Tilly Keeper), artist-cum-enfant terrible Simon (Aiden Cheng), his boozy sister Sophie (Niccy Lin), and Blessing (Ozioma Whenu), an actual princess. Besides Joe, the only other American is Phoebe’s boyfriend Adam, a failson and would-be entrepreneur played by Lukas Gage (The White Lotus), to great comedic effect.
The sole member of the group Joe immediately connects with is memoir writer and aspiring progressive politician Rhys (Ed Speleers) since they both grew up poor in tumultuous homes. The rest of the socialites, excluding Kate and her best friend Phoebe, take great pleasure in cruelly humiliating their staff and any working class people who dare to cross their paths. Not unlike the characters in a well-done slasher movie, they make worthy cannon fodder.
Later, the party absconds to the vast country estate owned by entitled creep Roald (Ben Wiggins). There they torment the servants by forcing them to act as human croquet wickets and openly preaching about “the poverty mindset” over dinner. Gemma (Eve Austin) sexually harasses a butler in front of the group, who passively bears witness and little else.
This season of You cleverly digs into how social class can interact with sexuality. Thankfully, they’re not at all coy about it. Indeed, one of the first three episodes features the most subversive sex act depicted on the show so far. Throughout the season does a remarkably good job weaving the erotic tension some people find in dissimilar power dynamics into the larger plot. It all serves to underscore Joe’s journey with the women he’s “fallen in love with” and/or stalked. It also highlights the show’s journey from the CW to Netflix, where everything about it became much more adult. They can swear now, and they’re not going to let you forget it! Depicting British people who don’t curse would be too unrealistic, anyway.
Whereas during every other season, the “You” in Joe’s narration has referred to the ever-shifting object of his affection, season four alters that trope. When someone turns up dead in Joe’s Covent Garden flat, he has no memory of killing them. Soon, he starts receiving anonymous text messages from someone who knows his real identity. They seem to either be the killer or know the killer and want to frame Joe for the crime. The stalker has become the stalked, and now Joe’s obsession with “You” is a matter of self-preservation.
[S]howrunner and series co-creator Sera Gamble seems willing to push the envelope into even more audacious, and sometimes downright even ridiculous, situations, and usually for the better.
That’s not to say that he doesn’t find love in London. Charlotte Richie, the star of hit British sitcoms like Ghosts and Fresh Meat, absolutely shines here as Kate, the woman Joe can’t stop noticing despite her initially cold and prickly demeanor. The role feels like a real departure for Richie, who often plays warm, sweet characters. She knocks it out of the park. Kate’s dry wit puts Richie’s comedic timing to use. Additionally, she’s a more shrewd, guarded woman than the ones Joe has pursued in past seasons. That gives the season a much-needed change of pace.
Of course, if there’s one thing You unabashedly loves, it’s an on-the-nose literary reference. There are some good ones this season. They range from the spot-on, like Joe assigning his students Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” to the downright silly, like Gemma’s last name being Graham-Greene. Joe asks his student Nadia (Amy-Leigh Hickman) for help researching Agatha Christie’s novels, as the story very intentionally mimics the structure of one of her books, with Joe as a twisted Poirot figure.
You looks gorgeous this time around as well, having shot on location in England. Most of the first five episodes split time between the stunning, castle-like Royal Holloway University (where, full disclosure, this reviewer attended study abroad) and a Downton Abbey-esque mansion in the country. The show makes excellent use of both spots, apparently leaving no picturesque corner unshot. It adds a wonderful feeling of authenticity to the story. Plus, it’s just plain nice to look at. You has never felt more like a “cozy mystery.” That’s definitely a compliment.
Although the show has changed plenty since the CW days, it still resists not painting Joe as a “good guy.” To his credit, this is something Badgley has always understood about his character. He’s woven it tightly into his performance. However, the upper-crust Brits of You season 4 are so uniquely, irredeemably horrible that it’s hard not to uncritically side with Joe as he digs up all their ugly secrets and meddles in their lives. If the season’s second half doesn’t square this Joe with his past sins, it’ll be difficult to look beyond that.
Nonetheless, it’s hard to fret too much about the bigger picture when the show is as engrossing and over-the-top as ever. If anything, showrunner and series co-creator Sera Gamble seems willing to push the envelope into even more audacious, and sometimes downright even ridiculous, situations, and usually for the better. You’s standard episode-ending cliffhangers have rarely been stronger. The extra sprinkling of traditional Whodunnit flavor only makes it all the more delicious and bingeable this time around. If You season 4 didn’t unfold over two halves, it would be downright impossible not to mainline all ten episodes in one go just to see where in the world Joe Goldberg ends up next.
You Season 4 goes professor-core February 9 on Netflix.