Penn Badgley, star of Netflix’s bleakly comedic psychological drama, You, seems compelled to remind audiences that we should not want to fuck the series’ main character, Joe Goldberg, a man who cyclically idealizes, stalks, and murders women with whom he’s imagined that he has fallen in love. Badgley’s character is a hot man doing terrible things; a sexual encounter with this bad man is not aspirational, and yet he has felt it necessary to return to this theme repeatedly in the promotion around each of its three seasons. Badgley most succinctly put it in an interview with Entertainment Weekly in 2019: “He’s not actually a person who just needs somebody who loves him. He’s a murderer. He’s a sociopath. He’s abusive. He’s delusional. And he’s self-obsessed.”
Joe Goldberg is more of a twisted rom-com hero than a character ripped straight out of the Ted Bundy romanticized serial killer playbook, and the people who laugh on Twitter about how Joe is still fuckable, despite the risk of murder, aren’t necessarily serial killer fangirls. Part of the draw of You is that the show is a darkly funny satire of the ways its audience has been conditioned to conflate boundary-stomping with romance, and how easy it is to do so when it’s wrapped in a cute package with a handsome leading man. Joe is a petulant romantic, unable to see women as people and often infuriated to the point of temper tantrums by reality tampering with his delusions. Fans of the 1990s teen soap Dawson’s Creek may even remember that two decades ago, the same obsessive behavior that makes Joe so creepy was marketed as the behavior of a teenage beau idéal in the character of 15-year-old Dawson Leery.
The first three seasons of Dawson’s Creek—written and produced, in part, by You writer and producer Greg Berlanti—were more or less a montage of the titular character having an absolute meltdown each time a woman deviated from the role in which he’d cast her. It was a character arc meant to indicate coming-of-age in the 90s, perhaps more fittingly reframed as psychopathic in its 21st-century retelling. Like You, Dawson’s Creek opens with an idealistic romantic falling instantaneously in love with a blonde bathed in sunlight, the girl immediately rendered not a person, but a cure-all for social inadequacy and mommy issues.
In You, Dawson Leery, excused so often in the early seasons of the series for being a tantrum-throwing little creep because his life has been too sheltered, is replaced by Joe, whose attachment and violence issues are explained by having been too abused. Where Joe bases his obsessions on misunderstandings of classic books, Dawson creates his willful misunderstanding of reality from sappy movies, but, spiritually, they’re the same: Two local indie softboys with artsy feelings so big they establish dominion over the lives of everyone around them. And where You is careful to reiterate, often through Badgley’s press junkets, that the audience is not supposed to want to have sex with Joe Goldberg, in 1998, he was the WB’s best approximation of the kind of guy teenage girls might hope to bone.
Dawson’s cynical, dark-haired counterpart, Joey Potter, acts as a stand-in for that teenage girl, saddled not only with the weight of her own yearning for Dawson to someday make her an idol like he has the blonde Jen Lindley but also a wry understanding of how meager her hopes actually are. Essentially, she functions as the show’s eye-rolling barometer of reality, explaining simultaneously to Jen and the audience what Season One of Dawson’s Creek hoped teenage girls would buy: “I’m just trying to tell you that every guy that grows up to be one of the good ones? He was probably a dweeb when he was 15 too,” Joey tells Jen in a heart-to-heart about why Dawson is being so mean after finding out that Jen is not a blonde virgin.
The promise of future hotness seems to be what series creator Kevin Williamson, already a movie hitmaker with Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer, seemed to be going for with Dawson, but critics weren’t buying it:
“Dawson is the starry-eyed center of Creek, a dreamy, sensitive soul whose motto is ‘I reject reality,’” Ken Tucker wrote in his 1998 review of the series for Entertainment Weekly. “An aspiring filmmaker, his ambition is to make sensitive-soul movies in the manner of his hero, Steven Spielberg.” (In interviews, Williamson has said he wants to make films like his hero, John Hughes. Hmmm: One career leads to Amistad; the other to Curly Sue — this could be that rare example of a fictional character having better taste than his creator.)”
But if Williamson was going for a Hughes character, he made Dawson a bit too much like Anthony Michael Hall and not enough like Jake Ryan. In fact, Dawson’s tendency to let his mother’s infidelity in Season One cause him to cast women in the roles of either virgins or whores is much more reminiscent of Billy Loomis, the character in Scream determined to seduce and murder his own girlfriend because her mother was a cheater who made his own, better mother run away. When Dawson finds out his mother has been cheating on his father, he doesn’t go on a killing spree with his wisecracking sidekick, Pacey, like Billy and Stuart do, but he does have a complete meltdown every time it seems like a woman he’s decided should want to fuck him is not certain she wants to. Dawson can’t handle Jen’s previous sexual partners in light of his mother’s affair, which drives him to Joey, whose diary he reads while demanding that she share all of herself instead of just most. He puts his wisecracking sidekick in as a placeholder with Joey for an entire year and then meme-ably weeps on his dock when Joey would rather fuck Pacey, the guy who doesn’t read her diary, dress her up in his mother’s earrings, then stalk off in a huff when she dances one song with someone else at the prom.
While Williamson might not have been able to see that Dawson was never going to be the hero of his own show, viewers were pretty tired of his shit by the show’s meandering second season (in which a girl dying from falling off a dock and popping up as a hallucination later was infinitely more interesting than the actual boning). It was Greg Berlanti who stepped in and realized, in Season Three, that giving Joey some agency to choose Pacey, who loves her for more than his idea of her, and using that relationship to highlight the fact that Dawson is kind of a piece of shit, saved the show, even as producers argued that Joey somehow belonged to Dawson.
As Dawson’s Creek writer Jeffrey Stepakoff told Vox in 2018, the decision to remove Dawson from the romantic equation was initially a bizarre one, as even the show’s creators had begun thinking of Joey as Dawson’s possession:
“What? I remember thinking, You can’t do that. Joey is Dawson’s girl. Remember, they are soul mates, and that is the closest thing we have to a franchise around here. But Greg was so impassioned, as was his usual state, that he jumped up, grabbed a cheerful color marker from Tammy, and drew a triangle on one of the boards, writing “Pacey” at one point, “Joey” at another, and “Dawson” at another. “No, I’m serious,” he said. “Pacey kisses Joey. Think about it!”
Twenty years later, Berlanti got his chance to revisit the idea of women as possessions, along with all the ways in which so much of the romance we consume as a culture reinforces the idea that possessive behavior is okay when a hot man does it for the “right” reasons. You, Berlanti’s hit Netflix series, feels a bit like a Dawson’s Creek reboot that presupposes from the jump that its Dawson character can neither see women as human beings who exist outside his perceptions of them or regulate his emotions when women’s actions do not conform to the image he holds in his mind. Joe’s inability to regulate his emotions, unlike Dawson’s, comes with a staggering body count, one that includes nearly every woman who has ever disappointed him, which is to say every woman he’s ever cast in the role of his love interest and manipulated into accepting the part.
In 1995, Scream reinvented the slasher genre by using a fun gore-fest as a Trojan horse for meta-commentary on why we as a culture enjoy watching a pretty blonde girl get stabbed to death in the first place. Yet the first two seasons of Dawson’s Creek could never quite get past its romantic navel-gazing long enough to interrogate the fucked up implications of the Dawson Leery/Lloyd Dobler archetype. With You, Berlanti takes the legacy of Scream one step further, blending rom-com and horror tropes with the same self-referential genre criticism that made Scream a cultural phenomenon, right down to the fact that both series ultimately give Dawson and Joe the same fate: complete freedom to invent women and build themselves up as heroes in perpetuity.
Joey’s description of Dawson to Jen in Season One could read like a script note describing Joe Goldberg:
“Classic only child. Pouts when things don’t go his way, and he only sees things in black and white. Anything else confuses him.”
Joe’s version of Jen Lindley comes in the form of Guinevere Beck, a shallow, selfish blonde woman Joe decides is a gentle-spirited poet, whose actions do not match the idol he’s constructed. He processes this misunderstanding by murdering everyone who interferes with his perception of her, like her trustafarian fuck buddy, her rich, mean girl best friend, and ultimately, Beck herself. In their first bookstore encounter, Joe and Beck even play the same game Dawson and Jen play their first day in the high school cafeteria: imagining the sad lives of the strangers around them in order to highlight the specialness of their own clever observations.
By Season Two, Joe has killed his unfaithful blonde darling and gone in search of his Joey, this time a cupcake baking, big-eyed widow named Love in a season where we learn that it’s Joe’s mother who started all this in the first place. And though Dawson and Joey didn’t end up as soulmates because he ultimately could not control her through yelling or dock sobbing, Joe and Love become the closest thing You has to a franchise, spending the duration of this show thus far as a murderous power couple with compatible mommy issues stabbing and bashing their way through the suburbs, growing apart even as they murder together, each in solitary search of the happy ending they feel they’re owed as protagonists of the narratives they’ve invented. However, at the end of Season Three, only Joe survives to pursue a new dream girl for the already green-lit Season Four.
Similarly, though Dawson became superfluous to his own creek almost from the moment he ugly-cried on his pier as Joey fled, he did anti-climatically bone both Jen and Joey, though by then it was college and no one cared. In its final episodes, the series made Joey choose between Dawson and Pacey a second time, and the choice was as obvious in 2003 as it had been in 2000. The consolation prize Dawson’s Creek gave its titular character was the fact that the series close saw Dawson as a showrunner in Los Angeles, imagining a storyline where a dorky kid has his chance with a dream girl. The exact same scenario caps each season of You, wherein Joe Goldberg is always free to walk away from the wreckage imagining the woman who will, at last, be good enough for a happily ever after.