In case it wasn’t obvious, this story contains spoilers for the Season 4 finale of You. Do not read it if you want the ending to be a surprise. I mean it.
I love You (the hit Netflix show, that is, not you the reader, sorry). It’s wonderfully weird; main character Joe Goldberg’s internal monologue is biting and hilarious; and star Penn Badgley is a phenomenal actor with some of the craziest eyes I’ve ever seen. Granted, I didn’t always like this show; I especially resented the premise of the Season 1 finale, in which a man imprisoning and killing his girlfriend is presented purely for its shock factor, rather than an example of the all-too-real horrors of domestic violence.
But the show seemed to listen to criticism and evolve, especially concerning its gender and violence storylines. And then came the Season 4 finale, which began streaming along with the second half of the season on Thursday. As it turns out, after over half a season of Joe believing a mysterious, aristocracy-averse killer was framing him for a string of murders across London, we learn Joe actually suffers from dissociative identity disorder and (surprise, surprise) he’s the one behind the killings. Or, rather, an “alter” of his is: a rags-to-riches politician named Rhys. But it’s not the DID twist I take issue with, though; it’s the show’s framing of Joe, a violent predator who aggressively victimizes women this season, as the real victim. In this context, Joe’s mental health feels like a cop-out, a hacky gotcha that mostly just serves to exonerate Joe.
In addition to our discovery of Joe’s disorder, we learn (along with him) that at the beginning of the season, his alter kidnapped, assaulted, and imprisoned his Season 3 love interest, a Black woman named Marienne. Ultimately, Marienne survives, and—with the help of Joe’s student Nadia—escapes by faking her death. Marienne experiences something akin to a happy ending, and is reunited with her daughter. But the extreme physical and psychological violence Joe exacted upon her was still extremely unpleasant to watch, and, from a plot perspective, unnecessary. As for Nadia, Joe catches her in the act of nearly exposing his alter’s violent deeds, kills her boyfriend, and frames her for his death. He reveals in a voiceover in the final minutes of the episode that he left her to rot in prison.
The fates of Marienne and Nadia at Joe’s hands follow a pattern in the show: Women are punished for snooping and knowing too much—essentially, for being too smart for Joe to control. Yet no matter how many women Joe screws over, the show paints Joe as the actual victim. We’re reminded over and over again: He had a rough childhood; he hates rich people as much as we do; many of the people he kills are absolute dicks. But no aspect of his past justifies the extent of his obsessive self-pity, even as the show’s introduction of his DID shamelessly implies he deserves sympathy. We watch as he’s racked with guilt and even attempts suicide; we’re told to focus on his suffering, not the suffering he’s inflicted on everyone else. But there’s no real interrogation of the extent of his culpability for his crimes—we’re just told he had no idea what he did, no control, and that’s that.
In fairness to You, the show doesn’t go so far as to celebrate Joe as an upstanding citizen. Its showrunner Sera Gamble—whom Badgley has praised for being respectful of his sexual boundaries this season—has emphasized in interviews that Joe is a wealthy white man, so of course he’s going to get away with things in a broken criminal legal system. While wildly unrealistic in nearly every other regard, You is pretty realistic in this one.
It’s not You’s job to render justice; most art critiques injustice by portraying it. But at some point, watching a violent, abusive white man get away with one horrific act after another gets tiresome, and worse, simply unimaginative. Surely, four seasons in, we deserve more thoughtful storytelling from this show.