You, the dangerously addictive series starring Penn Badgley as a sociopathic stalker, landed as an unappreciated, darkened gem on Lifetime in 2018. Months later, the first season found a ridiculous amount of life as a Netflix holiday binge. Was this because people enjoy obsessing over serial killers while avoiding their families? That’s entirely possible, although the streamer also found itself asking people to please stop lusting after Ted Bundy after running that Zac Efron movie. Attempting to understand the appeal might be futile, other than remembering that Charles Manson’s prison romances were plentiful, but Badgley himself grew unnerved by Stalker Joe’s panty-dropping popularity. Well, Badgley (for whatever reason) reprises his role for a sophomore season on Netflix, and I do have to wonder he thought of this year’s scripts because Joe’s back, and he’s as bad as ever.
Actually, Joe might arguably be even worse because he imagines that he’s capable of change and becoming a better person. This belief further complicates the show’s moral ambiguity that revels in its absurd, pulp-y, and confusingly thorny appeal. You began almost fearlessly while diving in between genres, at once a horror story and a satisfying satire that held a mirror up to society’s narcissistic trappings. The show convinced its audience to root for an unquestionable monster (while hopefully questioning why they were pulling for him), who was twisted into being the protagonist. And Joe’s victims were largely insufferable, other than his love interest, Beck (Elizabeth Lail), who he of course killed at the end of the season. Where does Joe go from there? To Los Angeles.
Sure, why not? Of course Joe (who hates superficiality) would punish himself by hiding in a city where everything disgusts him. He’s the antithesis of a California guy, so LA’s the absurdly perfect place for him to go grim while everything around him appears to be sunshiny bright. Naturally, he’s doing this while muttering about Dostoyevsky’s thoughts on self-flagellation and carrying a copy of The Big Sleep. Yes, this season is just as (intentionally) surface-literary as its predecessor, rolling around and pleasuring itself with pretentiousness and interwoven with old Hollywood metaphors. One of Joe’s foes even squawks like Jay Gatsby, tossing around “old sport” as a term of faux endearment.
Beyond the glittery new setting, though, the most important question about the followup You season would be this: After last year’s deranged outcome, does the series settle into the same stalker-formula, or manage to be markedly different?
I had some doubts after screening the first few episodes, but before long, the show’s sophomore outing ends up being vastly different (and wilder) than the show’s first go-round. Things start out uncompellingly slow with Joe attempting to mend his “broken heart” in LA and vowing to never fall in love again. Unsurprisingly, this does not go as planned. He grows obsessed with a new woman, an aspiring chef and reluctant heiress named Love Quinn (Victoria Pedretti). And he still somehow possesses a glass container (don’t ask me how he can afford the contraption, it’s as silly as him successfully running a book store in the digital age) to hold people hostage. Obviously, he also kills again.
As bonkers as all of this would seem to someone who hasn’t watched You, it initially feels too much like history is repeating itself and like the series is aiming to replicate what it did the first time, only with Joe going by a different name, Will.
After this lengthy warm-up, though, things fly off the rails, even by this show’s standards. If you make it to that point, you’ll (again) be as aghast as I am that you’re unable to stop watching. In other words, season two begins as twisted comfort food for fans, but by midseason, it becomes clear that this is a whole new stalker ballgame. Perhaps the least crazy aspects include Joe being haunted by Beck’s likeness and being tracked down by a previous ex, Candace (Ambyr Childers), who’s thirsting for revenge. Yet those old ghosts are no match for what the present holds for Joe.
Supremely messed up stuff, which I shall not spoil, begins to go down, and the entire show gleefully careens off the side of the Hollywood Hills. If you’re familiar with author Caroline Kepnes’ second novel (Stephen King declared the book to be “hypnotic”), then you won’t be completely surprised by what you see, although the outrageousness of the source material has been amplified. Netflix clearly reveled in upping the ante with these changes, because obviously, a series of this nature must go bigger and better.
Yet the greater achievement is that the second season manages to weave more of a tapestry than the more singularly focused first season. Previously, Joe fixated almost solely upon Beck with brief diversions onto other (annoying) characters, who weren’t much of a match for Joe’s dark desires. In LA, Joe must contend with a worthy assortment of honest-to-god obstacles, including Love’s nutty family, who practically owns the city and includes a brother, Forty (James Scully), who’s also obsessed with Love. The less said about Love herself, the better, although I will say that she’s more multidimensional than Beck, who we saw only through Joe’s eyes as a fantasy object. Love is drawn differently and, at least partially, through her own perspective.
One more telling addition here is that this season explores Joe’s past, which is kind-of the origin-story of a serial killer. That was a risky move, honestly.
Joe’s almost humanized by that aspect of the season, but I doubt this inclusion will be as controversial as Joker‘s sympathy for a supervillain because You isn’t being framed as art. In addition, the series rips everyone apart by the seams. No main character goes unscathed, and the show even skewers its own audience, who will probably dig the experience and beg for more. For example (and this isn’t much of a spoiler), there’s an absolutely batsh*t episode where someone slips Joe an illicit, long-lasting substance, which is the least that Joe deserves, after all the evil that he’s done. He needs a lot more comeuppance, but he can’t be kept down for long, and the season finale dangles a promise of even more madness to come. Netflix has made a too-watchable franchise out of a discarded Lifetime series, so their mission has been accomplished.
Netflix’s second ‘You’ season streams on December 26.