It is a long-touted maxim, passed down through generations, that women love bad boys. Nice guys finished last. Attraction and repulsion, desire and disgust, fear and eroticism — the parallel pleasures of toxic romance live on both sides of a razor’s edge, and few screen love stories have ever captured the can’t-turn-away-from-the-wreckage thrall of seductive obsession like You.
The Lifetime series turned Netflix sensation surprised when it landed on the streaming service after meeting middling success on basic cable and absolutely blew up on streaming, proving its depraved delights were a perfect match for the compulsive catharsis of Netflix’s signature binge-viewing format. Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley) was obsessed with Beck (Elizabeth Lail), viewers were obsessed with Joe Goldberg, and in ten tight episodes, we collectively spiraled down a psychosexual rabbit hole. Guided by Badgley’s truly excellent performance and the subversive wit of creators Sera Gamble and Greg Berlanti. Working from Caroline Kepnes‘ novels, they crafted Beck and Joe’s tragic, toxic love story by building the bones of a romantic comedy — and strapping it to a serial killer thriller, speeding towards its inevitable doom.
Returning for its second on its new home at Netflix, You Season 2 picks up where the first season left off and packs up for Los Angeles. After his pre-Beck ex Candace (Ambyr Childers) turns up, very much alive and aware of his crimes, Joe flees for the City of Angeles; the perfect hiding spot because it’s the last place he wants to be. There, Joe gets a new name (Will), a new life (ok, he’s still a bookstore employee, but now it’s at a hippie chic LA health store called Anavrin, aka Nirvana spelled backward), and, of course, a new obsession.
Played by The Haunting of Hill House breakout Victoria Pedretti, once again excellent, Joe’s new paramour is Love Quinn (a bracing name, yes, but it plays surprisingly well in the narration.) Pedretti makes Love a compelling and intoxicating woman; a new super sweet fantasy girl for Joe/Will to fixate on and fascinate over, spinning the idealized version of her truth in his head and violently rooting out the pieces of her existence that don’t fit his narrative. Ultimately, the first season’s greatest act was the cruel, if unavoidable, reveal that Beck herself didn’t fit his narrative. That Joe’s enthralling web of lies extended to himself — and to the audience members who kept falling for his guise no matter how many times the mask slipped. That underneath all the romanticizing, self-righteous internal monologuing, Joe is just a violent and unhinged man who will do whatever it takes to get what he wants.
Season 2 unsurprisingly (and certainly not subtly, considering the multitude of Russian literature references throughout) is about crime and punishment. No matter how far he moves, nor how fast he moves on to a new woman, Joe cannot escape the violent deeds of his past. From Beck’s posthumous bestseller to a specter of her that appears in his weakest moments, from the demands of forging a new identity to the fact he’s just downright terrible at cleaning up a crime scene, Joe is unable to run away from his crimes against Beck just as he was unable to escape what he did to Candace.
With his past biting at his heels, Joe strikes up a new creepy courtship with Love, but quickly discovers she’s a very different kind of woman than what he’s used to. Forward and confident where Beck was insecure and uncertain, and yet private where Beck was public, Love forces him to re-think his assumptions and shake up his game, challenging him at every turn. Especially every time he tries to break away from his obsessive habits. Love is always there, the lure of the dream girl that Joe can’t seem to shake. And she’s got some compelling baggage of her own; a tragic love story, detached parents, and a co-dependent twin brother with an addictive streak, Forty (James Scully).
You Season 2 has a whole heck of a lot of fun throwing barbs at Angelino cliches, from the Hollywood-speak and wannabe culture to the omnipresent wellness obsession and vapid consumerism, but it does so with the loving side-eye of a transplant begrudgingly won over by the city’s charms. Unfortunately, the satirical side characters never match the decadent darkness and hilarity of Peach Salinger (Shay Mitchell‘s Season 1 scene-stealer), the exception being Forty. Scully’s wildcard character goes from grating to gratifying, becoming one of the most satisfying players in the melodramatic meltdown as the season wears on.
Other standouts include Carmela Zumbado as Joe’s new landlord, a fiery and ferociously charismatic reporter on the hunt for a personal vendetta of justice between her well-paying celebrity scoops; Jenna Ortega as her wise-beyond-her-years little sister, who Joe can’t help but play parent to with dangerous consequences (a la Paco in Season 1); and Chris D’Elia as a beloved comedian, another supposed nice guy with a heart of gold sheltering dark secrets. Their arc, along with Candace’s increased presence, brings in a necessary perspective of abuse survivors that only further highlights Joe’s hypocrisy. On the other end, highlighting Joe’s charms is Gotham highlight Robin Lord Taylor as Will; yet another not-quite-innocent bystander who gets locked in Joe’s glass cage but develops a strangely sweet bond with his captor.
With Love stepping in for Beck, Forty stepping in for Peach, and Ellie stepping in for Paco, there’s no denying the sense that You is repeating some of its greatest hits in its second season. But its also a slower season and a bit more sly, taking time to fully unveil the twists and turns of its story and all the ways it plans to take Joe to task in his tale of crime and punishment. But once you know the whole story — and the series’ continued knack for hyper-binge-able storytelling will likely ensure you consume the whole dang affair in a hurry — it’s clear that it isn’t just playing the old favorites note for note, it’s inverting the melody, marching to a new beat; a darker, more somber reprise that’s as surprising as it is familiar. It’s not always as shocking or electric as the first season, but it’s more thoughtful and more twisted. On first watch I missed the pure seduction of the first season, but ultimately the new batch of episodes sat with me particularly well.
Enough really cannot be said for Badgley’s performance in the lead role, another excellent reprise. As he did in the first season, Badgley has to pull off a series of extraordinary performance feats to make Joe work. Most obvious, the voiceover. Badgley’s scripts for You must be wildly intimidating chunks of monologues, but the actor makes the most of every line because his narration doesn’t just have to guide the story, it has to put us inside Joe’s head; it has to keep us on his side despite the hideous things we watch him do. Badgley gamely rises to the task, absolutely savoring the words, making them rich with longing, dripping in earnestness, or barking them out in confusion an impossibly agile precision for pivoting in the moment. And that’s matched by his physical on-screen work; a performance that demands he be charismatic or chilling on a dime, winning over the audience and his fellow characters alike despite while pulling off the impossibly long pauses for his internal monologuing. Badgley makes it look deceptively easy, which is how you know it’s downright remarkable.
You doesn’t work without Badgley’s pitch-perfect performance, because ultimately, the series isn’t just a trashy thriller about obsessive romance gone wrong. The twists and turns are fun, but they’re usually pretty easy to see coming, even for all their delicious payoff. It’s special because it knows all the tropes and pitfalls of that genre and takes clever steps to subvert them at every turn. Badgley spent six seasons playing a glamorized self-obsessed “nice guy” on Gossip Girl, and in retrospect, it was the perfect preparation to take on Joe Goldberg, who is the very embodiment of that character type’s id. In its second season, You remains compulsive viewing thanks to its seductive thrills and wry dark humor, but it remains must-watch TV for its wise vivisection of the so-called “nice guy,” the toxic allure of the “bad boy,” and the terrifyingly-familiar meeting point between the two where the fantasies become a nightmare.