If Netflix’s You has taught us anything, it’s that we’re living in a world that is reckoning with dangerous masculinity and romance while simultaneously desiring the package in which that often comes: white, tall, good-looking, and impossibly accommodating.

On one hand, the series’ central character, Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley), is the psychotic architect of his own delusional love story. But on the other, he is the man of your dreams. How did we get here?

There are many ways to tackle this question, including how it reflects our ideals of romance in a rapidly changing dating landscape. When we first meet Joe in season one of You, he’s the guy who, in many audience’s eyes, has done his homework.

Like every other millennial, he’s following his crush, Beck, (Elizabeth Lail), on social media, so he knows her exact interests when he’s later, say, picking out flowers for her or mentioning the title of her favorite book. He knows how to turn on the charm because, unbeknownst to Beck, she’s given him the tools to do so by using the public platform as her own personal diary.

But they fall in love. Well, she actually falls for him because he checks all the boxes virtually every single romantic leading man has: he’s funny, disarming, likes the same things she does, and—oh, yeah—white. Beck realizes too late that Joe is actually a serial killer and she is his next target.

It’s an essential psychological thriller for today’s world that complicates something that has become a trusted source for sparking necessary conversations, following people and subjects you really like, and even redefining yourself. These are all things that could easily be looked at through a darker gaze if they weren’t so normalized in our society.

That’s one reason why Joe is able to hide in plain sight, according licensed mental health professional and relationship expert, Dr. Haley Neidich. “The reality is, he’s not actually doing anything that we don’t often do every day,” she tells Psycom. “We all do our due diligence when we’re going on a date with somebody—at the very least Googling them. There are aspects of him that are so likeable and charming and so grounded in reality that we go along with him.”

But then there’s a whole other component that You dives into in its sophomore season: mental health. Having left his bloodbath behind and moved to the west coast, Joe (now using the name “Will”) has set his sights on a new woman, Love (Victoria Pedretti), with whom he builds a relationship. As they become closer, we see flashbacks to his childhood that are punctuated by maternal abandonment and parental abuse, recontextualizing what we know about him. He’s reexamined as a man whose mom’s dereliction materialized into his obsessive desire for affection and romance.

This brings up the question of empathy: should we feel sorry for Joe, despite everything he’s done? The answer to this would probably say more about the individual responding than anything else, especially when we think about it through the lens of the growing destigmatization of mental health. “Certain people in our culture have become more sensitive to individuals with mental illness,” Neidich says. “It is an invisible illness that is very similar to medical conditions we already accept and honor. So, when we learn the backstory of a character like this, we’re more likely to accept him.”

And as a result, our image of Joe is reframed. Despite there being no shift whatsoever in Badgley’s cold portrayal or even a notable evolution in Joe’s present-day rationale, some audiences feel conflicted and maybe even a little manipulated by the writers. That’s further complicated by Love’s trajectory throughout the season.

Seen mostly through Joe’s first-person perspective as a lovable, if not a bit naïve, young woman longing for love after experiencing her own trauma, she is revealed to be suffering from severe PTSD. And like Joe, she turns to murder in the name of “love.” But what may seem like a match made in a very disturbing and devastating alternate dimension, Joe’s desire for Love effectively vanishes and even morphs into a sense of fear.

It’s easy to suggest that Joe’s idealized version of Love, formed by his compulsive need to create the woman his mother was not, simply shattered. The final moments of the season suggest that he is already looking toward his next prey. But Neidich explains there is a whole other layer of his psychosis that we’re left with; one that underscores that his past trauma has made him incapable of love.

“Finally having what he wants isn’t safe for Joe, particularly with Love, who demonstrates unstable and psychotic tendencies that can trigger him,” Neidich says. “He is then terrified of her because she’s not only a reminder of the most unstable woman in his life (his mother), but also of his own behavior. That is deeply unnerving for someone so used to craving control.”

You has done a fascinating job deconstructing how much mental health is connected to our romantic behavior. But whether we develop a compassion for handsome, seemingly picture-perfect men like Joe says a lot about our own biases and who we are more comfortable humanizing over others. “I’m curious about how viewers would perceive this character if he wasn’t a John Mayer lookalike,” Neidich asks. “Would they be able to perceive certain positive aspects?”

Last Updated: Aug 17, 2020