Netflix's You: Finally a True Anti-Hero

Kimberly Hopkin ‘19
Development Editor


I appreciated Breaking Bad and Mad Men as much as the next gal, but I also never watched Ozarks because I got tired of watching men behaving badly and being forgiven under the guise of “sympathetic anti-hero.” I am also tired of watching romantic comedies where the male characters prove their love by being ultimately creepy. For instance, in The Choice, the male protagonist crosses state lines to follow his object of desire to her parent’s home to ask for her hand in marriage even though she literally screamed that she doesn’t want to marry him. I mean, I still cried at the end; I’m not a monster. But I am tired of having this narrative shoved down my throat every time I want to watch beautiful people fall in love with each other.

So, when I clicked on the new series, You, now streaming on Netflix after originally airing on Lifetime, I fully expected to really hate the show. After all, the series is openly about a stalker falling in love with a woman in New York City. I even put it on about thirty minutes before I wanted to go to bed anticipating being so bored that it would lull me to sleep. Four hours later, I had to force myself to turn off the show to catch at least a couple of hours of sleep.

I didn’t love the show because the male protagonist, Joe, was so redeemably sympathetic as an anti-hero (apparently hundreds of girls on Twitter felt that way). He wasn’t. Instead, I was just so invested in Beck, the female protagonist, discovering how twisted and disgusting Joe was. I love the show because Joe is decidedly not redeemable, loveable, or sympathetic. At one point, without giving too many spoilers, I literally screamed, “Oh, c’mon––he’s right there! Find him and call 911!” at my television. I’m sure my neighbors were charmed by my screams at 2 a.m.

When I fell in love with the show, it was because I started asking myself how Beck could be so blind. How could she ignore all of these red flags? Eventually, I had to admit to myself, it was because she didn’t want to see them. Now, before anyone cries “victim blaming,” I’m not saying it’s her fault (or even admitting that she’s a real person––did you forget she’s an imaginary character on a television show?) I’m saying that this show, like more highly praised shows, does what I think dark dramas should do: it holds a mirror up to our society and unflinchingly tells us to look.

Beck wanted a man to save her and worship her to the exclusion of all else. It could be because that’s what movies and television and Nicholas Sparks tell us love––true love––is like. That it is all consuming. It could be because she had “daddy issues.” Or because she wanted to feel as special as her rich friends. Regardless, Joe gave Beck all of his energy, and Beck interpreted that as positive instead of negative.

Now, if this story were a suspense movie, the director would probably take advantage of the Kuleshov Effect[1] and show Joe as a positive force in Beck’s life before revealing his true intentions. However, the genius of this show is that Joe was the narrator. We heard Joe’s thought processes as he hides outside her apartment masturbating or following her to a bar across town to “protect” her. We even heard Joe lambast his abusive next-door neighbor while protecting the small boy, Pico, who lives there. Yes, really awful people can still do really nice things for other people without canceling out the fact that they are awful people.

But no matter how much Joe rationalizes and explains that it’s for Beck’s benefit or happiness, the audience cannot look away from the undeniable fact that Joe is a cold-blooded stalker. Even when he snipes at another character on the street in a way I found endearing, or when Beck and Joe share an undeniably intimate and romantic moment, I could never bring myself to like him. In moments where I started to think, “If only he weren’t a complete creep…” I would remember that the same dynamic wouldn’t be there if he were normal. He only said the perfect thing because he invaded her privacy to manipulate her. And the show doesn’t let you forget that.

There were episodes where an “antagonist” would appear in the show, like Beck’s best friend, Peach. However, no matter how controlling or disgusting the other characters are, the best I could give Joe was an r/AmITheAsshole: “Everyone Sucks Here.” Even though I knew the story would end too soon, I wanted Joe to be caught in every episode. Unfortunately, when Joe was against the ropes, he did what stalkers and emotionally abusive intimate partners do best: He manipulated the situation until his rationalization became truth. And when that didn’t work…well, you’ll have to watch the show.

Hopefully, I’m not alone in this assessment. Hopefully, the young women who stream the show recognize that Joe never really loved the object of his affection. He only loved controlling her and owning her. Hopefully, this show, deemed a steamy, guilty Lifetime pleasure, can be taken seriously for how it portrays the different layers of abuse. Maybe instead of treating this narrative as pure entertainment, the show will convince people how serious and pervasive Joe’s behavior towards his intimate partner is. Maybe just one woman will watch and understand that her boyfriend doesn’t have to do everything Joe does in order to be a potentially life-threatening problem. She’ll hear Joe’s rationalization and something will sound a little too familiar and a little too real. Hopefully, the entertainment industry will start showing the dark side of the trope like You does.

[1] Alfred Hitchcock taped himself looking at something off camera and giving a slight smile. He then arranged the film in a way that made his character look at a young mother playing with her children; audiences found his smile endearing. For another audience he cut to footage of a young woman bending over to lay out a blanket before laying on it; the audience took the same sly smile and interpreted it completely differently.