Can Netflix’s YOU Survive without Love?
Hello, you. Reader, watcher, avid fan—or maybe just a curious observer. Maybe you’re like Joe Goldberg, trying to keep an eye on your interests, stay informed without being pulled into your past mistakes. So much has happened on Netflix’s series, You. Where could you possibly go from here?
This week, Netflix released the first five episodes of You Season 4. This is the first season the series has adopted the two-part model that’s becoming common practice in streaming shows. It allows the writers to tell a longer story, to keep fans entertained and shorten the wait between seasons—but should there be more seasons? How far can Netflix take the concept of “stalker who kills for love” before the premise dries up?
An Adaptation…Sort Of
You started out as a novel by American author Caroline Kepnes. Joe Goldberg, sociopath and romantic, is trying to zero in on the girl of his dreams…and he’s willing to take out any obstacle in his way. Similar to well-known books like Lolita, the story stands out because of its ability to explain the twisted mind of a man obsessed. Told from Joe’s point of view, his internal monologue does a great job of showing how he feels and justifies his actions.
The first installment and its sequel, Hidden Bodies, were both published before the Netflix series was released in 2018. Since then, Kepnes has released two more novels in her You series. While that should mean more material to draw from, the Netflix series has outgrown its status as an adaptation and turned into something new.
Season 1 of You is, for the most part, a faithful retelling of the book. It’s a good adaptation while also being a good series in its own right. Season 2 is where Netflix started making some major changes to make the story their own. As an adaptation, it’s less accurate, but it was a damn good choice for the series—and it’s all about Love.
Hidden Bodies sees Joe mixed up in the upper crust of Los Angeles. His new love interest, Love Quinn, is wild, spoiled, and a little out of touch with reality. When she finds out about Joe’s past, the people he’s killed, she simply accepts him for who he is. Love is used to loving broken people and has convinced herself that Joe isn’t all that different from her family. In the book, she even likens Joe killing his last girlfriend to her brother once killing a dog. Yikes.
Love takes an active role in saving Joe from his past mistakes—lying, stealing and keeping his secrets; and yet, she’s still a victim. The toxic relationships in her life have warped her perception of love, so she’s incapable of seeing the gravity of Joe’s crimes. In the show, Netflix takes that concept to the next level.
When Love confronts Joe about his crimes, she doesn’t compare him to her brother; she compares him to her. When Love saw her nanny taking advantage of her brother, Love killed her. She’s killed to protect those she loves and killed to protect herself. It makes Love and Joel almost exactly the same—but Joe doesn’t see it that way. Confronted with a mirror, he thinks Love is an irrational monster who kills for herself.
Netflix’s Love Quinn isn’t any less broken than the character in the novel. But she is Joe’s equal. Having that dynamic made the story of Season 2 feel so much richer and more engaging. Love and Joe are a match made in heaven…or hell.
Season 3 is where Netflix encounters the age-old dilemma of adaptations: straying from the source material. Kepnes released her third novel in the You series just six months before the third season was released for streaming. In the book, Joe’s left Love behind for a fresh start in a small town. In the show, Joe and Love are married with a son and doing their best to survive suburbia. The season takes a few cues from the third book, but the focus is still on Joe and Love. You officially went from being “based on a novel” to “inspired by a novel.”
In and of itself, that isn’t a bad thing. Joe and Love are both interesting characters and their dynamic—two passionate people with a penchant for violence—naturally invites conflict. Season 3 has them tackle everything from murder to couples therapy, which is really fun to watch…but it’s not something that can last forever. The writers can only prolong that power struggle so long and, as much as Love changed the show, Joe is the main character.
In the end, Joe and Love both attempt to kill each other; Joe is the one who succeeds. He fakes his death, frames Love for his crimes, and leaves his baby boy on a neighbor’s doorstep. Then Joe heads off for a fresh start with a new identity. It wasn’t a surprise, but it did leave a lot of viewers disappointed. It feels like a step back, and leaves Joe exactly where he was before.
The You Blueprint
Season 4 has the same premise and stakes as Season 2: Joe in a new city with a new name, a new job that lets him work with books, a new female neighbor he’s fascinated with who refuses to close her curtains even after she knows she’s being watched. Again, Joe says he’s learned his lesson, but immediately falls into old habits. And again, Joe manages to find himself entangled with a group of horrible rich people who will provide the season’s body count.
In Season 4, Joe’s motives are slightly different than they’ve been in the past. In his mind, he’s no longer pursuing a woman for himself, but trying to protect her from someone else. Semantics aside, the core issue is the same. Joe has a savior complex, and he’s trying to rescue one decent woman from the clutches of her vile and toxic friends. Back in Season 1, Guinevere is a scholarship student being emotionally abused by her best friend. In Season 3, Marianne is a single mom struggle to escape her ex-husband. Now in Season 4, Kate is under the thumb of her tyrannical father.
The outlier is Love. She was also stuck in a toxic family, but the way Netflix developed her character allowed her to become more than another woman for Joe to save. She was a heroine and a villain and an equal player in the game. Comparatively, Season 4 almost feels hollow. Returning to the basic blueprint of “stalker who kills for love” just doesn’t cut it anymore, and the newest season struggles to raise the stakes in any effective way.
You Season 4 does its best to differentiate itself from the earlier seasons. Joe meeting his match isn’t a last minute plot twist, but the mystery of the story. Instead of dropping bodies, Joe is reluctantly dropped into the middle of a whodunnit and must find the real killer.
Unfortunately, there are times that the thrilling mystery feels more like a waiting game. There are a lot of new characters, and the first episode rushes to establish them all before the first kill. Even after a few episodes getting to know them, most are shallow and wildly unlikeable. A handful of characters seem to have no motive or purpose outside of “rich.”
Classism has always been a factor in You, something the writers use to make Joe feel relatable. We can side with Joe so long as he’s surrounded by people who are just has horrible as he is, but in different ways. The previous seasons weren’t exactly subtle, but the characters in Season 4 feel outrageously over the top. In Season 1, Joe was struggling with Ivy League snobs. Now he’s facing a group of British aristocracy who are openly longing to abolish democracy and hunt peasants like pheasants. I wish I was kidding.
When You started, it was a show about love. Then Love came along and drastically changed the story. Romance and love doesn’t have a big part in the latest season. Now, it almost feels like a show about wealth and class. There’s no way to know for sure if that will be successful, but if You is changing the focus of their story, maybe we should look out for a character named Rich.
The first five episodes of You Season 4 are available for streaming on Netflix.