Netflix UK TV review: You Season 2 (spoilers)
Jo Bromilow | On 11, Jan 2020
Warning: This contains spoilers for You Season 2. Not caught up? Read our spoiler-free review of Season 2 here.
In the lull of January, sometimes the best thing to do is to book a holiday to somewhere sunnier. Or if you can’t do that, try and find a TV show set somewhere sunny and binge until you can almost feel the melanin infusing your sallow skin (while, in actual fact, the screen glare continues to ruin your already devastated body clock). Which is why so many of us fired up Netflix on Boxing Day for the second season of the dark, trashy hit You (dropped by Showtime after one season, now a Netflix production). In a haze of Christmas wrapping and empty Quality Street tins, it serenely extended a warm, welcoming hand and invited us to travel with it to the City of Angels.
This writer will admit – and said as much in their first-look review – that the second season didn’t grip like the first when it started off. Someone raised on a diet of Sex and the City and Gossip Girl, another show about privileged people swanning around New York, was always going to have their buttons pressed, and transplanting the action to a place guaranteed to give melanoma turned yours truly off instantly. But the setting of the new season is as important as the first for making its point; where the first season had a voyeuristic way of observing the seemingly perfect lives of Beck, Peach and their contemporaries – confining the show’s darkness to the real shadows in the corners of bookshops and the hidden airless rooms in basements and bathrooms – the second carefully illuminates the true horror that hides best in plain, sun-washed sight. Where Season 1 eroded the gloss and glamour of New York’s many fauxcialites, Season 2 holds a mirror up to the devilish side of the flawless, green juice-guzzling Angelinos.
Part of what makes the early episodes – and the season as a whole – more disorienting is that Joe himself is a fish out of water. Taking the predator out of his traditional hunting ground – chased out of New York by the return of vengeful ex-girlfriend Candace – and putting him in a new one means that it takes a little time for the rules of the game to set in for both him and the viewer. This, at least after the action transplants to LA, results in a step change that’s a little tricky to navigate. Joe’s usual tricks – renting a room complete with telescope to spy on his latest conquest, finding a way to transport his infamous glass cage across the country, kidnap, murder – provide a jolt of familiarity, but the thrill is lost quickly without the comfort of his home base in the bookstore and the sepia shadows that tinged it. However, once you’ve bought into the new setting and once the shaky scene-setting early episodes (involving a truly ridiculous dismemberment scene that implies the creators have at least a passing respect for Brian Fuller’s Hannibal) are put behind us, You’s second season finds its feet as a character study of screwed-up rich kids – just like the first season – monstrous men, and the women who cross their paths.
What the second season does have going for it more than the first is a stronger line-up of female characters, most notably Jenna Ortega as Ellie, a precocious, smart and savvy teen who is both the vehicle for a #MeToo-flavoured subplot featuring predatory comedian Henderson and a glowing send-up of the power and potential of Gen Z. Victoria Pedretti also – as the phenomenally named Love Quinn – comes into her own as the show progresses, revealing in the final episodes that she’s more than a match for Joe’s particular brand of protectiveness.
It’s a painful irony, then, that what makes the second season strong is also what makes it weak, for with every well-written woman there’s one who’s slightly abandoned by the narrative. Who suffers most – and was always going to, given how her plotline diverges from the original book – was Ambyr Childers’ Candace. Starting out as a looming threat that kept Joe constantly looking over his shoulder, once she appears in the main action, she reveals herself to be considerably out of her depth compared to Joe’s ability to deceive. But, admittedly, this is also her saving grace as a sympathetic character and a more relatable portrayal of a traumatised victim. Her revenge fantasy of taking down the man who left her for dead is a world away from the reality of enacting it, and seeing her try to struggle past her trauma to scheme on Joe’s level is tough and heartbreaking, especially given her eventual ending.
The fact that the other victimised avenging angel in LA – Delilah (a competent Carmela Zumbado doing her level best with an underwritten, underdeveloped part) – meets an identical fate is not lacking irony either, nor is it entirely comfortable given the regularity with which young women die in thrillers and the justice that they are subsequently deprived of. The show, as Penn Badgley has pointed out in recent interviews, looks at how far society will go to forgive evil white men, and the women that become collateral damage to them both in the show and within the story are a dark spot on the narrative. Their deaths had to happen to drive the story and make the point, but you can’t help but wish for something more for them from a show designed to both send up and skewer cliches like this. By leaning into them to illuminate a narrative, do they lose sight of the women who have driven the story – and Joe – along?
Dramatically, the fact that they meet their ends at the hands of another woman is possibly what saves their deaths from becoming entirely trite. Love Quinn – to be filed next to Amy Elliott Dunne in the annals of beautiful psychopaths – proves herself to be a formidable match for Joe’s bizarre psychology, matching his own white-knight mentality with one that goes beyond avenging angel and into full-blown Greek antiheroine. With touches of Allison Williams in Get Out (a comparison only strengthened when we visit her parents’ truly haunting wellness retreat for the duration of an episode, and also added to by the fact that the show’s lead quartet of actors are white), Love will make a compelling addition to the canon of TV heroines we love to hate. Should the rumoured third season materialise, it will be intriguing to see how she and Joe – her newly bent and broken perfect partner in crime – play off against each other in what could be a suburban horror story the kind not seen since Mac and Dennis moved there in It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. (And yes, we’ve seen the jokes that compare Joe Goldberg to Dennis Reynolds.) Evolving from a narrative that’s simply about the horror of male entitlement masquerading as romance, the second season introduces us to a show that resets the scene as a demonic examination of white privilege.
With luck, Season 2 of You – which, incidentally, is performing better with critics than the first season did, likely down to its deepening of the roles for its secondary and female characters – will create the kind of award show buzz for the leads that the first season deserved. We said it then and we’ll say it again: Penn Badgley is note-perfect as Joe. Even as his character becomes more of a device in the driving narrative of the later episodes, he fights tooth and nail to retain the attention of the viewer and sell the vision of the damaged psychopath on-screen (with more of his character’s back-story deepening our understanding of what he’s looking for from a woman), while off-screen goes above and beyond to illustrate the monstrous nature of both the character he plays and the fictional and real society that is so quick to excuse him. We will be looking out for him in future awards categories almost as eagerly as we will look out for the announcement confirming the new season. You is damaged, troublesome, imperfect and problematic. And yet, perhaps it’s exactly what we deserve.
You is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.