How Netflix’s Series “You” Romanticizes Toxic Lovers

SPOILER ALERT: If you’re planning on watching the show, don’t read this article.

If you’re anything like me, you’ve recently fallen down the rabbit hole of Netflix’s lurid, dark comedy “You.” The 10-episode series follows young bibliophile and well-rounded maniac, Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley– and yes, his cheekbones are just as dreamy as ever) and the woman he’s obsessed with, Guinevere Beck (Elizabeth Lail).

“Well, hello there. Who are you?” Joe narrates in the pilot’s whimsical opening scene. It isn’t long before the show lures the audience into Joe’s world. On the outside, he manages a Manhattan bookstore, brings novels to his neighbor’s neglected child, and looks like an all-around good guy, but his character reveals so much more than that.

The show progresses through the complexities of dating in New York with the added bonus of a sexy psychopath. A chance encounter allows Beck and Joe to exchange contact info in a magical New York moment. He then steals her phone and begins to identify people that could potentially stand between him and Beck.

Before long, Joe spirals down a path of lies, deception, and murder. He starts with Beck’s shiesty, non-committal boyfriend and then takes out her bitchy best friend.

Throughout the show, Joe emphasizes that he knows what is best for Beck. He believes that he can give her the life she needs. And while he can carve out a sweet space for her in his life, in the end, she discovers his secrets and becomes a victim of his toxic desire to control her.

I discovered the show shortly after Netflix released it. As I watched, I couldn’t help but notice the parallels between toxic relationships and the dark, satirical drama between Joe and Beck.

As the show progresses, Beck unknowingly becomes intertwined with Joe and his toxic habits. It quickly becomes apparent that Joe isn’t looking out for Beck; he’s looking to own her. The camera weaves a tale of lies and manipulation told through warm colors and a narrow depth of field. Often, the main characters remain in sharp focus while the rest of the scene is blurred with fuzzy lines. Perhaps this lends to the limited scope one sees when they’re sucked into the twisted lies of abusive lovers.

Perhaps the theme that stuck out most was Joe’s desire to not only control Beck, but also preserve her. For example, in the basement of Joe’s bookstore lies a glass chamber to hold rare books. They are protected at an ideal temperature, free of moisture, and surrounded by all the tools necessary to restore damaged volumes.

However, the basement doubles as a prison where Joe locks up and kills the sheisty ex and later holds his frantic, sickly neighbor as she detoxes from drugs. It’s a jail cell and a hospital room that also becomes a production mill when Beck finally discovers what has been happening right under her nose.

Behind that glass wall, Joe locks her up as a safety precaution to prevent his exposure.

“You say you’re a writer. I fell in love with a writer. Maybe you should be writing,” Joe says from behind the glass after giving her a typewriter and blank sheets of paper.  

It is there in the basement that we see Joe’s the true motives (and other abusers’ true intentions, as well).

Abusers might lie to themselves and say they act out because they love you so much, but this series shows the true motives behind their actions: control and manipulation. Abuse isn’t about loving somebody in a way where they can be their own person and have the freedom to make good choices. It’s about the control that comes with preserving the parts the abuser likes and not allowing the victim to be anything else.

In a frantic attempt to preserve herself, Beck writes out a story of the events that transpired, framing her therapist and sparing Joe. She almost escapes, too, but in the end, she becomes a casualty on her captor’s growing list.

Beck’s final words are a half-truth, which is later published for all the world to believe. And wasn’t that what Joe wanted from her all along? He didn’t want her to live her own life, to be free and capable of making the choices she desired. He wanted to control her and sculpt her into the woman he thought she should be.

In the last scene of the season, we see Joe placing Beck’s book on the shelf of his store. She had finally become the writer Joe knew she could be. He had her under his possession, perfect and poised, speaking only the words he wanted her to say.

Feature Image via Instagram


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