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The Many Layers of YOU Season 4

hello world!
Alex Shannon
| May 13, 2023
hello world!

*This review contains massive SPOILERS for all seasons of YOU.*

YOU Season 4 was a departure from the show’s usual form and genre, or so we thought. Let’s get into how the writers have set the stage for season 5, the final season of YOU.

Mysteriously Not A Murder Mystery

Netflix decided to release season 4 in two parts. This move seems to point toward Netflix’s interest in cultivating week-to-week viewers. Or maybe the Netflix marketing people only watched the first batch of episodes. Because the murder mystery genre was just a breadcrumb trail that led to the usual stylings of our main man, the one and only serial-killing cage-building heartthrob, Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley).

Did we really think baseball cap boy would change? (Penn Badgely as Joe Goldberg)

YOU is a show that relies on its structure to function. It thrives when it leans into that structure rather than hiding behind subgenres. Joe has one person he’s obsessing over, trying to protect, trying to be better for, to whom his narration is addressed: Beck, Love, Natalie, Marienne, Kate, and Rhys. Then there’s a wayward young person Joe ends up mentoring because it shows a side of Joe we can root for: Paco, Ellie, Marienne (yeah, it’s yucky she’s on both lists), and Nadia. 

This season, the show takes time to explain to viewers classic Agatha Christie-style murder mystery structure via season 4 protectee Nadia (Amy Leigh Hickman). She tells Joe they function as a critique of the rich during economic downturns and point to a heightened disillusionment with structures of power. But with Netflix’s release strategy, they overemphasized this murder mystery branding to the detriment of the plot and twist.

Though the theme feels zeitgeisty, it also feels a bit like cheating. Because “it was the narrator!” and “he was a figment of your imagination” in a murder mystery is cheating! Rhys Montrose (Ed Speleers), our season 4 antagonist and center of Joe’s obsession, turned out to be half fake in this “Big Twist.” Making Rhys both a real and a figment of Joe’s imagination was a stretch in terms of storytelling. It meant the show had to leave too many breadcrumbs. I can’t have been the only one who guessed the twist. Let me know in the comments!

Joe’s romantic interests this season each represent the height and depth of privilege, money, and power. That’s where the strength in this season lies. Marienne (Tati Gabrielle) is a single mom, a woman of color living in recovery, held in Joe’s signature underground cage. Kate (Charlotte Riche) is white, the favorite daughter of one of the most powerful and wealthy men on the planet, trapped in his influence. Or so she says. I think we’ll have to wait for season 5 to see who Kate truly is, and I’ll get into that more later.

The Rhys of It All

This season, Joe obsesses over a man for the first time and has a full menty b. So viewers don’t get to be inside Joe’s head as his “You” becomes Rhys. Not really. We see Joe hunting “the killer” Rhys, whereas usually, he’s assuming the role of “white knight” for those he stalks. The writers dodged hard around Joe having romantic or sexual impulses toward Rhys UNTIL, when torturing him, Joe castrates him. Okay???? I guess?? If any of the writers want to email me an explanation or financial compensation, my inbox is open. It’s kind of an L that they didn’t just make him a little gay.

It’s not a mystery that Joe Goldberg is a murderer, that’s the whole thrust of the show. So British Murder Mystery functions as a theme to set the tone this season. Season 1 was New York grad school life with aspiring writer Guinevere Beck (Elizabeth Lail), season 2 was an LA Erehwon-culture satire, and season 3 was a send-up of rich suburbs secretly full of insidiousness. That leaves us with season 4 thematically being a British murder mystery set within academia and exclusive members clubs. Each season’s tone is set by who Joe is obsessed with. Season 4 was about privilege and power, with Joe’s obsession centering on the underdog politician, Rhys.

These writers made Ed play three versions of the same man. (Ed Speleers as Rhys Montrose, Penn Badgely as Joe Goldberg)

Meanwhile, he infiltrates a circle of the elite and begins stabbing them off one by one in a Jekyll and Hyde fugue state. Consciously or not, Joe refuses to believe his violence defines him. Alter Ego Rhys ultimately functions as a physical embodiment of YOU’s signature Joe voiceover. And we do love the physical embodiment. Ed Speleers, love ya, buddy, keep those monologues coming.

The Internet Doesn’t Like Kate

I’ve seen swarms of TikTok girlypops commenting they found this season’s romantic lead, Kate, boring, lame, and mean. But there are technical elements at play keeping us from getting on Kate’s side. Kate didn’t get an internal monologue episode like Beck, Love, and Marianne. The voiceover thoughts are a powerful empathy tool the writers utilize very specifically. Their omission of Kate is telling. 

Let’s not forget what’s in that box down there. (Penn Badgely as Joe Goldberg, Charlotte Ritchie as Kate Galvin)

Kate and Joe also aren’t kissing as much because of some real-world adjustments in production. Penn Badgley is over being hyper-sexualized, and I think we ought to respect an actor’s boundaries. The sex scenes are significantly less sensual than the fanbase has become accustomed to, and to that, I say, get over it. 🙂 You can watch people make out on other shows.

I don’t agree with the I Hate Kate Brigade. I think Kate is meant to be a mystery and that next season will be her real season. I also think she’s well-suited to Joe. Kate and Joe are alike, but not in the way he was similar to Love (Victoria Pedretti). Love didn’t have Kate’s remorse. Joe’s internal dedication to “becoming better,” aka “trying not to kill people,” is at the center of this show’s premise. Whether it’s genuine is beside the point, Kate shares Joe’s perspective; she wants to turn a new leaf, too.

Love would’ve done anything to protect Forty and her family name. Kate, on the other hand, must suspect Joe murdered her father. And it didn’t stop her from bringing Joe along to New York, as she capitalizes on her father’s plan while free of his interference. Kate’s a nepo baby with enough power to keep Joe Goldberg out of prison after killing the rich and famous for, ya know, plot purposes.

They were so mom and dad here. (Penn Badgely as Joe Quinn Goldberg, Victoria Pedretti as Love Quinn Goldberg)

Personally, I find Kate’s Fleabag vibe, bitchiness, and initial distaste for Joe refreshing. YOU, as a show, successfully explores womanhood through the distorted lens of this obsessive killer. It might be easy to forget, but we should be rooting for the women, not Joe.

The writers of YOU particularly enjoy fucking with romance genre expectations. From that perspective, of course, there was no way the ingénue/damsel in distress character, Phoebe (Tilly Keeper), was going to be Joe’s love interest. Joe casting himself as “the white knight” hero is a crumbling POV this season as his obsessions drift further away from his romantic side.

“Professor” “Jonathan” “Moore” smdh. (Penn Badgely as Joe Goldberg as Jonathan Moore)

In season 2, Joe’s ex and would-be-murder-victim Candace (Ambyr Childers) returns from the dead with a promise to show Joe “who he really is.” Her declaration became a theme for season 2 and season 3. Season 4’s exploration of Joe facing himself takes a turn for the literal with the creation of his alter ego. This fresh face for his violent tendencies might be about showing the die-hard Joe fangirls who he really is, too. It’s time we get the ick for Joe Goldberg once and for all.

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