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The twists on horror tropes and the myth of the 'nice guy' in You

By Emma Fraser

Dating can be a nightmare, navigating various apps, sites, and meet-cutes. But what happens when the so-called perfect guy is hiding secrets that are more My Favorite Murder than The Bachelor? You debuted on Lifetime back in September, but it has really picked up conversational steam since arriving on Netflix during the festive break. It's never easy to predict what viewers will respond to, but releasing a super bingeable show during the holiday season is always a good strategy. You is also a great recent example of a show getting a second life on a streaming platform, as Netflix has announced it is picking up the series for Season 2 after Lifetime canceled it.

Based on the book of the same name by Caroline Kepnes, The Magicians showrunner Sera Gamble and the Arrowverse's executive producer Greg Berlanti are here with your new obsession. What is it about this fairy-tale-turned-scary-story that makes for such compelling viewing?

Warning for detailed spoilers ahead from You's first season (including the finale).

When Beck (Elizabeth Lail) walks into a bookstore, she is unaware that her life is about to change in a major way. She is about to meet the man of her dreams, the guy who will do anything for her. Working in a New York bookstore on screen is straight out of You’ve Got Mail, but I’m pretty sure neither Meg Ryan nor Tom Hanks had a cage in their basement, perfect for both preserving first editions and holding people captive. Joe (Penn Badgley) is a humble bookstore clerk; he doesn’t work in a job that is crime-adjacent like Dexter (Michael C. Hall), but he has much more in common with Miami’s biggest serial killer than Hugh Grant’s bookshop owner in Notting Hill.

Joe’s appeal — other than his amazing cheekbones, great hair, and fabulous sweater collection — centers on how he presents himself to Beck as being completely different from the guys she usually dates. He is the valiant knight in shining armor who will combat those daddy issues (because of course Beck has daddy issues). But instead of a sword, he comes armed with a book, plus a whole lot of modern tricks up his sleeve to discover everything about the girl he has decided is The One. You is entertaining and acts as a handy Dos and Don'ts guide to dating in the age of social media. The internet is great for making connections, but it has also made it all too easy to find out anything about a person, particularly if you know their full name.

If it seems like I am mixing a lot of different genres, then this is because You expertly switches between storytelling tropes. It is Gossip Girl meets Dexter meets Pretty Little Liars meets the cold open of any number of Law & Order episodes. It is part soap, part horror, part dissection of the rom-com and its familiar tropes. On the surface, You is pure trash television featuring a fabulous antagonist called Peach Salinger (Shay Mitchell) — of those literary Salingers — and dialogue about a guy who hasn't done drugs since 9/11 and Joe calling himself “the only real feminist” in Beck’s life. It is a wild ride from start to finish that will have you yelling at the screen as if you are watching a Wes Craven movie.

Fairy tales act as a metaphor in the final episode, which also happens to be the one that uses a lot of horror story beats. While these classic stories are often framed as romantic with a happily ever after to aspire to, in truth they are hellish scenarios.


If you scratch beneath the surface, You is an exploration of every flavor of toxic man, from the rich boy who supposedly cares about the environment (but doesn’t count oral sex as cheating and is also a murderer) to the pervy professor willing to give a good grade as long as there is something in it for him. There is the therapist (played by John Stamos!) who sees no issue of hooking up with his client. Joe thinks he is different, that he is not like these other guys — and herein lies the genius of You, as it breaks down the myth of the self-bestowed "nice guy."

Joe is the hero of his story, but the villain of this romance. He is the killer in the house, the guy who in any other circumstance would be wearing a mask to hide his face. Luckily for him, all he needs is a baseball cap to blend into the background, because Beck is so blissfully unaware of anything going on around her — including her BFF being in love with her or the guy who is clearly stalking her. She doesn’t even spot Joe when he is hiding in her shower. Sure, the curtain is drawn (unlike the ones in the front room facing the street), but a real Final Girl would sense his presence.

Beck is definitely not Final Girl material — not because she has sex and drinks, but because, unlike a Final Girl, she doesn’t question any of the obviously strange things going on around her. She has zero social media privacy settings (which Joe uses to his advantage when researching everything about her), and she is willfully manipulated by everyone around her. Sure, she stands up to the pervy professor, but she lets Peach get away with pretty much everything. Joe's twisted logic lets him believe his actions are chivalrous, and even though there are plenty of times I was rooting for him to not get caught, at no point was I under the illusion that his romantic overtures should be heralded. Sometimes you cheer on as Freddy or Jason dispatches certain victims, but at no point are these actions considered just. You takes a page from this rule book.

At first, Joe’s POV is the only one we get, as he is the narrator. Beck does get her own voice, which is when it becomes clear that You is incredibly self-aware. This is a fine line to walk, as the things Joe does to Beck are truly terrible, but at no point are we meant to think what he is doing is fine. Pretty much every character on this show is some level of awful — except Karen (Natalie Paul) and maybe Paco (Luca Padovan), as he is just a child. Slasher horror movies will typically feature an ensemble of archetypes that you don’t necessarily mind meeting their grisly end. And because Beck doesn’t follow the model of a Final Girl — even if she dresses like one — her fate is one I should’ve seen coming, but was still shocked when it did.

Beck discovers Joe’s secret stash of cell phones (including her own) and a jar of teeth in the ceiling of his bathroom in the penultimate episode. At this moment it should’ve been clear that Beck is not making it to Season 2, but throughout the finale, despite being locked in Joe’s perspex book cage — which looks like it belongs in Hannibal Lecter’s basement — there is a chance she can persuade her captor to let her go.

When she does escape, You leans into its horror foundations as Beck stabs Joe with keys from the typewriter he'd gifted her. It's a pure Final Girl move of ingenuity, but the horror movie patented run up the stairs to potential freedom is met with another obstacle; the door out of the basement is locked and Joe has the key. As she rattles the metal door, an image of Sarah Michelle Gellar as Helen Shivers in the back of the cop car in I Know What You Did Last Summer springs to mind. The one person who can save her is indebted to Joe — via another murder — so back down Beck must go.


The cage is empty, Joe is out. But Beck manages to smack him around the head with a mallet, a mallet she drops when she successfully retrieves the set of keys in his pocket. Never drop your weapon, even when you think the monster is dead or incapacitated. They will get back up, they always do. This is not a case of Laurie Strode versus Michael Myers; it is much more Helen versus Ben Willis and the fish hook in I Know What You Did Last Summer.

Can You keep this level of genre-mashing madness up in Season 2? The final scene suggests yes, as it leans into a trope that belongs in both soap opera and horror; the “person presumed dead is actually alive” twist. Remember, if you don’t see a body, then the character is probably alive. Could this mean Beck is alive too? Sure, the police find a body, but at no point do we see it. It is hard to fake that kind of thing, but part of me is skeptical about her demise. However, this could be a step too far into storytelling suspension of disbelief even for You, particularly as (book spoiler alert) Beck does die in Caroline Kepnes’ novel.

And if you are unclear as to whether we are meant to romanticize Joe’s “straight from a horror guide to dating,” then star Penn Badgley is here to remind everyone that Joe is not a good guy. Or, as Beck so eloquently put it before she meets her end, he is a “sociopath on a white horse.”
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