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The Netflix series You is, at its core, a horror story — the tale of a serial killer and monster told from that monster's POV. Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley) stalks women. He masturbates in public thinking of them. He breaks into their homes, steals their belongings, their underwear, their used tampons. He puts them in soundproof cages. He brutally murders people.
But people don't catch on. And for every action, Joe has an excuse, a plea for understanding. A bad childhood, a desire to help people. A warm smile masking an ice-cold soul oozing and slithering out from behind.
Joe is a nice guy.
To exist as a woman in the world is to know there are bad, dangerous men out there who want to hurt us. But the "nice guys?" They can be harder to suss out. They can get away with a lot. They can get away with too much until it's too late. Because every red flag is easy to ignore when he's just so nice.
In the case of Joe, he brings sandwiches and books to his New York neighbor from an abusive home and lets him hang out in Joe's apartment while the screams of fighting or fornicating parents fill the hallway. He worries about his LA neighbor, saving her from a near-date rape. He's helpful. He cares. He's a good guy who just wants to do the right thing.
And therein lies the true terror of the "nice guy" — he believes he is nice. He believes he is good. He believes everything bad he does is deserved, warranted, justified.
He's done nothing truly wrong. For he is, you see, a nice guy.
Warning: Spoilers within for Season 2 of You.
To put a villain like this front and center is tricky. In many ways, he is our protagonist, our hero. But You never lets us forget who and what Joe is. Every time you start to let yourself be endeared by Badgley's puppy dog eyes, so far as to almost think, "hey, he is being really nice to these people he's trapped in this cage," the show reminds you: no. Joe is a monster. A monster who believes he is a prince, who hurts women he feels entitled to, who is validated and vindicated by heartbreak because, really, it's her fault for not loving him. It's always her fault, whoever the "her" may be.
Joe puts these women, these objects of affection (emphasis on the object part), on an impossible pedestal. They are only as real as they exist in his mind, the adorably wonderfully flawed damsels needing his rescue. But the second they operate outside of that view, the second they become real humans, the second he must face that they are not his possessions, he turns. And he inevitably attacks, with deadly force.
The entertainment in seeing Joe repeatedly get knocked down, fumbling through his efforts, comes from the fact that many of us know this guy, to a lesser but still insidious degree. There is a skin-crawling fear that clings to us, jumping on every nerve, when we are faced with someone who would hurt us — emotionally, physically, through manipulation and psychological abuse — and never understand that they are in the wrong. That we, as women, deserve what they give us. They are nice guys. We are the bad girls who didn't appreciate them, who couldn't just take a compliment, who friend-zoned them, who teased them and took away what was rightfully theirs: our attention, our adoration, and our bodies.
The #MeToo era is rife with "nice guy" stories. For every Harvey, there's a dozen more who fly under the radar, often falling into a grayer area with just enough wiggle room for excuses, understanding, and, ultimately, blame — not for them, but for their victims.
That space is where You lives and thrives. And it's what made it hit even harder when the tables turned and Joe gets "nice guyed" by his target.
Love Quinn (Victoria Pedretti) is, by all accounts, a nice girl. A chef who bakes cakes for her friends' wedding, who mourns her dead husband, who does charity work, who cares for her addict brother, who loves Joe with her whole heart.
She first killed as a teenage girl, murdering the au pair who was molesting her brother. She killed Candace and Dahlia because they would turn Joe over to the police. She lies and manipulates and stalks right back, and feels — as Joe does — justified. She is, as the Season 2 tagline proclaims, Joe's match.
And Joe is horrified. He is faced with a mirror and cannot see the reflection, only the wickedness of this woman he thought he loved but is now disgusted by. She was an object of obsession and is now disposable. As were the others.
And so Love takes on the role of crazy girlfriend, hysterical and unhinged. Inexcusable and impossible to understand or condone. She must be sorry, and must earn forgiveness. Her only salvation comes from what is now her only purpose: the child she is carrying.
So Joe does the "nice guy" thing. They buy a cute house to raise their precious child. He will be a doting dad and partner, because that's what nice guys do. All while selecting his next target, who will most assuredly fill the otherworldly hole Love left by becoming too human.
In an interview with ET, Badgley recognized Joe's need for comeuppance, for real consequences. "Joe needs justice, but what does that mean? Does that mean prison? Does that mean death? I don’t know.” Will Joe be murdered? Badgley's pretty sure. “He inevitably will be, right? I mean, he has to be.”
In television and film, bad guys get repercussions. They are punished for their actions.
And we enjoy it because, in life, "nice guys" so rarely are.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.