Elizabeth Lail and Penn Badgley in You
Photo: Lifetime

The opening shot of You is an upside-down fisheye-lens view of the sprawling New York City skyline. The angle tilts viewers headfirst into a disturbed perspective of love and romance in the 21st century. Highlighting both the isolation and over-sharing exacerbated by social media, You sheds light on the toxic behaviors exhibited by an entire generation of millennials. Using an obsessed bookshop manager (Penn Badgley) and the unfortunate woman (Elizabeth Lail) who catches his eye, the litmus test for toxicity is set across a cast of characters all looking for love. The hit series is adapted from Caroline Kepnes’ You: A Novel, the 2014 best-selling thriller that has earned praise from horror legends like Stephen King and has been translated into 19 different languages.

Although You premiered in September on Lifetime, the show didn’t explode in popularity until it began streaming on Netflix in late December. Perhaps, like me, viewers were concerned that the show would glamorize toxic relationships. But such skepticism wasn’t entirely warranted—Lifetime has been the go-to network for women’s stories of survival since its inception in 1984. With titles like My Crazy Ex, When Vows Break, and Homeless To Harvard, the network has taken a lot of heat over the years for featuring sappy, overly dramatic tear-jerker programming, but it has brought some of the most interesting stories of real-life trauma to the screen. While the success of films such as Aaliyah: Princess Of R&B or Drew Peterson: Untouchable is up for debate, the stories they tell are worthy of attention. Until the launch of OWN in 2011, Lifetime was on its own in telling these stories.

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One of the first expectations that You subverts is in making sure its toxic male lead isn’t alone—every character displays some destructive behavior. Toxic personalities are not a disorder: There’s no entry in the DSM about how to diagnose toxicity in an individual. According to Tracey E. Gilchrist of The Advocate, the term “toxic masculinity” can be traced back to Shepherd Bliss, a figure in the mythopoetic men’s movement. He asserted the term was “the result of modern culture repressing ‘deep masculinity.’” Of course, “toxicity” has evolved since the 1990s. While the term remains gendered, today we understand toxic behavior as any repeated action, by those of any gender, that is violent or manipulative. Examples of this include gaslighting, stalking, cyberbullying, and every variation of harassment.

The toxic behavior You explores more than any other is love addiction. Psychology Today’s Stanton Peele describes love addictions the following way: “We often say ‘love’ when we really mean, and are acting out, an addiction—a sterile, ingrown dependency relationship, with another person serving as the object of our need for security.” This describes most of the relationships in You, which asks its viewers to confront the typical romance setups from the beginning. When Joe first sees Guinevere (known as Beck), he begins to narrate her internal monologue. He makes wild assumptions about what Beck is trying to convey by going braless and wearing bracelets. From Joe’s perspective—the one the show dwells in the most—these thoughts are loving and caring. He speaks almost exclusively of helping Beck achieve her goals. Joe points out the toxic people in her life and laughs at her silly tweets. But mixed within the observations are cruel, belittling thoughts: He dislikes her job at the yoga studio, and is dismissive of her job at the school because her boss is interested in her. Joe also judges Beck for not writing more.

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Joe is the typical bad guy who believes himself to be good. “You has an archetype at the center of the story: Joe is fashioned in the image of the classic male romantic hero,” showrunner Sera Gamble, who developed the series with mega-producer Greg Berlanti, told The New York Times. “But in this case, we’ve erected this image so that we can burn it to the ground.” Initially, the image of the classic male hero is enticing to both Beck and the viewer, but it quickly sours. Joe is only content when everything is perfect or overly romantic. When Beck is unsure or distracted, he becomes violent and controlling. Either the vision of their relationship he crafted in his mind must match reality or he forces reality to match his narrative. This love-obsessed story is one that’s all too common in pop culture.

“The most valuable things in life are usually the most fragile,” Joe tells Paco (Luca Padovan), the boy who lives next door. “That’s why they need people like us to protect them.” He then offers Paco a rare copy of Don Quixote, the story of a delusional knight. Joe’s delusion is often played for laughs, and Badgley has the perfect serial killer combo of dead shark eyes and a haunting, other-worldly smile. In the premiere, Joe breaks into Beck’s apartment, where he’s almost found out when she returns unexpectedly. As he stands in the running shower, we hear Joe’s wry voice-over: “I’ve seen enough romantic comedies to know guys like me are always getting in jams like this.” He’s seconds from being discovered, but he ignores the danger because he can’t imagine being caught.

The show captures Joe’s obsession by making his reality nearly indiscernible from his delusions, yet everything he guesses about Beck is wrong—through smash cuts, we see that what Joe says is often incongruous with Beck’s actions. “I’m not bothering her, I’m just checking in,” Joe narrates when he first begins stalking Beck. As he thinks this, the camera moves around him, obscuring Joe from passersby who might report a weird dude in a baseball cap staring into a first-story window. We see Joe pass Beck in bars, coffee shops, and on the street. Although he insists he’s doing something helpful, the camera consistently judges him over his actions by keeping Beck and Joe out of the same frame.

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To Gossip Girl fans, Joe will feel familiar, and not just because Badgley played the gossip queen himself, Dan Humphrey. The characters have a lot in common: They’re both outsiders who live predominantly in their heads and use social media to gain the affection of the women they desire. But where Kepnes intended Joe to be a sendup of the gallant hero, Dan’s flaws were hardly depicted as anything other than desirable. But even Joe’s flaws can be appealing when cast in the “right” light: He loves books, wants to care for someone, and would rather play Scrabble with Beck than hang out with annoying friends. It can indeed be hard to make a decisive judgment about Joe early on. After a fan expressed confusion on Twitter about being attracted to Dan but not Joe, Badgley proffered that the fan had grown throughout the years. The actor’s taken all the social media swooning over his unhinged character in stride, even suggesting that the overly warm reception could fuel the narrative in season two.

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This framing is all part of You’s nuanced treatment of abuse—the series acknowledges that even the kindest people have the capacity to exhibit toxic behavior, which can often look and feel like love. One of the biggest takeaways from the show is that love does not conquers all. All relationships—not just romantic or sexual ones—take work. Gamble and Berlanti weave a complicated web of toxic relationships: Joe’s mentor was abusive, as were his parents, but they called their abuse “love.” Paco attempts to murder his mother’s (Victoria Cartagena) abuser. Then, he keeps Joe’s kidnapping of Beck a secret because Joe is the only one who has looked out for him. Beck’s best friends—rich private school girls whose income is derived almost exclusively from their last names—constantly place her in troubling situations. Peach (Shay Mitchell), Beck’s oldest friend who, like Joe, is fixated on her, only knows how to express her love for Beck by giving her money. Annika’s (Kathryn Gallagher) best relationship is with her validating Instagram followers. Each individual learns love and abuse from the person standing next to them; each interaction complicates what should be simpler.

Clear boundaries would have made everyone’s life easier. Claudia loves her son, Paco, but is so lost to her drug addiction and abusive partner, that she allows her child to be in harm’s way. It isn’t until she gets clean and gets help removing her abuser from her path that she can provide a better life for her son. Beck tries to establish boundaries, but Joe doesn’t give her many opportunities. In therapy, she discusses the difficulties of being in a committed relationship while trying to pursue her career—she feels trapped. Before she is able to express those thoughts to Joe, he listens to a recording of the session, and, being a “nice guy,” breaks up with her.

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Photo: Lifetime

Joe is a self-professed romantic with a skewed way of thinking—his motivation is to protect his partner, but he doesn’t leave her any room to be herself. “[W]e all have to be careful anytime we think we know better than the person we’re talking to,” says Gamble, “especially about what that person needs or how they should act or behave as a member of whatever group they’re a part of.” Gamble points to Joe’s belief that he is “a feminist and a good man. His actions come from a deep place of entitlement because he’s confident that he should be helping Beck, though he hasn’t asked her if she wants help.”

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You doesn’t explore those themes solely through Joe. Peach also straddles the line between toxic behavior and toxic personhood, something I view as an individual who affects everyone with their toxic behavior. Like Joe, she wants to control Beck’s life; she just happens to be more tactful and less invasive in her approach. But she’s still manipulative, body-shaming Annika and preventing others from getting close to Beck to keep control over her inner circle. Worst of all, Peach sabotages Beck’s search for a literary agent, because she can’t stand the idea of Beck succeeding on her own. Their fallout leads to the most dangerous and cruel form of emotional abuse—committing self-harm to keep a loved one near—with Peach faking her own suicide.

Even You’s would-be hero exhibits toxic behavior. Dangerously lost in her own unresolved pain about her father’s drug abuse, Beck attempts to have a relationship with him, but can’t figure out how to forgive his past transgressions. At dinner, she brings up memories he can’t recall because he was high out of his mind. To her, these memories are hilarious anecdotes of her childhood, but for him, they’re moments he put his daughter’s life at risk. This leads Beck to lie about her father to Joe and tell him that he died of an overdose. Later, she uses that same lie to support her work with her new advisor. That’s not all: Beck also cheats on Joe with her therapist. She lies to her friends about how she’s feeling and what she wants. Above all else, she lies to herself.

What keeps Beck from joining Joe and Peach in toxic personhood is the fact that she owns her shit; she’s self-aware, remorseful, and willing to change. Beck owns up to her lies and faults; even when she replicates some of Joe’s stalking behavior, she poses the questions that are burning inside her to her partner. She’s willing to face her flaws, so that by the end of her story (so far), she’s able to break that chain. After Beck finds Joe’s stalker stash of teeth and underwear and throws her in the bookstore’s vault—his book prison—she writes something that is both a love story and a personal revelation. She writes of Disney princesses, the disparities between the poor and the incredibly wealthy, and the beauty standards set for all women, finally realizing that she “didn’t have whatever magic turns a beast into a prince.” A quick shot of her ex, Benji (Lou Taylor Pucci), flashes on the screen, a reminder of a different type of toxic man that floated through her life.

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Expanding upon those expectations, Beck reflects on her life back to when the show began—when she was grateful for any contact with Benji, when she was doubting her writing, and her friends made her feel less than. Seated at an old typewriter, Beck types, “And just when you thought you might disappear forever, he saw you. You let yourself be swept because he was the first [man] strong enough to lift you.” Voiced rasped with determination and desperation, Lail perfectly expresses the emotional breakdown of a breakthrough. The desire to be saved is a narrative that has been force-fed to women, one that promotes the notion that they aren’t strong enough on their own to face the world. It’s no wonder they then seek partnership as shelter from their own failings. “Didn’t you want this? Didn’t you ask for it?” Beck continues, blaming herself for expectations set in the literary works that surround her, making the bookstore setting all the more suited for this twisted tale.

There’s a reason fans of the show have been bombarding Badgley with offers to be his next stalking victim: The desire to be taken care of is universal. Although You’s creative team tries desperately to show love addiction as a negative thing, it’s hard to move on from the dream that fairytales create. Many love addicts don’t even know they’re suffering. The reality of the love-obsessed looks a lot more like You than you think.

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