The main players — privileged and white — in Greg Berlanti and Sera Gamble’s You, now on Netflix, are just like you and me — in Indian context, privileged and upper caste. It’s probably a kick in the gut if you are reading this after watching the show but it is impossible to cushion the uncomfortable fact. It is named after us. It is talking about a generation jammed by social media, performative wokeness and influenced by centuries of patriarchy.
They stalk on Instagram, they ghost, they go after hipster start-up ideas, they try to overcompensate for all the privilege by loudly checking it on the Internet. They can be racist in private, unchecked moments or they get caught for having said something offensive in their past. You is about the men and women who have had messy upbringings, secrets unguarded in the age of Internet, and private lives diametrically different from their public ones. You is really about men, those who say all the right things and seemingly do the right things too. Until they don’t. It’s about us. It’s about you.
The MeToo and TimesUp movements are growing and in India, they are just about standing up on their legs. When India’s version exploded on social media at the end of 2018, we had a lot of personal stories that spoke of men who had up till then enjoyed spotless reputation.
These were men who have been known to say the right things, they were the men among whom, some women felt safe. Another embarrassing by-product of India’s MeToo movement was friends of predators standing up for them and vouching for their characters. You (based on Caroline Kepnes’s 2014 novel) is the first mainstream pop-culture piece that doggedly goes to all these uncomfortable places where it shows up both men and women as individuals operating in different wavelengths with different people. Both Joe (Penn Badgley) and Guinevere Beck (Elizabeth Lail) have their own secrets and they swap being good and bad depending on the people they interact with. At one point, Joe with a complete lack of irony, thinks to himself — “I swear I am the only real feminist you know.”
You begins in ominous fashion — of all the bookstores in the world, Beck walks into Joe’s Mooney’s, named after the owner of the store and someone who doubled up as Joe’s mentor and foster care. But the meet-cutes come with a dash of irony and the fleeting passages of romance are undercut by explicit cynicism. The very first one begins with Joe saying, “Follow me”, and the all-important one has them lying on top of each other in a subway station, a moment that is built up like a dreamy interlude, only to be complemented by Beck’s violent heaving. This is the show’s greatest strength — lesser shows tend to go overboard in romanticising their dangerous male leads. You will have none of it.
The series wants to emphasise a predator’s past and childhood as the progenitor for his actions as an adult, but it does so without indulging in screen time. It is established by mirroring all of it in Paco, Joe’s neighbour Claudia’s son, and Joe’s unofficial status as the kid’s mentor. Early on, he recommends books to Paco and when Paco becomes impatient with The Count of Monte Cristo (his earlier recommendation The Three Musketeers is reflected in three generations of men — Mooney, Joe, Paco) — complaining of his powerlessness in handling Claudia’s abusive boyfriend Ron — Joe’s recommendation is Frankenstein.
Claudia is an absent parent and Joe’s empathetic attitude towards the family is his Jekyll and Hyde persona in full flight. Joe, as a predator, suffers from saviour complex — he saves old, valuable but dishevelled books just the way he has a constant urge to save Paco and Beck. He repeats to himself multiple times that he is not a killer and that he is incapable of hurting. In Joe’s head, gaslighting is defined in euphemistic terms, the same lack of self-awareness leading him to say things like, “How dare she invade my privacy?”
You is most nuanced in its portrayal of the victims — everyone from Beck to Peach to Claudia. In terms of story and narrative, we’ve watched this unfold a million times. We often see the woman drawn as an angel — a character who is pure, flawless, can do and say no wrong. You is unapologetic in this regard. Women in You are broken in more ways than one.
They have secrets about their families and their love lives, they are addicts, they are unfit parents, they may not be feminists, they cheat and lie, they live multiple lives. But none of them hits, kills or stalks. Beck even puts it in as many words. If there is a common trope among the MeToo sceptics, deniers and unbelievers, it is the practice of blaming the victim and inability to understand unambiguous consent. Claudia schools Joe on why she cannot report Ron and tells Joe, “You have no idea what it takes to live my life. They don’t write books about women like me. No one would think to.” But here it is.