How Does ‘You’ Manipulate Its Audience Without Hiding?


‘And then I saw you.’ From the first time we hear Joe Goldberg, a.k.a. Will Bettelheim, played brilliantly by Penn Badgely, say these words, we are treated to the nature of this character. And subsequently, the nature of the show itself. In a line, Netflix Series, You may be a show about a creepy stalker/serial killer who fixates on specific women. But everything from the show’s writing and acting, all the way to lighting and setting, manipulates its audience through its central character. 

The Lens of a Decent Criminal

Joe Goldberg may be many things, but self-aware, he is not. To put a fine point on it, he is selectively aware. Of himself, of the women he chooses, and the crimes he commits. He believes and reiterates to himself that he is a romantic. He is deeply in love with these women, and they are ‘the one.’ It is for them that he is forced to cross boundaries. The mistakes they make and the people in their lives who are harmful to them are all decisions Joe will make. 

And as he follows these women, namely Beck and Love, across 2 seasons, we are treated to his constant voiceovers. He watches these women under his cap, blending into a sea of skinny white guys. But while he may look silent and watchful, he is a chatty one, treating the audience to a wildly entertaining but highly manipulative inner dialogue. 

We believe that somewhere he is genuinely in love. We think he is sociopathic and unable to absorb laws that govern humans, but he does truly care. And the only reason we may continue to believe this even as he murders people is because we are only allowed to see things from his perspective. 

Bright Lights Deceive 

It is an age-old magician’s trick, isn’t it? Distract the audience. Misdirect them. With You, it may not be flashing lights, but it is bright and cheery cities. Even in its darkest moments, the show does not let you think so with its colors. And they use this to their advantage as the next step of manipulation. 

Just as Joe dresses up his intentions in nondescript, non-threatening attire, so does the show. There are flowers and fruits, green parks as crime scenes for quick assaults, and charming bookstores. Joe does not see the world through a blue or dark lens, and neither do we. We see this cleverly reversed when his first woman, Candace, recounts her tales of a dangerous encounter with Joe. 

It is storytelling that entirely makes use of the visual space. It lulls us into a false sense of security, soothing our protests and diluting our hold of common sense. He couldn’t really be as bad as his actions portray. He didn’t really mean to kill those people. And he really does love these women. 

It is what Joe Goldberg does to himself and to his women. It is what the show does to us. 

With Netflix Series, You Season 3, just around the corner, releasing on October 15, a large audience is waiting with curiosity and excitement. The show’s popularity is proof that the manipulation has stuck the landing. Joe Goldberg has managed to do a number on all of us.

You is a 2018 Romantic Thriller series created by Sera Gamble and Greg Berlanti. Season 1 & 2 are streaming on Netflix.

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Mareena Francis
Mareena Francis
Mareena Francis Parakkal is a 25-year-old writer and poet. She has written about film, people, places, and poetry across multiple platforms and hopes to continue doing so.

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