There’s a story I read on the Internet as a child about a girl named Shannon who chats with a stranger online. The stranger, who is posing as a 14-year-old, uses the small details he draws out in their conversations to track Shannon to a softball game. When she returns home, he is sitting on the sofa with her parents, who are very worried. “There are people online who pretend to be kids; I was one of them,” the stranger explains. “But while others do it to find kids and hurt them, I belong to a group of parents who do it to protect kids from predators.” The stranger reveals that his friend’s daughter was murdered by an online stalker, so now he devotes his life to teaching teens how to avoid the same fate.
As it turned out, this maudlin story was fake, concocted by a pair of self-described “mature dedicated Christians” and published on a homemade AOL web page in 1998 as a cautionary tale for millennial teens. The text was widely shared and, by the time it reached me, had lost the disclaimer that the account was fiction rather than fact. I’d heard similar stories of children and teenagers (usually female) being stalked because they’d talked to strangers online. I doubt I believed them, but the motif was everywhere during an earlier era of Internet culture—until it disappeared, around the time that Facebook opened its membership to anyone 13 or older with an e-mail address.
Unlike its main competitors, Facebook required the user’s real name, and soon the image of online forums as a morass of deception at the hands of sick-minded individuals gave way to more diffuse forms of surveillance via social media, browser tracking, and Internet trolls.
Netflix’s You brings back the specters of stalking and obsession from an earlier era of online culture. Based on the novel of the same name by Caroline Kepnes, You is a noirish soap opera that follows a psychologically disturbed young man named Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley) as he uses the Internet to stalk a beautiful, lonely writer named Guinevere Beck (Elizabeth Lail) after they meet at the New York bookstore where he works.
Joe’s pursuit of Beck—she goes by her last name—leads to a relationship, a breakup, a reconciliation, and several murders. In the show’s second season, Joe flees to Los Angeles, where he meets Love Quinn (Victoria Pedretti), who works as a kitchen manager in a popular high-end organic food market called Anavrin (modeled after LA’s trendy Erewhon, a favorite of Kanye West’s). The second season follows the same formula of lies, intrigue, and murder, until a late twist leaves Joe trapped and outplayed.
Even though You uses millennial tropes, it expresses a much older desire to be seen with greater clarity and intensity than is possible in real life, a desire facilitated by the ease with which Internet users can elide certain physical realities. Joe represents its most extreme manifestation and gives us a sense of its dangers, but the horror of You lies in the small miseries of its sane characters.
Badgley, known for playing private school outsider Dan Humphrey on the late ’00s teen soap opera Gossip Girl, has said in interviews that You functions as a “social commentary” on romantic tropes and on “how much we are willing to be patient and forgive someone who inhabits a body that looks something like mine: the color of my skin, my gender, these sorts of privileges.” When prompted to talk about Joe in an ASMR video produced by W magazine, Badgley swivels between two sleek foam-covered mics. “Why are we so attracted to murderous people?” he whispers, charmingly exasperated by his success playing a hot serial killer. “Why are we so willing to forgive them, no matter who they murder, no matter how violent they are towards women? How is it that we’re willing to forgive this guy?”
This question—why do viewers become emotionally invested in a murderous creep?—can lead to a straightforward answer: because Joe has been chosen as the protagonist of the show. Until the end of the second season, there is no way to disprove this theory. There is no nonwhite, nonmale serial killer in the show to demonstrate to us whether our tolerance for Joe has more to do with narrative structure or social conditioning. But Badgley’s question about why audiences forgive Joe leads us to something more particular and uncomfortable about You: Why do Joe’s partners forgive him? Why do Beck and Love, two people with an intimate knowledge of Joe’s flaws—including, in time, his murders—choose, in different ways, to overlook them?
Amid credibility-straining details that place You on the edge of camp—a predatory literary agent zooms around Manhattan at midday in an empty stretch limousine; the Quinn family, owners of one successful grocery store, exercise a Mafia-like control over the Los Angeles Police Department; in a bafflingly specific error, Beck’s wealthy friend Peach Salinger (Shay Mitchell) claims that Alexander McQueen scarves have not gone on sale since 2010—Beck’s and Love’s willingness to forgive Joe is the exception. It rings disquietingly true. Perhaps this originates with Joe’s self-image as a “true romantic,” disappointed by the vapidity of his peers, searching for a soul mate who will save and be saved by him. “If we’re being honest,” he tells Beck, whom he has locked in a glass cage after she discovers evidence of his murders, “your life has been better since you met me. You just didn’t know how or why.” Later he reflects, “All I ever wanted from Beck was to be seen. Really seen and accepted.” More than being forgiven for his criminal deeds, he wants to be loved for the devotion he believes they demonstrate.
But what does Beck want? In the show’s first episode, as Joe begins to search for information about her on social media, he muses in voiceover, “There you were. Every account set to public. You want to be seen, heard, known,” but he also opines that it’s all an act. “Too busy living out moments you won’t remember five years from now…candidly, it’s the least appealing thing about you, Beck.” She splits from Joe for the first time when she catches him following her, and in the fight that ensues, he admits to reading her texts. But over the next few months, Beck reconsiders her decision. “I didn’t get it, but now I see it,” she tells him. “You are so good for me. You helped me so much…. I wish I hadn’t pushed you away. But I think it came from how scared I was to need you.” All the pieces to understand Joe were already there when they first dated: his paranoia, his obsessiveness, the systematic dismantling of her other major relationships. But these relationships were superficial and unfulfilling. With Joe, at least, there was attentiveness and the appearance of care.
In the show’s second season, when Love learns about Joe’s secret life, there’s a twist: She reveals that she has a violent past as well. “Yeah, you did some terrible things,” she tells him, “but that’s what sensitive people do when they’re trapped in a bad relationship.” Love views Joe as a soul mate, the rare person who will not condemn the kinds of actions seen as deserving of judgment since the dawn of human society. When he learns about Love’s past, Joe’s infatuation evaporates. He wants to be seen but perhaps not in such glaring detail. Over the show’s two seasons, Joe and his partners have revealed themselves as wanting the same things—companionship, care, an acknowledgment of the hardships they’ve faced—and have miscalculated the risks involved.
There is plenty of melodrama in You—maimings; sex crimes; chilling monologues about peanut allergies; a tense, high-stakes game of hide-and-seek in a New England mansion. Most of this is predictable and, although fun, not particularly affecting. The truly disturbing thing about You is the way it riffs on the small, cold, hungry horror of being invisible, a horror magnified in an era when a large portion of the American economy is devoted to producing technologies to more easily express and quantify interest, care, or affinity. As Badgley notes, that old fear of loneliness can mix dangerously with toxic masculinity. But it also produces myriad other kinds of pain, sharp and imperceptible.
Stalkers are frightening because they cross informal boundaries as well as formal, legal ones. There are many normal reasons to walk past a certain apartment building or go to a particular softball game, and it isn’t a crime to refresh someone’s Facebook account multiple times a day. Up to a certain point, such single-mindedness can read as romantic. The normalcy of the activities of a stalker should make the transgression hard to define, but it’s not. We know what it looks like to pay too-close attention or worse.
You is a study of the dangers of when someone pays too-close attention. It offers us insight into the ungovernable mess of everyday life, too, in which forms of visibility and obscurity clash and it’s easy to feel at once overexposed and at risk of disappearing. In this way, maybe unwittingly, You examines the other end of obsession’s spectrum—not just the point at which it turns dangerous but also how little attention we need to survive.