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A closeup of Penn Badgley as Joe Goldberg, lurking behind a doorway in Season 4 of Netflix’s You. Photo: Netflix

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You’s secret to rooting for a bad guy: Surround him with worse people

I love my problematic friend Joe Goldberg

Joshua Rivera (he/him) is an entertainment and culture journalist specializing in film, TV, and video game criticism, the latest stop in a decade-plus career as a critic.

For three seasons now, Netflix’s You has made a hobby of flirting with bad taste. The show follows Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley), an erudite bookseller with an unfortunate habit of stalking women and murdering people who get in the way of his dark fantasies. In each season of You, Joe tries to be a better person, but simply cannot, because he keeps meeting interesting women he must know more about. For the show to go on, he has to either keep getting away with horrible things, or he has to meet someone worse. Like in the new fourth season, where he moves to a whole country full of worse people: England.

This is the upside to making a show about a horrible person: The best way to keep him from getting caught is to move him from place to place. For the viewer, that results in a show that can also hop from genre to genre. You’s first season was a dark twist on the New York City meet-cute romance, its second shifted things to Los Angeles to add a bit of West Coast satire to the mix, and the third saw Joe settle down with his murderous impulses and the show became a domestic farce, using murder to underline the stakes of marriage and parenthood.

You’s fourth season, however, starts with Joe feeling the heat stateside and going on the lam in Europe. After growing a beard and changing his name, Joe lands a job as a professor in London and falls in with a group of old-money debutantes. This new crowd is brash, entitled, and getting murdered one by one by a mysterious “Eat the Rich Killer.” Even better: this killer seems like they want to frame Joe — and they know his secret.

A small posse of very rich people stand in front of a bar and kinda pose for the camera in Season 4 of Netflix’s You Photo: Netflix

In transforming into a murder mystery, You’s writers, headed by showrunner Sera Gamble of The Magicians fame, invert the series’ usual formula. This time, Joe is the one being stalked by someone who knows a little too much about his life — including the murders that he’s trying to run from. Of course, that doesn’t mean Joe isn’t also fixated on someone new. This time, it’s Kate (Charlotte Ritchie), a gallery manager who lives next door to Joe and gets wrapped up in his life after her sort-of boyfriend, Joe’s arrogant university co-worker Malcolm (Stephen Hagan) is the first victim of the Eat the Rich killer.

Unlike prior seasons, Netflix is breaking up this season of You into two parts, with the first five episodes dropping today and the final five coming in exactly one month, on March 9. There’s a natural cliffhanger at the end of part 1 that has the potential to change the entire course of the season in a way that makes the wait for part 2 unbearable, but it’s also a cliffhanger that brings You’s chameleonlike ability to genre hop into question, making viewers wonder how far is too far.

Joe lurks in the background at the top of an outdoor staircase while Kate stands at the bottom on the phone in a trench coat in a scene from season 4 of Netflix’s You. Photo: Netflix

Part 1 is a bit messy, but fun — the new cast of rich jerks are perfectly detestable targets for Joe’s sardonic narration, and it’s built around the sexy cat-and-mouse game between Joe and Kate. Each suspects the other in the Eat the Rich killings in some way, but they’re both drawn to each other due to their compulsion to believe that they are good people shunted by circumstance into do bad things: Joe with his occasional murder, Kate with her exorbitant wealth. Part 1 ends before making any particular statement about these ideas — in fact, its class war is aesthetic only, a means of placing Joe in a context where he is, at least in the moment, not the worst person in the room.

A lot of You’s knack for creating a protagonist that the viewer both wants to watch and not root for lies on the shoulders of Penn Badgley’s performance. Badgley plays in light and shadow; a wry grin in one moment can quickly give way to a discomfiting leer that hints at what actually lurks under his skin. It’s why You’s best episodes can keep viewers at the edge of their seat as they hope Joe — not always the brightest criminal — evades capture but also know that in the end, it would be satisfying to watch him rot. The first half of season 4 begins with a reason to root for him, as he’s a bad person who may be the only one capable of catching someone worse. Then the season breaks on a note of unease, asking a question that might threaten to undermine what the show has thus far handled so well: Is Joe a useful monster, or a monstrous hero?

You season 4, part 1 is now streaming on Netflix. Part 2 arrives on March 9.