Understanding killer’s psyche

Jenn Tran

“You” gives viewers window into psychosis



Penn Badgley, known for playing Dan Humphrey in the CW series “Gossip Girl,” plays the role of a psychopathic stalker in Netflix’s latest American psychological thriller series, “You.”

The societal stigmas of mental health lead most people to distance themselves from individuals that they may assume are making the wrong decision. As humans, we already avoid our own psyches, and even more so ignore the psyches of those around us.

But all of that ceases to exist in the world of entertainment.

Badgley plays Joe Goldberg, a bookstore manager in New York City who quickly becomes infatuated with one of his customers, Guinevere Beck, played by Elizabeth Lail. Beck is an master’s student at New York University and an aspiring poet, one of the qualities that Joe is allured by.

Set in NYC, the series is filmed through Joe’s narrative. While the audience is able to see his narcissism, he is not. His actions become fatal for many of the cast members, Beck included. His insanity makes it impossible for him to look beyond his own faults and shortcomings.

Beck portrays herself online the way many in today’s age do: happy, healthy and carefree. All the while, she has her share of skeletons in the closet, all hidden in a group of wealthy close friends and an extroverted facade. Throughout the series she suffers from the writer’s block, and a hidden desire to betray those who are close to her.

Together, Beck and Joe create a story that is made up of lies, deceit, lack of digital privacy and compulsive actions that the person believes is rationalized by another’s actions in social media culture.

While “You” contains the overarching theme of “boy meets girl, boy turns out to be crazy,” it presents a unique take on the stalker while also emphasizing the way we conduct ourselves on social media and how exposed we leave ourselves.

It also pushes the watcher into the morally ambiguous area of finding yourself actually rooting for these two crazy kids to get together, as romantic comedies have trained us to do — until you realise that one of them is actually crazy. It also does not help that those who are suspicious of Joe are in no way likeable: his alcoholic neighbour Karen Minty, played by Natalie Paul, and Beck’s entitled, rich, friend Peach Salinger, who is played by Shay Mitchell.

Sympathy for the perceived evil is what “You” demonstrates so well, and it is why viewers are conflicted between rooting for its protagonist and fearing him.
Badgley walks the fine line between a nice guy and a complete sociopath. The series invites us to look inside a deeply disturbed mind as Joe’s inner narrative actively gives us the chronological steps of his flawed thought process.

Viewing the world through Joe’s warped perspective allows the viewer to see that his sociopathic ways of thinking are partially a product of his childhood trauma; escaping an abusive household only to land in the hands of Mooney, a man who physically and emotionally tortured him.

While Joe’s history of trauma comes nowhere near excusing his violent actions, it serves to create a rationale for why he is the way he is. The viewer is able to see what went wrong, thus beginning to root for him as an underdog.

The emotional whirlwind that fuels “You” leaves the viewer vulnerable to a feeling of cognitive dissonance that eases them into rooting for Joe, even though, logically, he is insane.

In all of the above cases, we rarely judge flawed decisions that lead to destruction because we fully understand the rationale behind the actions. Experiencing dysfunction in this way allows us to consider skewed perspectives that break societal norms with minimal judgment or stigma.

In the series, Peach serves as a stand in for how someone might look at Joe in the real world. Without the context of Joe’s thought process that the viewers obtain, all of Joe’s actions can be perceived as disturbing. In the real world, having a glass cage in a basement would be concerning to the average person, and Beck’s downfall was that she did not suspect any of it. In the real world, society has surrounded mental health issues with such a negative stigma that the discussion revolves around the what and how, rather than why.

The show challenges viewers to see the world through the eyes of an upcoming serial killer who slowly loses his sanity, offering the viewer a chance to sympathize with his perspective.

By placing the viewer directly into Joe’s neurotic mind, “You” removes the stigma of being open and honest when experiencing destructive impulses. If the viewer could physically be with Joe in the midst of his demonic thoughts, they would attempt in steering him into the right direction, but the viewer cannot.

In the real world, humans often punish people who vocalize intrusive thoughts out of negligence. Rather than seeking for help, those who experience them keep them a secret, only speaking them into existence after it’s too late.