You Review, Season 2
By Doreen SheridanFebruary 14, 2020
I remember when I was younger and firmly convinced that any media adaptation of a novel must always be inferior to its source material. In recent years, I’ve been gladly disabused of this notion and nowhere more intriguingly so than with the second season of You on Netflix, based loosely on Caroline Kepnes’ sophomore novel, Hidden Bodies.
In the novel, our narrator, stalker and serial killer Joe Goldberg, moves from New York City to Los Angeles, chasing Amy Adam, the con artist who ripped off his bookstore and ripped out his heart. While trying to find her, he meets and becomes involved with Love Quinn, the moneyed daughter of grocery store moguls, who produces movies with her twin brother, the try-hard Forty. Even as Joe is trying to establish a relationship with Love, he’s killing anyone who stands in the way of his quest for Amy, while worrying about having left DNA evidence tying him to murder back on the East Coast.
In stark contrast, the Joe Goldberg of the TV show flees New York City when a figure from his past—let’s call her Amy, as well—shows up with righteous vengeance on her mind. Spooked, Joe packs it all in and heads west to the very last city anyone would ever associate with his bookish, low-key ways: Los Angeles.
In his brilliantly delivered if factually unreliable narrative voice-overs, Joe, now going by an alias, seems determined to adhere to the straight and narrow, partly out of fear of being tracked down by Amy but mostly because he’s gone and “fallen in love” again. His new interest, as in the novel, is Love Quinn, though this time she works at an upscale grocery store-cafe-bookstore where, surprise surprise, Joe gets a job, too. Determined not to repeat the mistakes he made with Beck in New York City, he eases up both on the stalking and on plunging into a relationship with Love when she shows reciprocal interest. But his criminal element is not to be denied, and he soon finds himself back in the habit of killing again.
You’s showrunners, Sera Gamble and Greg Berlanti, dissect every appalling Angeleno type while also managing to humanize them.
The second season of You on Netflix starts out somberly, almost as if in apology for how wickedly hilarious the first season was. Fortunately, the trademark wit returns with a vengeance almost as soon as Joe’s murderous impulses do. In the process of seeking love, he meets the best and worst of Southern California, often within the same people. You’s showrunners, Sera Gamble and Greg Berlanti, dissect every appalling Angeleno type while also managing to humanize them. Love is one great example, a fiercely protective earth mother whose codependent relationship with her twin brother is the product of a toxic family dynamic. Police officer David Fincher is another—as an East Coaster, I was aghast at the LAPD’s aggressive enforcement of jaywalking laws, and was genuinely surprised to find that the TV character was actually a toned-down version of the cop who harasses Joe in the book.
And while plot points and character traits differ between TV show and novel, I felt that the basic ideas driving each, if not entirely similar, were both important. Hidden Bodies is ultimately a book about the power of radical acceptance, a story that emphasizes how love can conquer evil or at the very least neutralize it. Joe voluntarily confesses (most of) his sins and, at the end, is left in a sort of liminal space, waiting for the rest of his life to begin.
The TV show takes a very different tack, making it clear that Amy is the tragic hero of the piece—I could write a whole other article on what her plight tells us about how society chooses to believe men over women even when the men are clearly guilty—and that Joe, even when getting what he thinks he deserves, still can’t be satisfied. Or, in his own words, “Sometimes a man gets exactly what he wishes for, and that can be the most perfect punishment of all.” Joe always thought he wanted to be loved for who he is but that twist of a season-ender puts the lie to this, emphasizing the fact that guys like Joe don’t want partners, they want objects. For all his lip service to love, for all his belief that his terrible actions are motivated by a higher purpose, at the end of the day, he craves dominion and control, not reciprocity. Love might cage him, temporarily. But love will not redeem him.
It’s important that the show makes this distinction, for while the novel’s choices are valid, they also exist in the context of words on paper. Readers are immersed utterly in Joe’s viciously impulsive mind, so even when we’re laughing with him—the book features the most devastatingly hilarious use of the smile emoji in contemporary crime fiction—we never forget for an instant that he’s a terrible person. More importantly, the arc of the book extends smoothly from consuming rage to possible redemption.
Joe’s journey in the Netflix adaptation, however, is much bumpier as he keeps trying, with varying degrees of effort, to reform himself from stalking and murdering. But what is reformation without accountability? Any time that TV Joe admits to his crimes, it’s only because he’s been forced to do so after being found out or exposed. Sure his actions and choices can seem less crazy in the context of his tragic past and the selfish, even criminal people around him. Watching the wild ride of this second season, with its beautiful people and gorgeous locations and, on the whole, more balanced display of the good and evil in all of us, it can be easy to forget that we’re not supposed to root for funny, beleaguered, handsome Joe. I’m glad that You goes out of its way to remind us that even though large parts of our society have been conditioned to prioritize sympathizing with male aggressors, to look for their redeeming qualities as a way to minimize the harm done to their female victims, Joe Goldberg is still a very bad guy (and those large parts of society? Aren’t good people who deserve a happy ending either.)
I love that show and book are so different yet intertwined, each making for an entertaining experience on its own while commenting on our society’s attitudes towards love and what is considered acceptable in the pursuit of it. The TV series does cover more ground and sets up perfectly for its next season, whereas Hidden Bodies’ ending feels more satisfyingly complete. I’ve heard that Ms. Kepnes is busy writing at least two more sequels, however, and I look forward to enjoying both them and as many seasons of the well-acted, well-scripted You in the future as possible, especially given how cleverly they’ve played off each other so far.