The Mercury News
`You' Season 4: New setting with same moral ambiguity
LONDON >> On a soundstage on the outskirts of London, Joe Goldberg, played by Penn Badgley, wound his way through a private club, deep in thought.
As in past seasons of the Netflix drama “You,” while the actors performed, Joe's internal monologue was rendered in a voice-over by a crew member, who declared the club, with its moody lighting and dark furnishings, “a perfect place for a frame job.” This time, the stand-in had a British accent (the monologue is rerecorded by Badgley later).
For the past three seasons, there's been a familiar formula to “You.” Joe, a well-read man with a tragic past and a proclivity for homicide, becomes obsessed with a woman, stalks her before they become romantically involved, and then Joe goes to great — and bloody — lengths — to try to ensure the success of their relationship.
The latest installment of the thriller — the first five episodes of which are now on Netflix — is a departure from what came before. Not only is it set in London, but we soon find Joe on the back foot, being manipulated by a mysterious enemy who may be an even more accomplished killer.
“From the beginning, we've known we can't really repeat ourselves from season to season,” Sera Gamble, the series's co-creator, writer and executive producer, said in a recent video interview.
Before each new season, the production team asks, “What kind of thriller we're going to put him in,” Gamble said. In Season 4, the answer to that question was a murder mystery set in London, a nod to Britain's rich history with the genre and to writers like Agatha Christie.
When the audience last saw Joe, he'd just extracted himself from a dysfunctional marriage by killing his wife, Love (Victoria Pedretti), who had told his love interest, Marienne (Tati Gabrielle), of his murderous past. Marienne fled to Paris with her daughter — and Joe vowed to find her.
The new season starts with Joe a professor at a fictional London university, trying to start over once again and to prove to Marienne that he is “not that man,” as he says in a voice-over: “I would never hurt you.”
His plans, however, are quickly scuppered when members of the ultra-rich group of friends he resentfully joins start getting killed, and Joe must find the murderer before he's framed for their crimes. “Great,” Joe's voice-over says when he realizes he's in a whodunit, “I get to reacquaint myself with my least-favorite genre.”
“You” debuted on Lifetime in 2018, but found a larger audience when Netflix picked it up a year later. Viewers often greet new episodes by debating on social media whether or not they should be rooting for Joe or find him attractive. (“In a more just society, we would all see Joe as problematic and not be interested in the show, but that's not the society we live in,” Badgley told The New York Times in 2019.)
In Season 4, Joe meets Londoners like Blessing, a Nigerian princess; Simon, an artist and the son of a billionaire; and Lady Phoebe, an aristocrat and tabloid darling. They are obtuse, morally ambiguous and often ridiculous characters — yet again, audience members may find themselves rooting for Joe.
“Putting him in a completely foreign environment and then switching everything up, we feel safe in the hands of Joe, ironically,” Tilly Keeper, who plays Lady Phoebe, said in an interview on set.
The season sees Joe “walking himself closer and closer to a self-awareness that he really won't know what to do with,” Gamble said.
It's an evolution that Badgley is also keenly aware of: Joe is now “managing to grow emotionally, while not growing at all,” he said in a recent video interview. “He's realizing that the answer to his problems does not lie in someone else or somewhere else, it must lie with him.”
“We never felt any responsibility to reform Joe, to give him a particularly happy ending,” Gamble said. “I also don't think we can assume that someone who looks like Joe and acts like Joe, and has his position in our society, would necessarily be caught and punished.”