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In Season 3 Of “You,” Joe Goldberg Is Totally Off His Game

The pressures of suburbia give the psychological thriller a much-needed dose of novelty. (Contains spoilers.)

Posted on October 15, 2021, at 1:14 p.m. ET

John P. Fleenor / Netflix

The walls are closing in on Joe Goldberg.

Season 3 of You, out today, escapes the hustle and bustle of New York and Los Angeles for a more quiet and relaxed life in the suburbs. But the stakes have never been higher.

Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley), a bibliophile, relentlessly scheming stalker, and unrepentant serial murderer, is way out of his depth. He’s moved into a new home — in the fictional California enclave of Madre Linda — and feels burdened by the responsibilities of being a new father to his son, Henry, and husband to his wife, Love Quinn (Victoria Pedretti). These life changes would likely challenge most people, but he has one additional problem: His wife, like him, is impulsive and unafraid to murder people, especially if she believes they are threats to her marriage.

In the first two seasons, Joe was undoubtedly the villain and there were no serious foils for his brand of creepiness. He could slyly charm a romantic interest, like the aspiring writer Beck (Elizabeth Lail), and outsmart anyone who caught on to him, like Beck’s best friend, Peach Salinger (Shay Mitchell). His previous hunting grounds were bustling cities full of self-involved people who might not notice anything amiss, but in the suburbs, it’s harder for Joe to skulk unnoticed.

It’s a marriage drama wrapped in a murder mystery, with plenty of twists to keep viewers on the hook.

Now a fish out of water, Joe is on display for the townspeople and also transparent to his new wife in ways that are uncomfortable for someone who typically lurks with relative ease. Joe’s new fixation, Marienne (Tati Gabrielle), has an observant ex, Ryan (Scott Michael Foster), who is a local news reporter and calls out the fact that Joe peers at him from around corners with his classic navy blue baseball hat tipped low. Tension rises even further when neighbors get wise to the steadily rising count of dead bodies that have been appearing since Joe and Love moved in.

This time around, Joe is more constrained than ever, and the cracks are showing. After he zeroes in on Marienne, Joe must suppress his “patterns.” Once again, he’s convincing himself that any random woman who captures his attention is flirting with him, but he must be careful not to let Love see that he has a wandering eye; she commits her first kill right at the end of the first episode because she suspects Joe slept with a new neighbor. (She leaves him to clean up the mess she made.)

With suburbia as its backdrop, this season of You excels at exploring common marital woes but punched up with the added chaos of serial killers in love. It’s a marriage drama wrapped in a murder mystery, with plenty of twists to keep viewers on the hook.

Netflix

Penn Badgley as Joe Goldberg and Victoria Pedretti as Love Quinn in You

Because life in Madre Linda seems unexciting, at least on the surface, the stakes initially feel low. But You turns up the dial in ways that are characteristically ridiculous yet satisfying. Love and Joe have lost their physical spark since Henry’s birth, and they seek couples therapy after Love kills their neighbor. The pair attempt to hash out their problems, talking in code so that they don’t reveal themselves to be the criminals they truly are. “Why don’t you tell me what you went through alone in the aftermath of the argument?” the therapist asks Joe. Cut to him placing an entire human body into a trash bag. “Fuck Love, fuck her, fuck this. Fuck whoever made these little bags. Where the fuck is that little perforated line?” he says. It’s clear that the two do not trust each other, a point that’s further emphasized later when Joe and Love are setting up the glass cage where Joe typically locks his victims: Each stashes away a spare key for fear of being set up by the other.

Seeing Joe tiptoe around Love, speaking to her delicately and trying not to draw her ire, is thrilling. For the past two seasons, he’s been in control, but with Love proving to be even more erratic than he is, he seems almost normal. Once again, You pushes the audience to process knotty feelings about its protagonist. Sure, Joe is a stalker and a cold-blooded murderer, but his wife is much worse.

For the past two seasons, he’s been in control, but with Love proving to be even more erratic than him, he seems almost normal

Stretching the limits of sympathy, though, the show clumsily tries to expand the characters’ backstories, highlighting the trauma that may have made them the way they are. (“If you don’t know how to communicate healthily, it’s because it was never modeled for you,” says the therapist, unwittingly underestimating the issue.) Lots of shows use therapy as a way for characters to navigate their pasts, but childhood injustices feel like a lazy way to excuse his behavior as an adult. He has always justified his compulsion to follow women by believing he wants to protect them. Yet flashbacks about a distant mother and a teacher figure who was in an unhealthy relationship don’t really explain Joe’s monstrousness. Love’s backstory gets similar treatment. We see brief but telling interactions between her and her mother, Dottie (Saffron Burrows), who has a drinking problem. But it’s hard to buy into the idea that Joe’s or Love’s upbringing would turn either of them into a killer; something’s missing from this explanation.

That’s not the only unsuccessful emotional beat of the season. Set during the pandemic, it features some heavy-handed commentary about anti-vaxxers. One of the townspeople visits Love in her newly opened bakery to reveal that his children weren’t vaccinated against the measles, an infection that put Henry in the hospital. Love hastily knocks the man over the head with a rolling pin as he’s about to exit her shop, opening yet another can of worms for the Quinn-Goldbergs. Other plot points are ripped from the headlines, including a boilerplate critique of “missing white woman syndrome” and cheeky references to the college admissions scandal from 2019.

Overstuffed portions aside, the season’s minor characters are strong. Sherry Conrad (Shalita Grant), mommy influencer and unofficial queen bee of Madre Linda, is a perfect frenemy for Love: a mean girl who pretends to enjoy Love’s company and talks smack behind her back, a mistake that comes back to bite her. Scott Speedman gives a great performance as Matthew, an obsessed neighbor who uses ethically questionable means to figure out who killed his wife, Natalie (Michaela McManus).

Netflix

Despite a few dull moments, the show remains pretty sharp. There are plenty of callbacks to seasons past, including one character who makes a brief but welcome return from beyond the grave. The season’s main pressure valve is Love’s descent into madness, buoyed by a fantastic performance from Pedretti. It’s enthralling to see her become such a maniacal thorn in her husband’s side; I started to wonder if the show will eventually revolve around her. Episode 5, “Into the Woods,” is a hilarious examination of toxic masculinity. Joe and a few of his new neighbors go on a camping trip, and machismo is on full display. Clichés of manliness proliferate — Cary Conrad (Travis Van Winkle) kills a squirrel with his bare hands and, in another scene, tosses a sandwich Joe was gonna eat into the trash, telling him to push through the hunger because “the only food we eat is what we kill ourselves” — but the outing serves a larger purpose. During the trip, a terrifying incident involving the two men ends up being emotionally cathartic for Joe, ultimately helping him confront the bullying he dealt with as a child.

You’s third season throws audiences for a loop before settling into a familiar groove, repeating beats — like wondering about the fate of Joe’s prey — that made the series so gripping in the first place. (It has already been renewed for a fourth season, a vote of confidence in the world of Netflix, which shows no mercy when it comes to cutting shows.) But it also disrupts expectations in truly refreshing ways (one episode features a bit of swinging). It feels like the Quinn-Goldbergs just have to figure out their one wild issue in order to enjoy peace. But they often ruin their own happiness: Just when you think their lives will work out, everything goes south, and Joe faces impossible odds that would confound even Tom Ripley. Joe and Love are terrible for each other, and yet they are also made for each other. “The spark our marriage needed doesn’t come from swinging,” Joe says at the end of their sexual experiment. “Our love language is violence.” ●

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.