Review: Penn Badgley delivers in “You” season 4, part 1

Review: Penn Badgley delivers in latest "You"

Netflix recently released the first part of the psychological thriller series' new season about the charming-but-deadly Joe Goldberg.
Published: February 14, 2023
Penn Badgley of Netflix series

Netflix’s hit series You returned on Friday with Part I of its fourth season. The show’s anti-hero, Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley) has been thrown into a complex new storyline that is more unhinged and outlandish than the first three seasons combined.

The third season concluded with Joe faking his death in order to follow his lover, Marienne (Tati Gabrielle), to Paris. However, an unexpected turn of events leaves Joe working as a professor in London under the alias Jonathan Moore, teaching American literature. Joe’s high society colleagues include an artist and billionaire’s son named Simon (Aidan Cheng), an heiress named Gemma (Eve Austin), a socialite named Lady Phoebe Borehall-Blaxworth (Tilly Keeper) and a gallery employee named Kate. After a hazy party filled with absinthe and the amount of pretentiousness you would expect from a room full of Oxford graduates, Joe finds himself placed directly in the middle of an Agatha Christie murder mystery.

Netflix series
Formerly Joe Goldberg, Badgely finds himself as Prof. Jonathan Moore in London in season 4.

The main issue with the series remains Joe’s lack of ruthlessness. The audience is expected to believe that Joe is a psychotic, deranged murderer, but it is difficult to view him as anything less than a likable character when his victims are the most insufferable characters imaginable. However, this season leans into Joe’s “killer instincts” by making him the good guy in a cast full of morally corrupt trust fund babies. According to You, the only thing worse than a sadistic stalker is a British aristocrat. When multiple characters from this season meet their end, I guarantee viewers will weep out of joy more than anything else.

The only way the writing in the show could have moved forward without turning stale was by dropping the “psychological thriller” aspects and leaning into full camp, and Season 4 pulls off this transition successfully, though not without flaws. The writing of the season is especially weak when it attempts to incorporate themes of class consciousness. Season 1 tackled intellectual New York, Season 2 poked fun at the hippie capitalists of Los Angeles and Season 3 reveled in suburban mommy-bloggers. Season 4, however, is attempting to satirize the rich as a whole, rather than focus on a specific niche. The plot follows an unknown killer targeting the upper class labeled, creatively, the “eat the rich” killer.

A Marxist perspective on class through an entertaining lens can be achieved (the 2019 film Knives Out comes to mind), but You’s commentary on wealth inequality is far too stale and on-the-nose to come across as anything other than tacky. For example, instead of subtly introducing the economic disparities between Joe and his European counterparts, a character named Adam (Lukas Gage) approaches Joe at a party and asks for his “crypto” handle. The group’s embrace of new money colloquial clashes with their tweed jackets and Oxford degrees; the dark academia aesthetic of this season is visually appealing yet does not mesh well with the script’s cringey dialogue born out of the Internet. It would have been easy enough to suspend disbelief if the characters acted as Oscar Wilde archetypes, but the modern soundtrack and celebrity namedrops make the writing far too awkward. Am I really supposed to believe that an heiress named Lady Phoebe Borehall-Blaxworth has an iPhone?

Netflix series
Joe Goldberg finds a new love interest in Kate, played by Charlotte Ritchie.

By far the best aspect of Season 4 is Penn Badgley’s lead performance. The show has taken on almost an entirely new cast each season, and Badgley continues to hold down the plot as the straight man with a subtle edge to him. Some of the dialogue this season is comically awful (“Adam needs a good hard look…Unlike these NFTs” is an actual line), but Badgley manages to balance the more dramatic aspects of the plot with campy voiceovers. It is a performance a lesser actor would not have been able to pull off, and it keeps the series from being overly ridiculous. Season 4’s whodunnit does not leave as much room for Joe’s infatuation; it almost felt as though his love interest, Kate (Charlotte Ritchie), could have been omitted from the narrative entirely.

You is the Monet of Netflix originals. From far away, it is a complex drama equal parts fun and intelligent, but it does not, in any way, hold up to scrutiny. However, as a connoisseur of abhorrent television, it was an entertaining way to spend four hours. The next five episodes are being released on March 9th, and will surely be worth tuning in for.