How Netflix’s ‘You’ questions the ethics of true crime media

By Shannon Pendleton

Spoilers ahead for season 1 and 4 of ‘You’

Season 4 of Netflix’s ‘You’ was released on the 9th March 2023, and with it, came a slew of
questions surrounding male violence, white privilege, and the world’s dubious fascination
with serial killers.

‘You’, having premiered its first season in December 2018, follows the stalker and serial killer, Joe Goldberg, in his struggle to be a good man. Joe represents a particularly insidious brand of serial killer.

He’s the nice guy, the gentleman, the wolf in sheep’s clothing who’s bleated so many times even he believes that he’s part of the flock. He’s not a bad man; he’s just a good man who’s done a bad thing – and then another bad thing, and then another.

He’s not a serial killer; he’s just a nice guy who’s killed people in a serial fashion. And the bad things he’s done have all been in the name of love.

In episode 5 of season 1, after attacking his girlfriend’s friend, Peach, Joe spirals as he flees the scene, internally narrating, ‘I would never hurt a woman. […] She forced my hand. […] She gave me no choice. I’m not a bad person’.

Directing his narration to his girlfriend, Beck, Joe then claims, ‘It’s brave, what I do for you. […] How many guys will do anything for the person they love?’.

And so, having just committed attempted murder, Joe remains a good person through the web of tangled justifications he weaves in his mind. And just as Joe believes it, the fans do too.

Penn Badgley, the actor who plays Joe, has been open about his disdain for the character. At the Television Critics Association summer press tour in 2018, Badgley explained that he feels the show is ‘a social experiment’, stating, ‘It will be interesting to see the mental gymnastics we’ll go through as a culture to love an evil white man’.

Then, earlier this year, in an interview with Entertainment Tonight, Badgley explained that ‘With our show, you’re meant to fall in love with him, that’s on us. Ted Bundy? That’s on you. Jeffrey Dahmer? That’s on Netflix. That is squarely on the shoulders of Netflix’.

Here, Badgley raises a prevalent issue regarding the public’s fascination with violent men, and Netflix’s role in capitalising on this phenomenon by romanticising them further.

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In 2019, Netflix released ‘Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile’, a film exploring the life of prolific serial killer, Ted Bundy, in his lead up to committing thirty murders of women and girls.

The film gained controversy when Zac Efron, celebrity heartthrob, was cast as Bundy. However, many defended the choice, arguing that Bundy was famously charismatic and handsome.

The narrative that Bundy escaped imprisonment for so many years due to his own charm has been reiterated in every documentary and podcast dedicated to him (including Netflix’s, ‘Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes’).

And yet, people who actually knew him, say otherwise.

Ann Rule, a colleague of Bundy’s, explained, ‘Ted was never as handsome, brilliant, or charismatic as crime folklore has deemed him… A virtual nonentity before he was suspected of a series of horrific crimes, he somehow became all of those things as the media embraced him’.

Similarly, Bundy’s defence attorney, Polly Nelson, explained that Bundy was ‘too obviously disingenuous to be truly charming’ and that ‘he was not that smart’.

Therefore, the casting of Efron wasn’t as historically accurate as some insist. And so the
question remains – why is the media committed to romanticising real-life serial killers?

Lisa Little, childhood best friend of one of Bundy’s victims, Kimberly Leach, protested the
. She explained that ‘The fact that they’re making this new movie outrages me, especially because they’re using Zac Efron, who’s so cute and attractive’. Lisa explained that she would rather a documentary be made raising awareness of the victims.

Similarly, Belva Kent, mother of victim, Debra Jean Kent, condemned the film, asking, ‘Why keep rubbing our face in it all the time?’.

Photo credit: Netflix

More recently, Netflix released ‘Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story’ on the 21 st of September 2022. The show landed the #1 trending spot on Netflix in the first week of its release, and, Evan Peters, another celebrity heartthrob, won the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Miniseries for his performance as Dahmer.

The show has even been renewed for two more seasons as an anthology series exploring serial killer stories.

Just like ‘Extremely Wicked’, the victims’ families objected to the making of ‘Dahmer’. Eric
Perry, cousin of victim, Errol Lindsey, explained that the show was ‘retraumatising’, arguing that, ‘when [the media] say they’re doing this ‘with respect to the victims’ or ‘honouring the dignity of the families, no one contacts them’, declaring the production and those like it as ‘cruel’.

Netflix has a history of neglecting the memory of murder victims, and romanticising that of those who killed them. And so, with the release of the new season of ‘You’, a show with a fandom notorious for worshiping the fictitious serial killer, Joe Goldberg, the question concerning the ethics of telling stories from the perspective of the villain is raised.

Season 4 was released in two parts, and, in the latter half, the show diverted from its usual

In part 2, Joe’s internal monologue was stripped back, forcing the viewer to see Joe in his true form, without the personal insight of his constant justifications and childhood flashbacks.

With this shift in perspective from Joe to his victim and ex-girlfriend, Marienne, the viewer has the opportunity to see Joe in a new light – unsettlingly quiet, consumed by his thoughts, steely eyed, unmoving.

As he shrieks, ‘You know I’d never hurt you!’, after breaking Marienne’s arm and shoving her in a cage, the viewer is surgically removed from Joe’s perspective. And so, the man who killed only when he had to, only in the name of love, only because his mother abandoned him as a child, finally became a cold-blooded psychopathic serial killer.

In this new direction, where Joe has torn off the sheep’s wool that has kept him warm all these years, bared his grisly teeth, and succumbed to his dark side, the viewer has to rethink why they’ve been doting on him for so long – and question whether they’ve done the same for real life Joe Goldbergs?

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