‘You’ Netflix— Why is Joe Relatable?
Now that Netflix has brought back You for an amazing second season, Joe Goldberg demonstrates yet again we can all relate with a psychopath on screen. How is that even possible?
Let’s face it, we all kinda rooted for Joe in You. It’s not that we’re bad people (although yes, we are allowed to feel that way sometimes). And it’s not even because of how we get introduced to his story; Joe acts like a psychopath since episode 1, with little to no sign of true redemption.
The reasons we find him interesting reach far beyond the sheer realm of the mysterious, romantic and charming—a place all men hope they could belong to. Joe is a stellar example of anti-hero and a deeply relatable character. And it all comes down to the way he was written for the screen.
A Solid Anti-Hero: Why Do We Like Joe in You?
Joe is certainly not the first anti-hero ever, nor the most complicated or controversial in the history of fiction. Vladimir Nabokov has made efforts to render his Humbert Humbert despicable in Lolita, and such was Dostoevskij’s intent in his Crime and Punishment. Even video games are full of such characters. And yet, we are always eager to welcome them in our memory, even to let them linger for a pretty long time.
Little does it matter that Joe is a deluded and a blatantly selfish murderer. Viewers do not (or choose not to) see that.
For most of the time, what we see on screen is the descent of a mad man into his dark abyss, and all we do is just tread along. We even hope for him to resurface at times—we hope he will emerge victorious, or at least earn his peace and redemption. Even though everything Joe does, he does it for himself — no one else. With some exceptions.
This is not to be seen as an apology of Joe’s ways. Some time ago, starring actor Penn Badgley found it necessary to advise fans against supporting Joe and his toxic behaviours. Joe is a sociopath with regressed traumas and certainly a dangerous individual, but it managed to capture the hearts and attention of many fans. Which is certainly good news to the series’ show runners.
Want VS Need
One of the most popular ‘rules’ in fiction writing is the delicate struggle between desires and needs. Joe himself has one of the most relatable desires of all: to find love and happiness, to live the perfect life alongside his beloved one. We all know what Joe wants and, as viewers, we play along. Because to an extent, we all want the same things for ourselves. The whole story is built around Joe’s wish, leading us to empathise with his feelings and situation.
Joe’s constant voice-over narration gives depth to his thoughts, which act as a filter between what he does and what viewers need to know. It also sends precise signals to the most attentive viewers: Joe sees himself as a hopeless romantic but his actions betray a selfish, opportunist and calculating behaviour. The contrast between Joe’s thoughts and his actions make him a delightfully unstable character. Which is a dualism that keeps the interest alive at all times.
On the other hand, the viewer subconsciously realises Joe’s needs from the start: he needs to deal with his past, to be found and stopped before someone else gets hurt. Season 2 elaborates on that point and gives even more depth to his psyche, by digging up forgotten traumas. And yet, we still root for the bad guy who chopped one of his exes into pieces.
So the truth is that we, as viewers, don’t even care. Because of his most basic human desires (and this is the biggest paradox of all), Joe is an incredibly likeable character, one we can all empathise with. What keeps us on the edge of our seats is the consciousness we don’t want to empathise with him, and yet, sometimes, we do. We nod in scandalised assent to his naivety, as he makes one poor choice after another and delves deeper into his personal abyss. By the time we can foresee a chance of redemption for him in Season 2, it’s already too late; we are already trapped in his net and intrigued by his character.
And because the devil is in the details, sometimes Joe even reminds us of our own selves. We all love when he starts looking people up online, for instance, because it exaggerates the kind of mental processes we are all familiar with in those instances. Although, luckily, there is always that extra step none of us would be able to do, which sets us apart from Joe and his toxicity.
Funny enough, the viewer may not even be conscious of all that. What the viewer sees is a good-looking character, with genuine desires and (apparently) good faith, and that alone is more than enough. Because we all believe, deep down, that there is one element of good will in everything Joe does.
The show’s writers know about our struggle pretty well too. Here is what Will tells Joe in the 4th episode of Season 2:
I know you want to do the right thing, or you wouldn’t have asked at all. I’ve done business with bad people, you’re not them. You do bad things when you feel trapped or, key, to protect someone. Which we all hope we would have the courage to do that. To me, that makes you more good than bad. I think you’re a good man.
I love Will’s speech. It bluntly externalises the viewers’ feelings about Joe, and it is a way to ‘sell’ the main character to us in the process. It goes to the heart of the entire matter: we all know Joe is a disturbed and deranged person to say the least; we just don’t care. It’s the show’s writing that makes us feel like we shouldn’t. Because we all believe that, deep down, all Joe wants is to love and be loved in return.
There is an increasing trend to appreciate dark characters and anti-heroes more than ever, in recent times. That is why a character such as Joe has a huge chance to impress in today’s world — not to mention how current and timely all of his actions are to our daily lives, from stalking someone online to handling personal data in the digital era. However, I don’t believe this kind of interest in dark characters is anything new. Mankind has always found darkness intriguing, alongside villains, people going against the norm and characters showing signs of something ‘different.’
There’s a reason the dark side of the moon appears so fascinating to us humans. What matters is to avoid getting lost in its craters.