“He thought of the telescreen with its never-sleeping ear. They could spy upon you night and day..” George Orwell, 1984.
The feeling the viewer gets from the Netflix series You is the unnerving-equivalent of getting an unexpected hug from a stranger that lasts a bit too long. At first it feels fine before it becomes an act which is awkward, creepy and something we reject.
This is because we see ourselves in the characters portrayed in You. In fact, so much the series points outwards to the viewers and screams clearly “This is You!”, an uncomfortable experience. In truth, the smash hit show raises more questions of the modern age than can be possibly answered within the series ten episodes.
Based on the premise of boy meeting girl, You tells the simple story of the humble book store owner Joe (Penn Badgley) who falls for the modern socialite and writer Beck (Elizabeth Lail). They could be seen as opposites – a man surrounding himself with the old-school method of collecting knowledge and a woman who has embraced and lives within the virtual world of social media.
This collision of old and new sparks romance as well as obsession. Joe begins to stalk Beck. Even when he eventually starts dating her, he still feels the compulsion to follow her and hack into her emails and messages. The fact that creators Greg Berlanti and Sera Gamble – through crackling narration and a sub-plot involving his care for neglected young neighbour, Paco – paint Joe as an outgoing, kind and good-looking guy is remarkably intelligent. Throughout viewers will find themselves rooting for him. He is a murderer. He’s that evil entity we all fear – the wolf in sheep’s clothing. Yet, part of us hopes he wins the girl because there is a kinder side to him which reveals itself early on.
This controversial series can be viewed in many ways, more complex than a tale of a love hungry, likable stalker. At the heart of You is a cautious warning for the millennial-generation along the lines of 90s thrillers Single White Female or Fatal Attraction. It captures faithfully how in these modern times our lives are lived both in reality and in the virtual world of social networks. We cannot exist in society unless it is online and even when we do not exist in reality we still can online.
Joe murders the ex-lover of Beck, Benji (Lou Taylor Pucci). Yet, he manages to convince others his victim is still living by posting bro-ey sentiments on his Twitter account. In You, we are shown that just the ownership of someone else’s phone leads to ownership of that person. The smallest device can open a doorway to control lives. Our privacy is constantly at risk and far too open to invasion. Or worse, if you want to know someone, you can make judgements by their Facebook status – making everyone a stalker of sorts.
In You, there are times when Beck states she is to give up social media, giving audiences a sense of relief because today becoming a recluse is the equivalent of deleting the Facebook app. In fact, even the first big step into a relationship is deleting Tinder.
However, Beck’s promises never last and she and her friends are representative of how superficial and self-absorbed we have become. Joe wears the most inadequate form of disguise while stalking her. Yet, he goes unnoticed because society has become so lost in their phones and hence themselves that we do not pay as much attention to what actual dangers are around us.
Then there is the ‘glass box’, Joe’s safe place beneath his shop which he uses to protect the things he loves. Here he stores and repairs books (or rather information), locks away toxic ex Benji to protect Beck and helps Paco’s addict mother detox. It is Joe’s solitude.
The last days of his ‘love’ for Beck are spent within the box, and it is here where his victim – cut-off from all distractions begins to write passionately for the first time. Perhaps this glass box is a metaphor for a society free of Facebook, Twitter, where the old method way of living, before the days of the internet, still exists.
However, at the same time Joe manages to escape detection for his various crimes by accessing the phones of his victims. If one controls the flow of information, one can build a façade a person’s life. He represents society’s need to invade people’s lives through social media while Beck symbolizes how society immerses itself unhealthily online.
Like his creation of Big Brother, it turns out we are all Big Brother and, we are all watching.