There is an odd excitement that comes from watching morally bent characters on TV continue to get away with their misdeeds. Arguably this fascination is what drove the massive success of narratives such as Dexter, Breaking Bad, and others. But a key part of the appeal may just be waiting for when, finally, the consequences do catch up.
So it may be fair to ask, as Netflix’s hit series You arrives at its fourth season, when Joe Goldberg will get his comeuppance.
However, the series’ showrunner Sera Gamble doesn’t see the answer as so simple.
“We have always had conversations about how to balance everybody’s desire to see Joe face some form of justice, and the core truth that guys like Joe often don’t face a single consequence in the long term,” said Gamble.
Indeed, if it is shocking to a viewer how far Joe has gotten while making many, many mistakes along the way, that might be entirely the point. People like Joe can, and do, get away with horrors in the real world, while those who look different maybe would have been caught much sooner.
So, as Gamble explains, “consequences” may manifest differently, unexpectedly, in Joe’s story, making the narrative much more enjoyable and unpredictable in the long run.
But of course another appeal of the show is sitting with Joe as he holds rigidly onto his delusions as, in his mind, he’s not a morally bankrupt person at all.
“[Joe] just kind of wants to be the perfect boyfriend….He wants to cook dinner for the girl and make her life great. And then [for] everything else he has this quite labyrinthine justification,” said Gamble.
And according to Gamble, one of the aims of the fourth season, with its introduction of another killer stalking Joe, is to see if he can be forced to confront the darkness inside him that he has been ignoring for so long.
I recently spoke further with Sera Gamble to dig deeper into Joe’s psychology, discuss the challenges and excitement of writing for TV today, and what thoughts the team has about Joe’s end.
Anhar Karim: So Joe gets comparisons with characters like Dexter and Walter White. And I think what’s interesting is he probably sees himself as an expert in what he’s doing in the same way. But what I love about the show is while it makes clear to us that he has those delusions, in practice he’s not that good at it.
So I’m interested in how you, as the writing team, balance letting the audience know about how he sees himself while showing how often he messes up.
Sera Gamble: A lot of the reason he messes up so much is because he’s not completely honest with himself. Frequently, he thinks to himself: I’m going into this situation to talk reason, or get evidence, or turn them over to the police. He’s not walking around thinking I’m a murderer and I have gotten away with—something like ten murders coming into season four?
Dexter was a great show that came before us, and we didn’t want to repeat it. We also were just coming off of Breaking Bad, also Mr. Robot. There’s this certain genre of anti-hero show, but they kind of know what their dark superpower is.
And when we talk about Joe, he just kind of wants to be the perfect boyfriend, really. He wants people to stop lying and saying they’ve read books they haven’t. And he wants to cook dinner for the girl and make her life great. And then [for] everything else, he has this quite labyrinthine justification.
Really it’s— as much as anything, it’s what season four is about. Because he’s faced with this other killer who does not have the same compunction. We are forcing him to become more self-aware about who and what he really is.
Karim: What I think is so fun to track is how the show completely reinvents itself every season. You have a through line, you have his arc. But each time we’re in a new setting, and we’re satirizing a new culture.
Is there a pressure in the writers room to reinvent it in a fun way?
Gamble: That’s like the whole pressure. I’ve been making television for quite some time, for long enough that when I entered this business, it was before streamers. But also things were procedural, right? There were all of these shows that ran for 22 episodes a season where you didn’t get much character development and the cop, or the lawyer, or the doctor solved something every episode. It’s never really been my thing.
And so I just think of it as the trade off to be able to be a creator in a much more exciting, for me, television era. Where you get to tell crazy, subversive stories that are deeply psychological. There is no close-ended part of this. It’s entirely serialized.
So we, Greg Berlanti and I, hold really tightly to the core themes and ideas that started in Caroline [Kepnes’] book. And then we plug it into an entirely new kind of structure.
Karim: You mention the original books. From what I understand season one hewed pretty closely to it, right? Then you’ve veered further and further to the point where now it’s in a very different spot.
How do you approach [deciding] where you are going to look back at the source versus where you’re going in a new direction?
Gamble: We don’t look back to the source anymore. We’ve run out of book that helps us. Meanwhile, Caroline is continuing to write these amazing novels. But the moment we made Love a killer, we—Did you see Everything Everywhere All At Once?
Karim: I did!
Gamble: You know, she’s [Kepnes] over there being a superhero. And we have the hot dog fingers in another [laughs] parallel timeline.
When we started, Caroline and I had this conversation that we were going to be siblings, but maybe not even twins. The first two seasons were such a gift. Her books have so much actual—not just characters, but story that you can translate pretty straightforwardly to television. That’s more than you usually get when you’re translating a novel. Novels are just a different beast.
So it did feel like the net had been pulled out from under us a little bit. But you know, it was time.
Karim: So you’ve mentioned in the past wanting this to go on many, many seasons and how the conceit could keep refreshing itself. But I’m wondering if you have that vision in your head of, whenever Joe does end, what does that look like? Where do you want him to be when this is over?
Gamble: This is a very spoiler-y question you’re asking. But I will say this: We have always had conversations about how to balance everybody’s desire to see Joe face some form of justice, and the core truth that guys like Joe often don’t face a single consequence in the long term.
So what it’s forced us to do is talk about the kind of consequences that society is not going to mete out to Joe Goldberg necessarily.
Karim: That’s a fascinating perspective, because that is part of what keeps me watching. I want to see him get [the consequences] in the end. There’s even a similar thing to watching, like, Breaking Bad, where you know he deserves [the consequences], and you’re waiting for it to happen.
Gamble: Yeah, [but] at least Walter White was great when he started. I mean, he cared about his family. He was dying. Like I never lost the empathy I had for him because he was good when they started.
Joe was a bad guy at the end of the first scene, and so I don’t think it’s ever been—I think we’re much more free to just root for whatever we want to root for.
But even when we were going from network to network and just pitching this idea in—I checked this morning, in 2014. That’s when Greg and I first took it around—we said it’s very easy for us to forgive men like Joe. It’s very easy for us to judge women like Beck. And that has remained true as we’ve changed the story. That— I’m still shocked that we go back and we like Joe in the next scene. But we do.
Karim: Is there anything else that you want to say to get someone excited for season four?
Gamble: I don’t know what I can tell people to get them excited, but if they’re watching this I can say thank you. Thank you. I mean, when you launch a season four, mostly the feeling is just gratitude that you’ve gotten to make the show for so long.
So that’s how I feel today.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The first five episodes of You season four are now streaming on Netflix. The show stars Penn Badgley, Tati Gabrielle, and Charlotte Ritchie.
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