The day the first part of You Season 4 premiered, Penn Badgley dropped one his hottest takes. On his podcast, Podcrushed, he revealed he was deeply uncomfortable doing intimate scenes because, “fidelity in every relationship, including my marriage, is important to me.” He said he asked You showrunner Sera Gamble if they could cut as many of Joe's sex scenes as possible. He later clarified his comments to Variety: “That aspect of the job, that mercurial boundary — has always been something that I actually don’t want to play with at all.” Since Gamble was totally receptive to this, the internet’s favorite serial killer remains woefully clothed this season.
Badgley’s desire to phase out the sex symbol era of his career is reasonable given his Hollywood history. The social media thirst over the sexiness of his You character Joe Goldberg, a guy who literally stalks and kills women, has been something Badgley has playfully pushed back against. It makes sense that Badgley’s sick of clarifying that nobody should idealize sexual or romantic relationships with someone like Joe. The easiest way to cut down on that discourse? Give the internet less to talk about.
To Badgley’s credit, he explained that while ideally he’d be doing zero nudity and/or intimate scenes in Season 4, he knew the nature of the show when he signed the contract and was ready to work with Gamble to ensure the DNA remained unchanged. As a result, Season 4 has featured several brilliant work-arounds, including a slight genre shift, a new male friend for Joe, and even wilder sex scenes featuring secondary characters that emphasize comedy. (See: Lukas Gage playing a shitty American entrepreneur who loves golden showers courtesy of his employees. White Lotus who?) You’s lack of intimate scenes with Badgley also clarifies what makes the show a juicy, addictive watch. It’s not the sexiness of the serial killer — though, I will admit, it helps — but rather the cathartic threat of retribution, the Sword of Damocles hanging over Joe’s head.
The most clever move of Season 4 Part 1 was to set up Kate (Charlotte Ritchie), Joe’s new “Hello, You,” as the least of his worries. The first half of the season kicked off with Joe feeding a person into a woodchipper, wondering how he ended up here. Except this time, he wasn’t the murderer. A mysterious serial killer targeting London’s most infamous socialites framed him for his neighbor’s death, and he needed to find out who was hunting him and how they knew about his true identity. As rich, douchey bodies rapidly start to fall around him, the genre shift from soapy thriller to proper murder mystery meant Joe didn’t quite have the amount of time to devote to jerking off in public places while staring at women through their windows. (He watched Kate masturbate through her windows instead.) Joe couldn’t stop thinking about Kate, but the Eat the Rich killer became his main obsession because it was a matter of life or death.
*MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD*
The back half of Season 4, out today, amplifies Joe’s obsession by folding the three biggest antagonists of the season into one. First, the Eat the Rich killer finally comes out from behind the curtain, revealing himself to be Rhys Montrose (Ed Speleers), a memoirist running for mayor of London, and notably Joe’s first real male friend. Sure, he’s made a guy friend or two — Paco (Luca Padovon), the kid he looked out for in Season 1; a brief moment of connection with Forty during their drug trip in Season 2, a Stockholm Syndromed Will Bettleheim (Robin Lord Taylor) — but Rhys is the first man Joe connects with on a level of pure admiration and respect.
When Joe realizes they have a lot more in common than he thought — stalking, blackmail, murder — he fights twice as hard to maintain the fiction of being Professor Jonathan Moore, all-around good guy. He tells himself he’s still a good man as he chooses which one of his social circle he’ll frame for the ETR murders before planting a decomposing ear on a paparazzo. He gallantly shies away from Kate’s advances in person to protect her from the consequences of his dark past catching up to him, when in reality he’s still stalking her through London after the death of her partner. He repeatedly casts himself as a martyr when Rhys maneuvers him into a deadly game involving a caged Marienne (Tati Gabrielle), and Joe is ready to leave Kate behind so Marienne can live. Joe keeps telling himself his intentions are that of a good man until he finally kills Rhys. But Rhys is still there, goading him, and Joe starts to remember how Marienne ended up in that cage. The Eat the Rich killer is Rhys, and Rhys is Joe. Rhys is the manifestation of the darkest parts of Joe’s psyche, the parts that not only accept that he’s a killer but revel in it. The person Joe’s been obsessively hunting this season is himself.
“How can I be with you Kate, when I’m already in a relationship with him?” asks Joe early on in Episode 6, before the reveal of his “split” personality. On rewatch, it’s a particularly scathing line. This is ultimately the reason why all of his relationships fail: Joe’s definition of romantic love is so shallow that it only centers himself. The second his partners fail to make him feel the way he thinks love should feel, the countdown to their death starts. While the audience has seen Joe’s toxic selfishness on display through the entire run of the series, Season 4’s redirection allows You to come to a psychological boiling point. Despite all his delusions about being a good man caught in horrible circumstances that just happen to him, the way Joe views and experiences love has never truly changed when he was driven by romantic attraction. Through Rhys (and subsequently as ETR), Joe can finally see his actions from an outside perspective. After showing utter disdain and disgust for ETR’s methods and motives all season and experiencing the same relentless, violent pursuit he put his former romantic interests through, Joe comes face to face with what kind of monster he really is.
In a shocking turn, Joe jumps off a bridge to put an end to Rhys and himself. In a final conversation, Rhys is adamant that Joe isn’t suicidal and tells Joe he loves him. There’s a look in Joe’s eyes that reflects relief at hearing that he’s loved, and then horror when he realizes the kind of craven immorality it takes to love him. When he wakes in the hospital, his whole world has shifted: He knows he’s a killer through and through now. Kate, who also has quite a dark backstory, makes a pact with Joe in the wake of his suicide attempt. They’ll try to keep each other good. It’s a lie, but now Joe knows it’s a lie.
This evolution of Joe’s character — one that the audience only gets to see because seduction isn’t Joe’s main objective this season — sets the stage for an explosive potential final season. In a Season 2 TV Guide interview with me, Gamble pondered over Joe’s ending, saying she’s “not sure if Joe dying would be letting him off the hook” but that, “Joe was born so we could burn him to the ground.” Since Season 4 already showcased the death of Joe and eliminated the notion that Joe could slip away into the night unnoticed, there’s one big play for Season 5 (which hasn’t yet been greenlit) to make. It’s time for everyone who survived Joe Goldberg over the course of the series to return with a vengeance and reap four seasons worth of karmic justice. Watching Ellie (Jenna Ortega) expose Joe through a documentary, hearing Nadia (Amy Leigh-Hickman) speak out from prison, letting Marienne get a good stab or two in…, any or all of the above would leave fans salivating over the implosion of Joe’s life because ultimately, that’s the true reward of loving You. The best part about it? After confronting the reality of who he is in Season 4, Joe won’t be able to spin himself a white lie about how he doesn’t deserve this punishment.
So honestly, who cares whether Badgley wants to perform intimate scenes or not? He doesn’t need to be shirtless to paint a satisfying picture. As long as Joe knows at the end of it all that he reaped what he sowed, that’s climax enough. ●