Penn Badgley on the future of ‘You’: “We need a satisfying ending”
You‘s season four finale, released last week, features a pointed use of Taylor Swift‘s ‘Anti-Hero’ – a song the show’s star Penn Badgley lip-synced to in his first TikTok last October. But when NME meets Badgley at a smart central London hotel two days before the episode drops, he resists the idea that Joe Goldberg, the single-minded stalker and serial killer he plays on the hit Netflix series, could be viewed as one.
“Well, evidently he’s not an antihero,” Badgley says plainly – and not unreasonably given that Joe’s kill count has now climbed to 18. “He is a villain,” Badgley continues, “but I think he becomes an antihero in a culture that is obsessed with villains, you know? And that’s a troubling line that’s blurred.”
“Joe has become an antihero”
– Penn Badgley
Badgley, who is still sporting the impressive beard that Joe has in season four while posing as an accomplished college professor called Jonathan Moore, certainly isn’t afraid of exploring these blurred lines. Wearing a polo neck that feels very Jonathan, Badgley is an engaged presence as soon as he enters the tastefully understated hotel room, looking NME right in the eye as we shake hands. Neat and tidy answers aren’t really his style; he prefers to answer a question by interrogating the assumptions it’s based on, even if this means raising more questions.
When NME suggests that You‘s latest season contains elements of redemption for Joe, who spends part of it at least trying not to kill people, he replies: “It’s feigning at a redemption. But then I think this does bring up the question: Who gets to decide who’s worthy of redemption? It’s easy to say Joe’s not worthy of redemption. But why do we get to say that so easily? I’m not saying he deserves it – I’m saying, ‘What is redemption?’ To me, that’s a spiritual question.”
If a healthy tolerance of ambiguity is a sign of intelligence, 36-year-old Badgley has both qualities in spades. This must have helped him navigate the inherent contradictions of You, a genre-blending series that has become something of a cultural lightning rod. Developed by Greg Berlanti and Sera Gamble from a 2014 thriller novel by Caroline Kepnes, the show is brilliant at embellishing its pitch-black narrative with satirical wit and hints of silliness. In season four, Joe is welcomed into – but personally repelled by – a clique of preposterous British poshos with names like Lady Phoebe Borehall-Blaxworth and Gemma Graham-Greene.
When You‘s first season arrived on Netflix in December 2018 (it had premiered three months earlier on American network Lifetime), Joe’s toxic, controlling and chillingly amoral behaviour didn’t stop him from becoming a heartthrob. In episode one, he becomes so instantly infatuated with aspiring writer Guinevere Beck (Elizabeth Lail) that he steals her phone to monitor her social interactions, then kills her boyfriend Benji (Lou Taylor Pucci) in episode two. But because Badgley plays him so cleverly with interlocking layers, Joe always has a suave charm, even if it is just a mask.
“Who gets to decide who’s worthy of redemption?”
– Penn Badgley
Badgley had attained “internet boyfriend” status with his previous signature role, playing smart and sensitive Dan Humphrey in the original Gossip Girl from 2007 to 2012, but he seemed surprised when Joe Goldberg attracted a similar collective thirst in 2018. When one fan tweeted: “Said this already but Penn Badgley is breaking my heart once again as Joe. What is it about him?”, the actor countered with: “A: He is a murderer.” To another who said she was “scared” by the number of people romanticising his You character, he replied: “Ditto. It will be all the motivation I need for season two.”
Today, Badgley describes Joe as “psychotic”, “traumatised” and “really disturbed”, but also pinpoints why he is strangely appealing to the women he meets including his season four inamorata, gallery owner Kate (Charlotte Ritchie). “He’s the lethal embodiment of all the trappings of [the] first date facade,” he suggests. “It’s like, I’m basically telling you I’m somebody I’m not so that you like me.”
In the second half of season four, which premiered last Thursday a month after the first, we learn that Joe is even more disturbed than we realised. At this point, you might want to look away if you aren’t up to date, because the mother of all spoilers is coming…
After drugging, kidnapping and imprisoning his season three obsession, artist Marienne Bellamy (Tati Gabrielle), he suffered a psychotic episode that caused him to hallucinate political commentator Rhys Montrose (Ed Speleers) as the manifestation of his worst impulses. So, it wasn’t Rhys telling him to kill people all through this season, but his own (extremely) dark side.
This might sound like a case of dissociative identity disorder (DID), but showrunner Sera Gamble has resisted any kind of specific diagnosis. “If you sit down with a psychiatrist, they will probably have a really strong opinion about [Joe’s mental state],” she told Elle. “But I am not a doctor and the writers’ room is not full of doctors.” Either way, Joe’s relationship with “Rhys” reaches a dramatic crescendo in the season four finale, when he confronts his alter ego on a bridge over the River Thames. “Every time, I try. I make it perfect, [but] it’s never enough,” Joe laments before he pushes “Rhys” off the bridge, then jumps into the river himself.
“Joe is someone who won’t look in the mirror,” Badgley says today, highlighting his character’s refusal to take responsibility for his actions. “So now, the mirror is coming to life and trying to kill him. That’s basically what’s happened and I think it’s actually really funny.” In the moment, though, it is genuinely jaw-dropping – at least until we see that Joe has survived his suicide attempt when Kate visits him in hospital. “You absolute twat,” she says as she enters the room, a brazen change of tone that’s classic You. Joe finally comes clean to Kate, telling her he has done “terrible things” including, y’know, killing people. But instead of running a mile, Kate appears to accept him for who he is.
“I was deeply disappointed in Kate”
– Charlotte Ritchie
Ritchie, the British actress known for her roles in Ghosts and Feel Good, admits she was “deeply disappointed in Kate” when she first read the season finale’s script. “It was so clear at the start [of the season] that she was supposed to be as cold and nasty as possible, because being almost cartoonishly mean is her armour,” she says, speaking to NME via Zoom video call. “So I’ve got to say I was let down by her,” she adds with a laugh. “It was fun to be able to play a character who so overtly hated this awful man!”
Ritchie also relished the opportunity to portray Kate’s “more vulnerable” side. As the season progresses, we learn that her entire life has been stage-managed by her monstrous, mega-rich father Tom Lockwood (Greg Kinnear). The season finale ends with Kate inheriting her father’s vast wealth – it was Joe who killed him, obviously – and setting up a glamorous new life in New York. She even hires a PR person to present them to the world as the ultimate glossy power couple.
By this point, Joe also knows about the skeletons in Kate’s closet. When she was 19 and desperately trying to impress her dad, she brokered a business deal that resulted in dozens of kids contracting cancer. So, why does she think Kate is happy to accept someone who has committed even worse crimes? “I think she’s been brought up in a very unhealthy environment, so she definitely doesn’t have a healthy attitude towards love and care,” Ritchie says. “She has standards that a more adjusted person wouldn’t have. For most people, getting involved with a murderer would be a no-go, but that was kind of the world she grew up in.”
Interestingly, Ritchie also believes that Kate sees Joe as an integral part of “her own redemption” because “if he can be a good person, then so can she”. “They’re sort of like sponsors for each other, and I do think that element of [their relationship] is quite sweet,” Ritchie adds. “But we’ll see, I suppose.”
That “we’ll see” is left hanging because You has yet to be renewed for a fifth season. “I don’t know what’s going to happen next, or if anything will happen next – maybe they just go off into the sunset,” says Ritchie. But would she like to be part of season five if it gets a green light? “Of course, because I understand the character more than ever after [playing her for] 10 episodes,” she replies. “And I love those moments of humour that we’re starting to see between Kate and Joe. It would be really cool, but you never know – I could end up dead in the [season five] opening credits!”
Though the show’s future is ostensibly up in the air, You has been such a huge hit that a renewal announcement is surely a matter of when rather than if. Tellingly, Badgley is happy to talk about how the Joe Goldberg saga could end – in fact, he brings it up when we discuss the show’s legacy. “How it ends will really, really matter [to that legacy],” he says. “And that’s up to us; we need a satisfying ending. The question becomes: ‘What is satisfying for us [as viewers], not for Joe?”
For Badgley, the key lies in the idea of justice, but this is easier said than done. “What if there was, like, a torturous sequence where we finally get to see Joe suffer?” he ponders. “But actually, we [already] get to see Joe suffer constantly. He’s constantly bloodied and battered; he’s fumbling, he’s bumbling. He nearly dies all the time. He’s been paralysed…” At this point, Badgley lets out a laugh, amused by his character’s almost absurd resilience – four seasons in, no one could accuse You of being wedded to realism. “But if Joe gets murdered by someone,” he continues, “that person is brought [down] to his level – is that justice? And prison for Joe is somehow not satisfying.”
“The writers have pitched me an ending”
– Penn Badgley
So, in Badgley’s eyes, the way for You to secure its legacy is by really drilling into the question: ‘What is justice?’ “If it’s not answering that question, because it is a tough one, maybe it’s figuring out an even more refined or elegant way to pose that question,” he says. “That’s what we have an opportunity to do and I think what the writers have been positioning [the show] to do the whole time. The ending that they’ve pitched to me, I think it is that. Part of the reason I’m even able to say this is because of what [executive producer] Greg Berlanti shared with me: his idea about how it could end… and I can’t tell you what it is!”
Berlanti pitched this potential ending to Badgley around 18 months ago, so the actor had it in mind while shooting season four last year. “I think with this character, I need to know where it’s going,” he says. At this stage in the show’s lifespan, the actor also has a clear idea of what makes Joe so compelling – for him, it’s because he’s an incredibly toxic embodiment of the human need for control. “It’s kind of mysterious, actually, what really sustains a relationship and keeps us happy,” he says. “Clearly – because we’re all sort of stumbling and bumbling around that. And Joe is an analogy for that.”
Badgley believes that Joe represents this idea in an extreme form because, in his pursuit of the elusive ’perfect relationship’, “he’s unwilling to concede that he can’t control somebody else”. He points out that, even if we think we can, human beings can’t really control anything in life: not rent, not world events, not the weather (“much as you Brits would like to”).
“You can’t control your own feelings,” he adds. “You can only control how you respond to your feelings. And that’s very difficult to do, actually. And so to me, the whole show has been an allegory for that.”
‘You’ is streaming now on Netflix