Penn Badgley Unpacks the Major Twist of ‘You’ Season 4
[The following story includes major spoilers for You season four.]
Joe Goldberg has not turned over a new leaf.
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In fact, he’s been tricking You viewers as the unreliable narrator of the hit Netflix serial killer drama.
Part 2 of season four pulled off a major twist: Joe hasn’t exactly been himself this season. When returning after the Part 1 release with the final five episodes of the split season, the final moments of episode seven, “Good Man, Cruel World,” revealed that this season’s villain isn’t Rhys Montrose — it’s actually Joe (Penn Badgley).
When Joe is led to the real Rhys by Tom Lockwood (Greg Kinnear), the father of Joe’s season romance Kate (Charlotte Ritchie), You‘s resident stalker-murderer thinks he’s killing the man who has been tormenting him for the last few months. But in reality, Joe kills a man he’s never even met. In a series of flashbacks, the audience learns that every time Joe thought he was talking to Rhys, he was actually talking to himself.
Episode eight, “Where Are You Going? Where Are You From?” is told mostly from the perspective of season three romance Marienne (Tati Gabrielle), through a fairytale she pretends to tell her daughter. When viewers saw Joe let her go in the first episode, that wasn’t reality. He actually kidnapped her, the way he always does, and then forgot about her as his obsession with Rhys took hold.
Over the course of the final two episodes, when Joe discovers that he did, in fact, take Marienne hostage, he wants to let her go. But, worried she’ll turn him in, he leaves her in his familiar box while he tries to find another way. When Joe’s student Nadia (Amy-Leigh Hickman) finds Marienne, the women fake her death in a plot to truly get Joe to leave Marienne alone.
The penultimate episode, “She’s Not There,” also brought the surprise returns of Elizabeth Lail’s Beck and Victoria Pedretti’s Love, whose ghosts convince Joe that the only way to end the cycle of kidnapping and murdering is to take his own life. The finale, “The Death of Jonathan Moore,” sees Joe throwing “Rhys,” a.k.a. his dark side, off of a bridge and then jumping off the bridge himself, only to be saved by a police boat patrolling the river.
In the last act, Kate tells Joe to be honest with her about everything and, surprisingly, he is. With her newfound power as the head of her dead father’s company (he’s killed by Joe), she’s able to spin his story to make him out to be a hero who escaped his murderous wife. Fittingly, as Taylor Swift’s “Anti-Hero” plays, survivor Marienne is seen reunited with her daughter, reading The Cut article, “A Brush with Death, A New Life of Philanthropy: How Joe Goldberg Escaped Killer Love Quinn.” The final scene sees Joe and Kate back in New York, and a flash of “Rhys” shows that Joe’s dark side is sticking around.
Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter, Badgley says he feels like his character is in a new place of power for the first time in his life, and that if he’s ever brought to justice by showrunner Sera Gamble “it’ll probably be this spectacular resolution that everybody’s hoping it could be, because now he has further to fall. He has power, and the stakes are high. He’s not just some guy anymore.” Below, the star also opens up about working with Lail and Pedretti again, and where he and Kate go from here.
So, the big reveal in Part 2 is that Rhys has actually been Joe this whole time. I was absolutely shocked. Can you walk me through this plot twist?
I’m really so glad to hear that, because they weren’t written in two parts. [Editor’s note: Showrunner Gamble previously told THR it was Netflix’s idea to split the season.] So all that time for people to think about it made me a little bit nervous, to be honest. I’m sure it makes the showrunners nervous — well, I don’t know because Netflix in its algorithm seems to be pretty confident that we’ll be alright. But, I love it. Because, here’s the thing: As an actor, I got the best of both worlds, and I think Joe does too, and thereby, so does the viewer. So, we all get it. He’s real enough that he’s a different person. Can you imagine how insufferable it would feel if I was playing his [alter ego]? I mean… it might be fun. It might be compelling. But, we did get a taste of that in season three, when Joe and Joe were having their bit, and I actually did really like that. But man, the amount of time that would have taken, it’s so different.
So, just for Joe to be forming something of a love relationship — an attachment relationship, a real friendship — with a man is so refreshing. We got it with Forty in season two, and he was iconic for that reason — and also because James Scully is a great actor, and it was a great character. I so prefer it this way, because the one thing he couldn’t do with another friend is really go into his psychosis the way we were able by doing it this way. It was some of the most fun that I think I’ve had playing Joe, even just in that he gets to speak more. If Rhys is essentially the embodiment of his thoughts, that means he’s not thinking as much. So, that means Joe has to talk rather than think.
If you notice in the trailer for Part 1, I have one line. One line. The rest of the time, just dead silent. So what it means, on the purest of levels, is that I get to perform a bit more in a different way.
I actually didn’t notice that. Now I need to go back and watch the trailer.
Watch the trailer. It’s crazy, because I literally have one line and it’s, “You’re wrong about me.” And it’s all narrated.
In the finale, Joe tells Kate everything. Now with her new role as head of her father’s company, they’re able to spin the story and give Joe a new life of wealth, privilege and power. I was hoping Joe would be brought to justice. Where does Joe, and where do Kate and Joe, go from here?
That’s a question for the writers and for Netflix as to the whereabouts of season five [which has yet to be ordered]. What I like is that it actually puts us in a new place, because as much as we like watching the arc of Joe, we also want him to be brought to justice. But, death or prison? Are they that satisfying? What do we even mean when we say “brought to justice”? Do we really want vengeance? Do we want revenge? Do we want torture? What is it that people want? And, what is actual justice? They’re not necessarily the same thing. So, I’m not sure. But I think he actually can go to a new place and, if and when it happens, it’ll probably be this spectacular resolution that everybody’s hoping it could be, because now he has further to fall. He has power and the stakes are high. He’s not just some guy anymore.
Because I genuinely hoped that Joe had turned over a new leaf when he allegedly let Marienne (Tati Gabrielle) go at the beginning of the season, it broke my heart to find out she had been in a cage this whole time. Why do you think he couldn’t let her go?
The answer is more like in the science of the mind. He’s unable to, not because of anything that she has that’s unique. He’s unable to do this because of who he is. And how he’s been oriented in his life. This is what he’s going to do with anybody. He’s going to find something. Until he gets somebody, he’s going to find what he wants about them. And then once he gets them, guess what? Eventually, he’ll get bored and they go in the box, and they either get out or they don’t. That’s the conceit, and that makes sense. It checks out. I mean, it’s fantastical, but it’s consistent with human behavior. It’s actually not really about the other person in any relationship. For better or worse, much of what we’re working with in a relationship is ourselves, but we project it onto another person. And so, again, I think Joe is just this really fanciful allegory for all that. There’s nothing about Marienne, actually, that’s pulling him in.
Then you go into the realm of Joe. What does he think it is, that she understands him better than anybody else before? Not because she’s a killer like Love (Victoria Pedretti) who — maybe for a fraction of a second before he hated her for it — had something they could connect with. He thinks where they really connect is trying to get closer and closer to the original wound. Beck was, in a way, the most superficial relationship. She kind of was “the one,” which is Joe working out his own awful fantasy in his mind. With Love, she came to the table and was like, “I can meet you where you are now. I am a killer now.” But they didn’t have the same upbringing and it was from a different place. So, then with Marienne he’s thinking, “Well, I’m not a killer. I am capable maybe of that sort of atrocity and could maybe be capable of hearing it from you and accepting that, but what we really share is this earlier life stuff. We grew up in the foster care system and have suffered abandonment.” So, on some level, he’s really trying to get back to the original wound with every relationship.
You mentioned Beck and Love. In the penultimate episode, Elizabeth Lail and Victoria Pedretti come back as figments of Joe’s imagination, encouraging him to take his own life. What was it like working with them again?
It was great. I directed that episode as well, so that was just really poignant for me, being able to direct both of them. They were both in and out so quick, and that episode was a beast. Our schedule was insane. So it was so fast-paced, but I did enjoy it, to be able to revisit those icons of the show and to be directing was just a special little cherry on top.
You’ve shot down a lot of people who have glorified Joe on social media. Why do you think it’s important to show that Joe is truly not someone to strive for?
I think what the show was doing is like a campy exploration of our most toxic misconceptions of love and power and ourselves. And if we forget that and get lured in by his unreliable narration and think we’re actually in a story about a man who’s trying to change and trying to fall in love and trying to find somebody, well then we’re too much under Joe’s spell. And that’s good on one hand, because it means we’ve made this thing in a compelling enough way that that’s what it does. But the show is most valuable when you’re under Joe’s spell and you’re watching it, again, as more as an exploration of us, rather than just about him.
If you think it’s about him, that’s when you’re too much under the spell. And so I think I was just trying to help the concept do what it does best. I mean, it’s right there in the title. It’s You. It’s not him. Not taking anything away from him and his transgressions.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
Parts 1 and 2 of You season four are now streaming on Netflix.