Spoilers ahead for all of YOU Season 2. Watching YOU has always felt like a conflicting process, as the show simultaneously makes us repulsed by Joe, yet also encourages us to root for him. Joe Goldberg's backstory in Season 2 only further complicates that narrative, serving to explain how he became the killer he is, and making it seem like the show's creators actually want us to sympathize with him. But why?
When Joe's old flame Candace — who he assumed he killed — reappears at his New York bookshop, Joe flees to L.A. under the name Will Bettelheim. Stuck in a dingy apartment in a city he hates with the deaths of Beck, Peach, and Benji on his mind, Joe is more vulnerable than we've ever seen him. Being on the verge of capture also triggers a host of memories, and he flashes back to the last time he was at someone else's mercy: when he was a kid.
"It's been said that dreams are illustrations from the book your soul is writing about you," Joe tells us. "So why do I keep dreaming about my childhood?"
We learn that Joe's childhood was bleak. His dad was abusive to his mom and him, and both parents seemed to treat him as a burden. His mom was neglectful — once leaving him in a grocery store for hours to go somewhere with a man — and his dad passed on a lot of toxic messaging to Joe. He told Joe that pain makes people truthful, and that he hit his wife because she doesn't love him the way she's supposed to. Eventually, Joe shot his dad while he was beating his mom, and she comforted him by saying, "You were protecting me. It had to be done. You're a good boy."
All of this is distilled into Joe, and YOU demonstrates how he embodies all of his parent's worst traits. There is certainly some merit to this: studies have shown that real-life serial killers often have a history of childhood abuse and family dysfunction. We also know that after Joe landed in foster care, the bookseller Mr. Mooney was just as cruel as his father was. YOU seems to suggest that had Joe not had a terrible childhood, he may have not grown into a psychopathic stalker.
The issue with this of course, as Peter Vronsky tells The Guardian, is that despite what pop culture seems to always suggest, not all abused children become killers. "If 100 kids grow up in an abusive foster home, and one turns out to be a serial killer – what about the other 99? They grew up to be, well, maybe not all well-adjusted citizens, but certainly not serial killers," explained Vronsky. "Responsibility falls on the offender here. Serial killers choose to act on their compulsions."
It's not always clear if YOU wants to be a purely bonkers satire that lampoons rom-com conventions by making a serial killer the love interest, or if it's actually half sincere in painting Joe as a dark anti-hero. While Season 1 functioned as a cautionary tale about the perils of a too public social media presence from Beck's point of view, Season 2 feels much messier and more convoluted in its messaging.
Joe's backstory can be filed in the same ambiguous column as his side stories with Paco and Ellie, which paints him as their protector. It's convenient to ignore that Joe is a killer when he rescues Paco from a similarly abusive father, and keeps Ellie out of the hands of a pedophile. Joe's full backstory finally explains why he has a soft spot for both kids, but isn't humanizing him kind of a moot point? Does the fact that Joe sometimes kills rapists and abusers excuse the fact that he also stalks, manipulates, and kills women who don't "love him the way they're supposed to?"
It doesn't. So how useful, then, is it to the overall plot and message of YOU to show Joe's childhood abuse? The fact that Season 2 portrays Joe attempting to become a better version of himself — he lets Will go and promises not to murder Delilah — is bound to make viewers feel even more conflicted about how we're supposed to perceive Joe. (This is compounded by the fact that Love Quinn is revealed to be an even more calculating killer, which makes Joe look almost defanged in comparison.)
Considering that the source material for Season 2 — Caroline Kepnes' Hidden Bodies — actually ends with Joe in jail for his crimes, wouldn't time have been better spent fleshing out cops, lawyers, or whoever else is able to testify against him? Didn't Candace deserve more backstory, or even Love, the co-villain in this tale? It's simply not clear what we're supposed to get out of Joe's backstory other than the feeling that perhaps being a serial killer is ultimately not his fault — except that it really, really is.
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, call 911 or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1(800) 799-SAFE (7233) or visit thehotline.org.