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‘You’ showrunner Sera Gamble on how ‘deeply, deeply problematic’ lead Joe Goldberg exposes and subverts rom-com misogyny

Despite being far from festive fun, Netflix’s You was on everyone’s lips over Christmas 2018. The twisted tale of book-lovin’ bad man, Joe Goldberg, proved to be one of the streaming giant’s most successful offerings to date, viewed by a staggering 40 million households in its first month.

But binge-watchers were divided. While some were downright freaked out by the lead’s stalking and abusive behaviour, others – including Stranger Things’ Millie Bobby Brown – defended the character. Worryingly, there were fans that still fancied a bit of Joe after learning the full extent of his crimes as the series concluded.

Showrunner Sera Gamble speaks to NME about testing viewers’ morals, whether the show is glamorising stalking, and spills some beans on season two.

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WARNING: ‘You’ season one spoilers follow…

Firstly, congrats on the success of the show – there’s been heaps of buzz and conversation around it over the last month or so. You must be thrilled?

“Yeah, we’re beyond thrilled.”

We dive straight into Joe’s creepiness from early on in episode one – it’s surprising just how intense things get so quickly. Was this intentional?

“Yeah. In writing the pilot we talked about how we saw the pilot as like a little capsule of Joe Goldberg. By the end of it, you had to have the complete spectrum where you really understood [the character]. You saw the best of him; at the beginning in the bookstore, I think also how he interacts with Paco. And then also braining someone with a hammer. We wanted the whole thing.”

You cast
Caroline Kepnes, Sera Gamble, Penn Badgley, Elizabeth Lail, President of A&E Paul Buccieri and Shay Mitchell attend ‘You’ New York series premiere

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There are still small moments in that first episode that could have been lifted from a typical romantic drama. Did you want to twist this genre and perhaps expose some of its more problematic sides?

“Yeah. So we re-watched all the great romantic comedies when we were making this show; the most famous TV episodes, and then certainly all of the great ’80s and ’90s movies. I grew up watching those and they are deep, deep in my psyche. Generally speaking, the men in those stories cross lines that would be considered unhealthy – if not illegal – in real life, and [viewers] romanticise that. Part of what makes a romantic hero in our kinda collective watcher mind is that he’s persistent; he sees beyond what [the female character] says, into what she feels. He doesn’t necessarily take no for an answer, and he might slay the beast for her. I don’t have a problem with people having a fantasy life, it just seems that this is such a promiscuous archetype for us that it does actually confuse us in real life.

“We’re well aware that what the character is doing is not ok – it’s deeply, deeply problematic”
– Sera Gamble

“So for [You], it was a kind of rich place to start in talking about what the show would be. We wanted to capture those romantic comedy moments so that we could point out that they’re actually kinda creepy.”

The show’s similar to Dexter and Killing Eve in the way we root for these murderous characters, but what makes You different is that we’re placed in a very everyday, real-life setting of modern dating. Is there a danger of glamorising what could be common behaviour?

“I mean, we didn’t invent the antihero, as it were. I think the show is pretty steady and we’re portraying it without necessarily condoning it. I don’t think anyone is trying to push an agenda of, ‘you should definitely kill people for love’ [Laughs]. We’re just interested in being deeply in the point of view of this guy, because we’re trying to explore whether in the misapprehensions that [viewers] detect, what are the things that he believes. Coupled with the unique propensity for crossing lines that are part of this particular character.

“A lot of us might be really screwed up about love, but most of us don’t go out and kill about it. So [Joe’s] just the most extreme example, which is what makes it interesting to explore.”

Penn Badgley’s responded to many fans who are attracted to Joe – he’s shut down positive online comments and says he’s not interested in any sort of redemption for Joe. Could viewers’ morals be tested even further as the story goes on?

“I think we are hardwired to want to forgive characters like Joe. Most leading characters in most TV shows and films are just straight white men. Most of them cross lines that are problematic, and we are trained to forgive them and see them as the star and the hero of the story. So our show is just interested in getting our fingernails in the dirt of that, really. I think the way that Penn addresses this is emblematic of his sort of dry sense of humour about it all. But I will say this: in season two – and ideally beyond – Joe, who is not a monster and is somebody who contains a lot of confidence hits within himself, he may have a moment where he seeks redemption, but that’s different than the show wanting to redeem the character.

“We’re interested in exploring the character and we’re well aware that what the character is doing is not ok – it’s deeply, deeply problematic. So what’s interesting to us is: what does he think he’s done wrong, what does he think he has to do differently, and to really explore that while still keeping that clinical cold eye on the whole show. And that eye is on a show that’s about a guy who kills people.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cKOhno0IMpA&t=2s

I read that season one was finished before the #MeToo movement took off. Has this recent cultural shift changed how you’re approaching season two?

“What’s interesting is that the cultural conversation is aligning with the conversation that we’re having on the show. It’s gratifying, I think. I’ll just say that on a personal level, it’s gratifying because I think it’s a good time for us as a culture to talk about the way that we treat women – and also the way that we treat men. What are the messages that we are giving our boys and our men doing to them?

“I see You as a small, subversive part of a large conversation that is overdue. The thing we want to be sure of is that the show doesn’t sort of become just a little time capsule of #MeToo in any way; we touch on it and we acknowledge it. If anything, it’s just sort of like people are coming to the show already thinking about the stuff that we’re thinking about and that’s great.”

Speaking of season two, how’s it coming along?

“We’re prepping the season and will start shooting in about a month – so we’re building sets and writing scripts. The writers are in the writers’ room right now figuring out episodes five, six and seven. We’re full steam ahead, it’s very exciting.

“That’s really it right now – we’ll have lots more to talk about in a few weeks. We’ll have casting and stuff like that, but we’re still in the thick of all that.”

We already know that the show’s relocating to LA from New York. Is Joe running away from someone or something, or maybe seeking something out?

“Yeah. Well, you’ve sort of put your finger on it – it’s both. Joe is a die-hard New Yorker and I don’t think he would ever go to Los Angeles just for pleasure. He has a lot of judgement about LA and he’s not happy that he’s here necessarily – but he needs to be for a number of reasons that will become clear in the first episode.

“So yeah, there’s an aspect of trying to outrun his past and also trying to stop and fix some things and seek some different things for his future.”

So some of the original characters could potentially move with him?

“Without giving away too much, Joe thinks he’s gone out there by himself [Laughs]. So we can say that with like an ellipsis at the end of the sentence. He’s definitely trying to make a little bit of a left turn in his life. But you know, it’s really fun when a character makes plans right? ‘Cause then you can just go blow them all.”

'You' co-creator Sera Gamble
‘You’ co-creator Sera Gamble

Aside from Joe, each of the show’s characters is flawed in some way and have problems in their lives.

“Yeah, because everybody does. You’re gonna want to bring in those layers – it’s interesting to us, especially with season one. In fact, what I think was most interesting to us is that in making Beck a flawed, three-dimensional, real, young woman, there are things she does that are mature and perfect, and there are things she does that are kinda sloppy and amateur. Penn calls it a bit of a social experiment; how much will you forgive when Joe Goldberg does it, and how will you be when Beck does it.”

We saw Paco witness his stepdad’s murder at the hands of Joe, and in the finale he sees Beck trying to escape. This could be a big problem for Joe going forward, right?

“There’s a lot of loose ends in season one that could be a problem for him going forward –  we have a list of them in the writers’ room up on a board. There’s a lot of stuff that was done very imperfectly by Joe; he’s not a good planner, and he’s not particularly good at executing violence in a way that leaves no trace. So there’s a lot of stuff that could come back.”

“Without giving away too much, Joe thinks he’s gone out to LA by himself”

– Sera Gamble

This development with Paco seems like a game changer as he’s the only character that allowed us to see a more human side to Joe almost. It feels as if the one good side of him has been destroyed as season one ends.

“Yeah. It was important to us that there be an element of tragedy in that story. If the only person that somebody like Paco has to protect him, or help him, or try to teach him, is someone like Joe Goldberg – that’s not actually a great cycle to stick Paco into. So we knew that, tragically, Paco was gonna have to pay a price by the end of the season. And that means Joe is paying a price too because I think that Joe genuinely wants Paco to be ok. He sees that he’s a really good kid, but if you’re in Joe Goldberg’s world… that’s a messy, dark, violent world. He can’t really protect you from that.”

One of the main talking points from the finale is that we don’t actually see Beck’s death onscreen – is this pointing to another potential twist? The return of Candace was pretty unexpected.

“I’d say that not showing him kill her inch by inch is not necessarily to hide anything from you. It’s just every time we show violence on the show we have a long conversation about absolutely how much you need to see. We never want the violence to be gratuitous for its own sake, and I’d say that’s probably doubly true when it’s violence against a woman. We talk about that really seriously.

“So we’re not trying to pull a fast one on you with that – she’s dead.”

We moved briefly from inside Joe’s head into Beck’s in season one – could we see things from other characters’ points of view in future episodes?

“One of the reasons we did it so early in season one was to set a template that was a little bit less claustrophobic than just being in his head all the time. So I will say mostly you’re in Joe’s story, but there are times when we get to play with that in season two.”

It was revealed via a flashback that Joe had killed before – could more dark secrets from his past emerge next season?

“Yeah, you’ll learn more about his early life in season two.”

The return of Candace was a different ending to the one in the original novel. Are you tempted to stray further from the source material? It seems like anything could happen now.

“I mean, it’s the sign of a great book and a great story if you can take it in lots of directions beyond the page. We don’t feel a particular responsibility to tell the story exactly how it is in the books; I think we more feel like we wanna bring to life the spirit of the books that we felt when we read them.

“Luckily, Caroline [Kepnes, author] is part of the process of making the show; we share all our material with her, we invite her into the writers’ room, she wrote an episode in season one. So she’s able to fill in some extra blanks for us and kinda set us off on other directions. That’s really a very fun and rewarding part about making this particular show.”

You along with Black Mirror: Bandersnatch dominated discussion about TV over Christmas. Have you had chance to check it out?

“I did, yeah.”

What did you think?

“It was very cool, I was super jealous of it [Laughs]. I’m a massive fan of Black MirrorI think it’s one of the most brilliant things of our generation. Period. I don’t wanna limit it to even just TV – it’s just so smart.

“I didn’t know much about [Bandersnatch], I just saw that there was a new Black Mirror. I had taken a couple of days off around Christmas and sort of sat there with the laptop and flash played it for about two hours. I was really inspired by it. It’s exciting to be working in a medium that is evolving and that is being supported by new technologies. When the level rises and when new things are introduced into television, that’s good for everyone in TV.”

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch

Black Mirror and You are very different shows, but both explore how new technologies can have a negative impact on what should be healthy relationships. Was this the message you were trying to get across?

“I think it’s something a lot of writers are thinking about. I mean, you can argue that [technology] is bringing more good than bad, or more bad than good – but I think even that is a sort of fake conversation, because it doesn’t fully acknowledge how unknown the future is. We don’t really understand the limits of these new technologies; we don’t a hundred per cent know what they’re doing to us as a culture. We don’t even fully understand what they are doing to the brains of children who are growing up with phones in their hands.

“So where I see our show as kind of in the same large family as a show like Black Mirror, is that we’re just trying to wade around in the questions of what these technologies are doing to our society. We’re not coming in with answers, we’re not even really coming in with one overarching mission statement that says we follow the side of good or evil. We more are just ourselves as people looking at it and asking these questions.”

“Our goal for season two was to double down on everything that was great and delicious about the show”

– Sera Gamble

You were in a rare position of having a second season commissioned before the first one aired. Did this help in mapping out the show?

“It did. Just in terms of everybody kind of coming into work every day, it gave a feeling of structure that I think was helpful. I think season twos are always their own particular beast. Season one of a show is where you kind of get to know the show and the show starts to tell you what it really wants to be. You also come in with the most well beaten out template that you’re ever gonna have. When you sell a show, you promise a lot about season one and you kind of hand-wave at season two [Laughs].

“So our goal when we went into the writers’ room this season was to double down on everything that was great and delicious about the show and explore those things even more deeply. So hopefully what we’re gonna bring is still very streamlined and twisty and makes you want to binge-watch it. It’s just more of the stuff that was particularly compelling.”

And you’ll be testing viewers’ moral compasses even more?

“Yeah – and our own! [Laughs]”

‘You’ season one is streaming now on Netflix

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