“You” is a classic boy-meets-girl story — except the boy is a stalker dangerously obsessed with his girlfriend while desperately seeking to heal emotional wounds from his past. However, this psychological thriller is so much more than a show about a stalker. The psychology behind each character, and their interactions with each other, will make you ponder common experiences of the human condition.
As a therapist I’ll explore sociopathy, love, emotional abuse, attachment, and more in “You.”
Spoiler alert! While analyzing the characters I’ll inevitably disclose information about them.
Joe: A bookstore manager, Joe Goldberg stalks the women he dates and becomes dangerously infatuated with them. His psychology is complex and it’s possible that his personal history with abuse, abandonment, and trauma underlie his sociopathic behaviors. To heal trauma from his past he voraciously seeks love in unsuspecting women, and his desire to be understood is projected onto his love interests. His quest to be loved feeds the delusions that establish his relationships. Joe doesn’t seem to know what “love” really is since it was never modeled for him as a child. The insecure attachment he experienced with his parents, as well as abuse from other adults, motivates him to seek control over others under the guise of “love.”
Beck: Guinevere Beck is Joe’s love interest in season one. She’s a broke NYU graduate student, aspiring writer, and completely oblivious to Joe’s obsession with her. Her naiveté is both a strength and a weakness. On one hand, her innocence sets her apart from others as it softens her perspective of the the world. On the other hand, it’s partly what attracts Joe to her and blinds her to his dangerousness. Beck sees the good in people. Even after discovering Joe’s sinister side, she desperately wants to believe he’s a “good person” underneath his sociopathy. Her complicated relationship with her father may also contribute to her determination to see the good in Joe despite many warning signs.
Love: Love Quinn, Joe’s girlfriend in season two, is an aspiring chef and health guru in Los Angeles. Raised by a critical mother and distant father, she’s become a bit hardened to the world and has learned to look out for herself. Additionally, in a codependent relationship with her brother who struggles with addiction, she’s assumed in a caretaker role for quite some time. Joe’s obsession with her feels comfortable, and even endearing, as she equates unhealthy preoccupation with love. Similar to Joe, insecure attachment experienced in her childhood may contribute to her obsession with him and her desperation to feel cared for. Despite her bubbly, affectionate exterior, she strategically hides parts of herself. Perhaps emotional abuse in her childhood helped her develop the ability to embody different personas.
Inside Joe’s Mind
The title of the show stems from Joe’s obsession with with the women that he preys on, referring to them as “you” in his inner monologue. A unique feature of the show is the steady narration of his thoughts that supplement his interactions with people. With this narration, normal conversations suddenly become creepy and innocent gestures quickly turn malicious. Listening to Joe’s thought process was fascinating as it made me consider the thousands of thoughts that pass through my mind each day. What would they sound like to someone else if narrated as his are? I’m not in a hurry to find out.
Voyeurism can be defined as taking pleasure in observing something private or scandalous. Joe’s stalking of his girlfriends ranged from physical to virtual. In addition to following them home and peering through their windows, he bugged their phones and was able to peer into their most private conversations. Thanks to social media and the internet he was able to quickly find information about them such as their home addresses, names of close friends, hobbies, and more. The show’s reference to this was a commentary on the use of technology to easily find information about others, and even stalk them. While the show exaggerated some aspects of this, it wasn’t far from reality. I couldn’t help but check my privacy settings on social media soon after!
Sociopathy & Suspense
The suspense of watching Joe almost get caught in his voyeuristic and criminal behaviors was enthralling. His dynamic with Beck and Love was reminiscent of the show Dexter, and the movie American Psycho, as he presented like a “normal” guy on the surface while someone very different lay beneath. As a therapist I couldn’t help but wonder about the psychopathology his behaviors may be rooted in. For instance, his sociopathic behaviors reminded me of antisocial personality disorder. His delusions surrounding his romantic connections with women also reminded me of delusional disorder, erotomanic type. However, the creepiness of his thoughts and behaviors seemed to surpassed what a diagnosis could explain — and perhaps that’s what made his character so interesting.
Attachment & Abandonment
Across both seasons the show reveals a bit about neglect and abuse in Joe’s past. Insecure attachment with caregivers can lead to seeking out romantic partners that model the same attachment style. It’s important to note that Joe’s sociopathic behaviors don’t represent an average “insecure attachment style,” but they could partly stem from it. As humans we often make sense of a person’s heartlessness by believing that it’s a reaction to pain they previously experienced. As humans we have a social “code” that’s been formed over thousands of years by evolution and cultural norms. When someone’s behavior deviates from this, we strive to rationalize it in order to diminish emotional dissonance within ourselves.
Character is Subjective
There are a handful of characters who are able to see through Joe’s guise of innocence. “Peach,” one of Beck’s friends, is suspicious of Joe from the start. Somehow, through skilled gaslighting, he portrays her to be the villain in Beck’s life rather than him. Side note: to “gaslight” is to psychologically manipulate someone into questioning their own sanity. Joe struggles with his identity as he tries to convince himself that he’s a good person who fights for the ones he loves. However, there are times that even he questions the rationality behind his behaviors. The dramatically different opinions that Peach and Beck have of Joe speak to the subjectiveness of a person’s character. The way we discern and remember others is based on how they present to us as well as our unique experiences that guide our perceptions.
The Desire to Feel Understood
In Joe’s search for love he dangerously projects his desire to feel understood onto others. Soon after meeting Beck and Love, he has thoughts like, “You understand me,” “You’d never leave me,” and “You see me for who I am.” Despite his sociopathic-serial-killer tendencies, I couldn’t help but empathize with his longing to feel understood. As humans we often project our desires onto others and are consequently blinded to the reality of who they are. In our quest to feel seen we can get lost in delusions that fulfill our deepest emotional needs.
“You,” although cheesy at times, didn’t disappoint in the colorful psychology behind its characters and its outrageous plot twists. Trauma in Joe’s childhood made me consider the various aspects that contribute to personality, especially in terms of sociopathic behavior. In Joe’s quest to feel cared for he made me question the boundaries between love, emotional abuse, and selflessness. His skillful manipulation to get what (and whom) he wanted drew attention to the reality that many face in abusive relationships. Despite his wicked tendencies, I was surprised that I still empathized with his fundamental desire to feel loved and understood. The nuances of human psychology are complex. “You” brushed the surface of these complexities in an eerie psychological thriller that left me wanting more.
Share your thoughts in the comments below and subscribe to my blog for updates!
Oh, and it can’t hurt to check the privacy settings on your social media accounts!