After starting out as a scrappy, well-written drama series on Lifetime and quickly spiraling into an overnight success thanks to new swathes of viewers after moving to streaming, You returns on Netflix this week for its third – and most violent – season yet. Though the middle stretch of the season falls into an unfortunate slump that holds the show back from being as potent as it could’ve been, You season 3 is just as witty, soapy, and twisted as ever – benefitting from the risky narrative decision to split its time between the inner minds of both Joe and Love.
Picking up in the bloody wake of the season two finale where former bookstore owner/serial killer Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley) discovered that his latest victim Love Quinn (Victoria Pedretti) was actually a sociopathic killer herself, You season three follows the now unhappily married couple as they attempt to navigate suburban life and raise their infant son Henry. While initially the most malicious thing about the quiet suburb of Madre Linda seems to be their judgy yuppie neighbors, Joe and Love quickly find themselves having to cover up yet another trail of bodies after their mutual jealousy, paranoia, and neuroticism leads to a number of unsuspecting suburbanites getting caught in the crossfire.
While its first two seasons followed Joe in his single-minded pursuit of an unsuspecting victim, season three makes a radical departure in multiple aspects: the most significant of which being that it heavily features characters from the previous seasons. Where seasons 1’s Beck was killed off and only appeared in brief flashbacks, Love accomplished the rare feat of being the subject of Joe’s infatuation and living to tell the tale – thanks to the unexpected reveal of her pregnancy in the season two finale.
Unwilling to let his unborn son fall into the same cycle of abuse and abandonment he went through, Joe marries the utterly insane Love and the two settle down, resulting in a season 3 narrative where, for the first time, Joe is not the sole POV character. The series made its trademark with his calm, almost sultry narration, but for the first time, Love too is allowed not just a voice as a narrator, but far more agency as a love interest – a near mirror image of Joe who develops her own infatuations and homicidal tendencies while still attempting to keep up the facade of their marriage and normalcy.
In some aspects, the change weakens the narrative focus of the series – seasons one and two are tight, cohesive stories because they only truly revolve around Joe – but season three splits its time from the perspectives of both Love and Joe, meaning that effectively double the emotional storytelling has to be done. More to do means less time to do it – and as a result, You season can at times feel disjointed, stretched out, and underbaked – struggling to develop compelling love interests for both Love and Joe while having an overarching crime to coverup to unite the two of them in a main story.
This structure and pacing issue is exacerbated by the fact that the aforementioned crime (which in the past was merely Joe stalking his victims and attempting to hide bodies that got in the way) is resolved by the fourth episode, and another significant murder doesn’t take place until the eight episode, resulting in a three-episode slump that slows down to focus on character-driven melodrama. Unfortunately for You, though, that melodrama is banal and somewhat lacking in comparison to the first two seasons, which featured a smaller but more fleshed-out ensemble cast.
As opposed to characters from his victims’ life that bleed into Joe’s social circle – like Forty Quinn from season two or Peach Salinger from season one, the ensemble of season three is comprised of a gaggle of Joe and Love’s neighbors and coworkers: for the most part divided between Joe’s social circle and Love’s, in addition to their own individual love interests. Joe has neighbor Natalie(Michaela McCanus) and coworker Marienne (Tati Gabrielle), while Love spends most of her time with mommy blogger queen bee Sherry (Shalita Grant) and college boy Theo (Dylan Arnold).
The sheer volume of supporting characters means the show is tasked with making a cast twice as large just as interesting as past seasons, and though the three-episode slump in the middle does spend more time with them, the characters are fundamentally less fleshed-out and compelling in comparison to prior supporting players, resulting in the day-to-day soapy drama of Joe and Love’s social lives at times feeling tiresome and overdone in comparison to the sharper, more pulse-pounding crime thriller side of the show.
While some characters like type-A Sherry and her unsettlingly masculine Alpha male husband Cary (Travis Van Winkle) do shine through as delightfully bitter caricatures of millennial parenting for the uber-rich while still somehow ending up compelling in their own right, the love interests for both Joe and Love lack in chemistry and ethos, making the romantic subplots taxing and predictable, especially attempting to follow in the footsteps of the two previous seasons.
Still, though, where the interpersonal drama is lacking, You’s violent side is as sharp as ever – with Joe suddenly seeming like the straight man and the rational one in comparison to the impulsive, kill-first-ask-questions-later Love. It’s a fascinating dynamic that the show sets up where Joe is at times unwillingly roped into playing murderous suburban Bonnie and Clyde with Love – the duo bicker over the best way to dispose of a body only to go home and struggle to get their baby to sleep.
The show delights in using music, set and costume design to further accentuate the oxymoronic nature of their violent personalities lying in wait beneath the idyllic suburbia, and when You goes full dark comedic thriller and commits to racking up a higher body count than ever, the show is at some of the best it’s ever been across three seasons. As disappointing as the mid-season slump was, the resolution in episodes eight and nine is a twist-filled pulse-pounding delight that proves the writers are still as sharp as ever and have the capacity to write at season one’s seamless level – despite the disappointment of the day-to-day dramatic narrative.
Across three seasons, this latest installment of You is likely its weakest, but by no means a bad show – just ever so slightly weaker and more distracted than its first two razor-sharp entries. While the volume of ensemble characters results in narrative strain and the love interests aren’t anywhere near as compelling than prior seasons, You season three still remains television worth the watch thanks to Penn Badgley’s consistently pitch-perfect performance, and the show’s signature mystery-driven twists and turns.
Season three of You will drop on Netflix October 15.