Actually, You Is Better Without Joe’s Sex Scenes
It was what Season 4 needed.
Whether it’s Twitter collectively spiraling over a gruesome character death or superfans realizing Joe Goldberg may be a secret Swiftie, Netflix’s You always gets the people talking. But this time around, one of the biggest topics of conversation surrounding You Season 4 actually had to do with something viewers didn’t see: Joe having sex.
When the first five episodes of the season hit Netflix on Feb. 9, fans immediately noted how few intimate scenes Penn Badgley’s Joe had — and how whenever things did get steamy, they stopped short of ever being graphic. Considering fans spent the previous three seasons watching the ballcap-clad killer in various, sometimes shocking, compromising positions nearly every episode, this was a noteworthy shift. Knowing viewers would have questions, Badgley addressed his character’s surprisingly chaste season on his podcast Podcrushed soon after Part 1 dropped.
“I asked Sera Gamble, [the show’s] creator, ‘Can I just do no more intimacy scenes?’” Badgley said in the Feb. 9 episode. “‘How much less can you make it?’ was my question to them … They came back with a phenomenal reduction.” He attributed the request to his desire to avoid being typecast as a romantic lead; he also included a somewhat enigmatic quote referring to his marriage to Domino Kirke: “Fidelity in every relationship, including my marriage, is important to me.”
The reactions to the quotes quickly went as viral as the quotes themselves, with the discourse spanning from applause to eye rolls and even speculation about Badgley and Kirke’s relationship. But honestly, regardless of how you feel about Badgley’s decision, it was exactly what You Season 4 needed. The de-sexifying of Joe Goldberg played a crucial role in accomplishing the main goal of the season: to get viewers to believe he’d truly turned good.
Warning: Spoilers for You Season 4 follow. Please don’t mistake me for a prude — the way a twisted smile unfurled across my face as I watched Lukas Gage’s golden shower scene for the first, but not last, time deserves an X-rating all on its own. And I’m certainly not saying only villains are allowed to have hot onscreen sex. (Hello, we’ve all seen Bridgerton.) But Joe’s villainy is intrinsically tied to his most carnal urges: stalking, sexualizing, and ultimately killing the object of his desires. It’s a pattern he couldn’t break in the first three seasons, despite all the times he told himself, “This time it will be different.”
In Season 4, it finally was different. The series had suddenly become a murder mystery, one in which Joe wasn’t the suspect, but rather the noble investigator trying to stop the killer. He was interested in a woman, sure, but he wasn’t obsessed with her — he was obsessed with finding out who was killing off the members of his newfound friend group. For once, “You” wasn’t a woman doomed to sleep with Joe and later be killed by him. For once, Joe was finally doing the right thing.
Of course, it was all too good to be true. Joe wasn’t reformed; he’d simply disassociated and developed another personality, his very own Rhys Montrose hallucination, to do all his obsessing, kidnapping, and killing for him. In hindsight, this seems obvious — of course Joe hadn’t changed. This is who he is! But the show actually had most fans (this one included) sold for the majority of the season. When the big reveal in Episode 8 went down, the You hive was gagged.
It’s a plot twist made possible — or at the very least, exponentially more effective — by Joe’s lack of sex scenes. Much like when he’s killing, Joe loses control when he’s in the throes of passion (lest we forget his first time with Beck). Seeing him naked, panting, and sweating — even if it was over a woman viewers believed he wasn’t actively stalking — would only serve to remind viewers that, at his core, Joe is still Joe. The same guy who masturbated in the bushes while spying on Beck. Who held onto another woman’s underwear while he had Love up against a wall. Who murdered nearly every woman he’d had onscreen sex with.
By visually shielding viewers from this aspect of Joe, the show subconsciously helped fans separate the monster he once was from the new man he’d convinced himself he’d become. From a storytelling perspective, it’s a master class in subtle audience manipulation that led to a powerful payoff. And to think, it all may have come from Badgley simply not wanting to get naked for work anymore.
But this tactic can only work once. Season 4 ends with Joe and the latest love of his life, Kate Galvin, living large in their Manhattan high-rise, their atrocities neatly covered up and pinned on others thanks to their obscene wealth. The presumed fifth season — which, come on, is all but guaranteed to happen, although Badgley wants it to be the show’s last — sets Joe up to return to his rightful place as the show’s obvious villain, possibly more dangerous than ever (and definitely more smug).
This means it’ll no longer make sense to hide Joe’s lusty depravity. In fact, now that he’s finally seemed to come to terms with himself — and he has access to funds that will continually clean up his messes — one would expect him to be more brazen. Season 5 should see Joe pleasuring himself in his private opera box, doing caviar bumps off Kate’s naughty bits in the loo at Per Se, or whatever other impulse you’re free to act on when you’re untouchably wealthy in New York City. Where Joe’s lack of sex scenes helped rebrand the reformed killer as a hero in Season 4, next season, it’s likely going to feel like an inconsistency with his character arc. So, if Badgley is going to maintain his no-sex-scene stance going forward, the show’s writers will need to get creative to find other, less graphic ways to remind viewers who Joe Goldberg really is.
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