‘You’ Season 4 Part 1 Review: Netflix Thriller Morphs Into a Dreary, Predictable Whodunit

Penn Badgley’s Joe grows a beard and moves to a rain-soaked setting, and that’s not the only thing Season 4 has in common with “Dexter”

Penn Badgley stars in "You."
Penn Badgley stars in Netflix's "You."

Netflix’s “You” is going the “Stranger Things” and “Ozark” route for Season 4, splitting the season in two batches of five episodes each. But the question is, is “You” Season 4 Part 1 compelling enough to require the split or even the wait for its conclusion? Perhaps prior to this season, the answer to that question would be a no-brainer, as the deliciously bingeable series traditionally has the audience in the palm of its hand, salivating for more of Joe’s misguided-yet-still-criminal behavior and the fate of whatever poor woman (or women) would end up being the object of his even more misguided affection.

Like the seasons before it, this season of “You” places everyone’s favorite murderous stalker Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley) in a new setting. This time, he’s grown out his hair and has a beard for his new life abroad, in London, England. (The season premiere explains why Joe’s not still in Paris, where we last saw him in the Season Three finale.) Joe’s got a new name (Jonathan Moore, as Joe Goldberg “died” in a murder-suicide last season), a new profession (university professor), and he feels like he’s finally getting what he “deserves” (a well-earned holiday after what Love put him through). To Joe, London proves to be everything he’s ever wanted, a city where people genuinely read and respect books; it’s ”the good place,” compared to the “purgatory” that was Season 2’s Los Angeles and the “hell” that was Season 3’s suburbia.

And with this change of locale and vibe for Joe and the series comes a twist on the series’ approach to storytelling, in a sense, as it’s all a backdrop to a timely whodunnit — one that attempts to create a puzzle for both Joe and the audience to solve in the first half of the season.

Naturally, book snob Joe isn’t a fan of the whodunnit, considering it “the lowest form of literature.” And “You” hasn’t proven it cares about the genre at all, as it tends to be very clear that Joe “did it,” even if the audience isn’t sure what he did at first — like with his ex-girlfriend Candace in the first season and now this season, with Tati Gabrielle’s Marienne. But with the series’ new location and cast of characters, “You” Season 4 hopes to make for a proper Agatha Christie-esque whodunnit, complete with the social and class commentary the author’s works are known for. That commentary has been ingrained in the series from the very beginning, so it seemingly makes sense for it to tackle a genre and type of storytelling that is also about that very thing. However, with this shift in dynamic and approach to the series’ storytelling, “You” becomes less like its inspiration (despite this season’s collection of royal and “royal adjacent” socialites that make for both suspect and victims) and instead even more like a comparative series, “Dexter.”

In a sense, “You” has always been like “Dexter,” albeit a more millennial, glossy-tinged version of the sweaty hit series. Despite being a clear villain as the central figure of the series (which Badgley is always willing to bring up with regards to the character), the voyeuristic Joe still manages to have audiences consider him an “anti-hero” and hope he’ll “win,” in the same way they did with Michael C. Hall’s Dexter. (Plus, Penn Badgley is just so dreamy.)

There’s also the voiceover component of both series, which “You” still weaponizes better than “Dexter,” as the latter series especially failed to offer any particularly new or interesting insight with the tool, as opposed to the former making it integral to the very fabric of unpacking the inner workings (despite the fact he is still very much an unreliable narrator) of a supposed Nice Guy in the wild. Where the two characters diverge is arguably their “code” for killing: While both Dexter and Joe’s ledgers are full of plenty of terrible people of low moral fiber, Joe has a way of harming even more innocent people who just so happen to get in the way of his warped idea of love.

However, this season’s specific comparison to “Dexter” unfortunately comes from some of the worst aspects of the series. The biggest issue is just how obvious the killer (who becomes this season’s “You…,” in a sense) is, to the point there is no actual drama in the otherwise interesting “whodunnit” premise. Without going into spoilers, let’s just say Part 1 ends with on a sour note that sets up a potentially disappointing Part 2. It’s very difficult to be invested or even enjoy what’s happening given this glaring problem, which is why this season’s new cast of characters has to do a lot of heavy lifting, with Joe too focused on playing this less dynamic game of cat-and-mouse.

It’s there where “You” Season 4 gets closer to hitting the mark but not quite there. With the second and third seasons, especially, “You” had a relatively easy task when it came to lampooning and satirizing the types of people who would live in Los Angeles’ Silver Lake and Los Feliz area and the suburban hell of Madre Linda. In London, Joe once again finds himself sucked into a world of the types of privileged people he claims to hate. (In terms of suspending disbelief, the first half of the season has the “dead” Joe Goldberg in far too many situations where tabloid cameras are all around him, to the point that it will hopefully be addressed in the second half). “You” throws a whole bunch of new characters at the audience this season, which instantly makes it difficult to really latch onto any of them.

One could argue it’s the intentionally cold, detached nature of the British that the series is attempting to depict, but it’s an attempt that doesn’t quite work. It’s clear which of these characters the series wants the audience to connect with, even as Joe silently judges them: the cold, distant Kate (Charlotte Ritchie), the good-time girl Lady Phoebe (Tilly Keeper), and Phoebe’s American rich boy beloved Adam (Lukas Gage). But they are a small few of a larger number of characters who are clearly more fodder than anything else. Because with the way it’s presented, this is absolutely a season of fodder.

From the beginning, “You” has always thrived on dark humor. With the new setting, it provides a chance to play with a drier style of British humor, but it doesn’t actually take that chance. In fact, the humor of this all — as dark as it would be — is something severely lacking in this season.

And for fans of Ritchie’s work in series like “Fresh Meat,” (the brilliant and deviously underrated) “Siblings,” (the original) “Ghosts,” and “Feel Good,” it’s somewhat disappointing to watch her play things so devoid of charm and humor here. She’s a suitable and more than competent scene partner for Badgley this season (though, understandably, viewers may feel a hole with the lack of Victoria Pedretti’s Love). But there’s a dreariness that comes with all of this that makes it feel like this is (or, more likely, should be) the beginning of the end for “You.”