Falling for YOU: Penn Badgley talks EW through the twisted fandom (and season 2) of his Netflix hit
"Do we think Joe eats this much?" Penn Badgley currently has his head in Joe Goldberg's fridge. Standing on the Los Angeles set of YOU's second season (out on Netflix today), Badgley is closely examining the collection of food that's supposed to belong to his character. The shelves are filled with almond milk, hummus, yogurt, salsa, and more — and soon, Badgley will add a few bottles of celery juice to the mix. (Joe's doing his best to adapt to the L.A. lifestyle.) But first, a couple of things might have to go. After Badgley poses the question, a crew member responds, "I have a lot in my fridge." It takes Badgley no time at all to point out, "Yeah, but you're not a murderer."
In its first season, YOU, which is based on the 2014 Caroline Kepnes novel of the same name, introduced viewers to Joe (Badgley), an obsessive bookstore manager who fell for Beck (Elizabeth Lail), a winsome, insecure twentysomething who dreamt of one day becoming a poet. From the moment Beck asked for help finding the latest Paula Fox novel, Joe was hooked. And thanks to Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, his Beck fix was never more than a swipe away. "With social media today, we're all kind of stalkers and we're all a little bit voyeurs," says YOU executive producer Greg Berlanti. It's part of what drew Berlanti to the book, the question of: In a time where "social media stalking" is socially acceptable, where do we draw the line? At what point does it go from due diligence to something more sinister?
Wherever that line is, Badgley would like you to know that Joe crossed it. Many times. Because Joe did more than check Beck's Facebook in season 1. Joe stole her phone. Joe broke into her apartment. Joe killed people close to her. And then, he killed her. "It was so hard for me to shoot the first season knowing that we were killing Beck," Badgley remembers. "I would even say it. When we'd shoot a really nice sweet romantic scene, after they'd call cut I'd be like, 'Don't forget! We're killing her! Just in case anybody was enjoying themselves too much, remember what we're doing here!" But Joe isn't Dexter Morgan. He's not Patrick Bateman. He doesn't struggle to feel something. If anything, Joe feels too much. He's not a sociopath. He's a romantic. "There isn't this lust to hurt people; there's this lust to be loved," Kepnes says of Joe. "It's about remembering the drive of why he's doing what he's doing, and that's what's really terrifying because we're used to thinking of that drive as the dream: It's John Cusack with the boombox and it's this idea of this man who just needs, needs, needs to be loved." As showrunner Sera Gamble puts it, "What we're doing with Joe is we're taking a really hard look at that romantic hero idea and subverting it so that we can show the very toxic underbelly of the kinds of things we love seeing in our great romantic stories." Toeing the line between romance and violence is what makes the show so compelling. And it's also why Badgley nearly turned it down.
Back in 2017, EW visited the YOU set while they were still filming the pilot, and sitting in an abandoned New York City subway station, Badgley — who hadn't been a series regular on a show since his 5-year run on Gossip Girl — was already conflicted about the role. "In the beginning of the process I had no interest in humanizing him," Badgley said between takes of the pilot scene where Joe followed Beck into the subway station and, moments later, saved her life after she fell onto the tracks. "I was really concerned about letting my own nature make him human in a way that maybe somebody like him can't be." Even one episode into the experience, Badgley was already intrigued to see what people were going to think about the guy who could explain away just about any mistake he made. (And the explanation was typically: I did it for love.) As Badgley put it then, "The show is this social experiment-style conversation piece that if people really do want to watch, I'm interested to hear why."
Spoiler: People did end up watching, though the journey, quite like Joe's first — or really any — kill, wasn't without its hiccups. YOU premiered on Lifetime on Sept. 9, 2018, and aired its first season with only one episode pulling in more than 1 million viewers. Suddenly, the show that had already been handed a season 2 renewal was in trouble. Enter Netflix. After YOU hit the streaming service in December, it reportedly garnered more than 40 million viewers in its first four weeks. Then, just as quickly as Lifetime canceled the show, Netflix picked it up for a second season. "It always felt like more of a binge show," Berlanti says. "We tried initially to sell it to Netflix at the very beginning and [Netflix's Chief Content Officer] Ted Sarandos has said as much that they wish they'd gotten it the first time."
With more eyes on YOU, Badgley started witnessing the conversations he'd been so curious about. "I think all of my fears were confirmed as well as my greatest hopes for it," Badgley says now of the response. "The things I was worried about, it's not as though those things haven't happened. For instance, the devilish charm of Joe almost painting over his lethality." As more people started to watch, there was no denying that many people thought Joe was hot — romantic, even. Once again, Badgley felt he needed to remind people that the guy's a murderer. Fans would tweet him things like "@PennBadgley was sexy as Dan but lord Joe is a whole new level," and he'd respond, "…of problems, right?" One fan tweeted, "I've never trusted anyone less than @PennBadgley," to which he responded, "My favorite feedback so far." The results of the social experiment, it seems, were mixed. And they've remained that way. "Caroline's novel has always been a Rorschach test about how romantic we all are as a culture," explains Berlanti, "that we just want to keep giving people the benefit of the doubt."
And people do want to give Joe the benefit of the doubt. In audience testing, Berlanti discovered that out of his more than 10 shows currently on the air — many of which feature actual superheroes — Joe Goldberg is the highest testing character. "People say, 'Well, he does this for love.' He does the things he does for love and that somehow, in their minds, makes it okay,'" Berlanti says. Adds Badgley: "Joe is a very specific kind of predator. He's a predator who appeals to our sense of morality. It's like, 'Well of course he would never do THAT.'" Except in YOU's season 1 finale, Joe did do THAT. He killed Beck. And that's why Joe Goldberg is a different man in season 2. For starters, he now goes by Will.
Back in Joe's apartment, Badgley is done unloading the celery juices, but this cleanse is about to take a turn. Like many of the relationships in Joe's life, this one's going to end with a splatter — though this time it's vomit as opposed to blood. And if Joe regurgitating celery juice isn't indicative of his feelings about L.A., we're not sure what is. As Joe puts it, Los Angeles is "the worst city in the world." So why is he living there? One word: Candace.
In the season 1 finale, Joe's ex-girlfriend, the one he thought he'd killed, turned up alive and well, a shocking moment that marked the series' first big deviation from the book. And though season 2 is based on Kepnes' follow-up novel, Hidden Bodies, Candace's arrival makes everything a bit more complicated. But if Joe knows anything, it's that when your not-dead-ex-girlfriend shows up looking for revenge, you run. So he'll make his way across the country to his least favorite place, simply because she'd never look for him there. "Los Angeles is, in many ways, his purgatory," Berlanti says. Because if Joe hated social media, what will he think of social media influencers?
But there is one good thing about LA: It's where Joe — sorry, Will — finds Love (Victoria Pedretti). Where Beck was unsure of herself, Love is confident. Where Beck lacked a support system, Love is surrounded. And where Beck wasn't sure about Joe, Love wants him. "Love is extremely independent and not easily manipulated. She's someone with a really strong sense of self and an unstoppable tenacity," Pedretti says. "I wanted her to be just like sunshine, putting warmth and kindness into the world." After spending much of season 1 in a basement, Joe could use a bit of sunshine — that is, if he lets himself have it. Beck's death changed him. In season 2, he wants to be a better man, and that means not immediately falling into the arms of someone new. "He's struggling with a degree of self-awareness that he's not had before," Badgley says. "And this time he actually has somebody who wants to be with him." Gamble adds, "If he had met Love before Beck, it wouldn't be the same. The circumstances of his encounter with Love are very informed by what he just went through with Beck."
We should also mention that Love is a package deal. With Love comes Forty (James Scully), her twin. An aspiring movie producer who suffers from "rich white guy" syndrome, Forty is constantly convinced that stardom is right around the corner for him, if only someone would read his brilliant script. In many ways, Forty is the Benji of season 2, but unlike Benji (Lou Taylor Pucci), Joe can't just kill Forty. "We wanted to put some obstacles in Joe's path that wouldn't be so easy to get rid of," Gamble says. "He can't just slash and hack his way through Forty."
But then again, Joe doesn't want to slash and hack his way through Forty! Or anyone! Joe's different now! He lives in L.A., he goes by Will, and he fills his fridge with celery juice! At least until it makes him puke or someone figures out his secret or Candace finds him or he lets himself get to know Love. Because if he'll do anything for love, imagine what he'll do for Love.