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Netflix’s You Doubles Down on ‘Eat the Rich’ Stories to Humanize Its Antihero

The series's take on the general is more literal, but it capitalizes on the recent popularity of the sentiment.
  • Penn Badgley and Lukas Gage in You (Photo: Netflix)
    Penn Badgley and Lukas Gage in You (Photo: Netflix)

    Joe Goldberg has never been a fan of the privileged class, nor can he seem to escape it.

    In Season 1 of Netflix’s You, the serial killer/antihero spewed constant disdain for the trendy friends that orbited Beck (Elizabeth Lail), the object of his volatile obsession. In Season 2, he was both repulsed by and attracted to the wealth that supported the life of Love Quinn (Victoria Pedretti), his next infatuation. By Season 3, having learned Love was just as capable of murder as he was, Joe settled down in the affluent suburbs with his new wife and son, immediately suffocating under the entitlement of comfortable living.

    For Joe, wealth is too easy. It doesn’t require the struggle that forges the kind of deep-rooted superiority he lives his life by. After all, he’s a critical thinker, a connoisseur of literature, and a man who believes only he can save the women he obsesses over from the evils of the world — always conveniently forgetting to count himself among them.

    So it’s not surprising the series’s fourth season (Part 1 of which is now streaming, followed by Part 2 on March 9) leans on Joe’s self-actualized status as a warrior against the wealthy to embrace Hollywood’s hottest trend: eating the rich.

    On TV, audiences devour lavish lavious, almost grotesque fantasies of wealth like The White Lotus and Succession because they find their subjects teetering on the edge of collapse, and there’s a distinct pleasure in even the possibility of watching the mighty fall. On the big screen, 2022 was also a banner year for eat-the-rich romps like Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, The Menu, and Triangle of Sadness –– all of which take pleasure in satisfying that same urge for audiences. Freeform also recently debuted The Watchful Eye, its own take on the genre which follows a live-in nanny for a well-to-do family as she starts to investigate the sins of their high-rise neighbors.

    But in You, Joe isn’t just eating the rich with the rest of Hollywood. Instead, the series strategically uses the near-universal fascination with the genre to tell audiences where they should and should not direct their sympathies.

    You began its life on Lifetime as a soapy show about a quiet bookseller who also happens to be a stalker. It lived in the tension (and inevitable doom) of Joe and Beck’s relationship, a dark love story with dubious intentions. In its move to Netflix, the series has morphed into something else –– a chase show built around the thrill of watching how Joe gets away with murder not only on screen, but with his audience. This highly problematic premise challenges viewers to constantly find enough redeeming qualities in Joe that he can continue serving as the antihero/protagonist. This man is a compulsive liar, an unpredictable sociopath and a dangerous killer. Now in Season 4, the easiest way to deflect from the compounded guilt of all that is to put something more repulsive than him on the screen –– and in 2023, the only thing more morally corrupt than a charming serial killer is a rich person devoid of empathy for the rest of the world. And You has concocted almost a dozen of them to get the job done.

    This season, having gone on the run after killing Love, Joe has rebranded himself in London as Jonathan Moore, a sheepish literature professor. Although he keeps to himself, he is soon drawn –– albeit begrudgingly –– into a snobby high society friend group filled with highfalutin influencers, plagiaristic artists, spoiled club owners, and at least one literal princess. They represent the worst kind of willfully cruel and ignorant privilege that writers get a kick out of putting just one rung below cartoon villains.

    From the sidelines, Joe watches as these pampered primadonnas reveal their most egregious offenses and, in turn, their greatest vulnerabilities. He discovers one of his offensively wealthy new acquaintances (the only other American among the bunch) prefers a sexual kink that involves being submissive to a lower-class person. Another, a politically incorrect starlet, uses a waiter as a human crochet mount and frets over the chore of having to not use racist language.

    They joke about drawing and quartering the average Londoner, and complain about the burden of too much money and power. It’s all obscenely ridiculous behavior, and that’s what makes them worthy of what comes next. When Joe/Jonathan is finally coaxed into partaking in the upper crust lifestyle (even as his signature inner monologue continues to rail against it), he wakes up the next day to a hangover and one of his new chums (Stephen Hagan as Malcolm Harding) dead in his house.

    Others soon begin to drop and Joe realizes someone is trying to frame him, a serial killer, for their own serial killing. Within the series, the slayings become known as the handiwork of the Eat the Rich killer, a rather literal take on the genre but one that gets to capitalize on the recent popularity of the sentiment at its core.

    Netflix’s own Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery sequesters its privileged characters on a lavish island where, in the wake of a murder, their misdeeds are laid bare by someone from a lower tax bracket. The Menu similarly asks audiences to view the upper echelon of society through the eyes of a working-class woman brought as a disposable date to an exclusive dinner populated by truly horrible people who learn their celebrated chef plans to kill them by the final course. Even the Oscars are embracing the trend with Best Picture nominee Triangle of Sadness, which takes pleasure in stripping its wealthy patrons of their superiority in gross-out fashion, taking them from yacht fantasy to shipwrecked survivalist story.

    The one thing that binds all these projects is a willingness to wield dark humor as their weapon of choice. In most cases, all of the hierarchy hysterics are played for knowing laughs, which last just long enough to call attention to the absurdity of wealth before exposing –– like raw nerves –– the vanities that it prop up.

    In the case of You, Joe collects these absurdities like ammunition for the war he seems ready to wage on the extravagant group should any of them survive to fight it. But no matter how much fun You has doling out justice for socio-economic disparities, Season 4’s embrace of the eat-the-rich genre has an agenda. Even if Joe were holding the knife that is fileting his frenemies (which is very much still a possibility despite Part 1’s finale pinning it on Rhys Montrose), the series is building in a motive that audiences can’t fault him for. Rich people don’t care about the average person, so why should we care about them? 

    If there is a greater evil for Joe and the audience to find common ground in hating, there’s still an opportunity for them to tolerate his actions and –– dare we say –– even root for him. In this way, Joe isn’t unlike Dexter Morgan who similarly walked the razor-thin line between killer and self-perceived humanitarian, dispatching killers as a means of feeding his dark impulses. Dexter wasn’t strictly an eat-the-rich series, but the complicated morality of its central character is something fans still clamor for, as evidenced by Showtime expanding the universe with a new prequel and spinoffs.

    For You, deploying a cache of maniacal twentysomethings with more money than God is just a means of buying Joe time with his audience because at its core this series is about a killer. One we met masturbating in the streets outside the home of a woman he will eventually kill. At a certain point, You will have to acknowledge that even the rawest meat can’t distract a dog forever.

    In Part 1’s second episode, a baffled Joe quips, “It’s like a gallery of sociopathic behavior in here,” as the friend group crack jokes about their freshly murdered buddies. The moment serves as an almost comically ironic reminder of just how far down the rabbit hole he has traveled. Joe Goldberg can’t seem to escape the clutches of the privilege he so wholly despises. But at least the wealthy he tears to shreds with his thoughts — for now — are upfront about who they are, horrible character flaws and all. In each one of these privileged communities You has traveled through over the seasons, the only person hiding their true self is the serial killer criticizing the world, one inner monologue at a time.

    You Season 4, Part 1 is now streaming on Netflix. Join the discussion about the show in our forums

    Hunter Ingram is a TV writer living in North Carolina and watching way too much television. His byline has appeared in Variety, Emmy Magazine, USA Today, and across Gannett's USA Today Network newspapers.

    TOPICS: You (Netflix series), Netflix, Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, The Menu, Triangle of Sadness, Penn Badgley, Eat the rich