As most writers can’t help but make themselves the underlying center of whatever narrative they manage to churn out in these times so balking at literature, it would seem that Caroline Kepnes, author of four novels, including her 2014 sophomore effort, You (which is followed up with 2016’s sequel, Hidden Bodies), is no different when it comes to inserting elements of herself into a protagonist (she being from Cape Cod, her heroine being from Nantucket, both having attended Brown and being “blonde book hot” types). That protagonist being, depending on who you ask, Guinevere Beck (Elizabeth Lail). To others, with a somewhat alarmingly elastic compass of morality (here’s lookin’ at you Millie Bobby Brown, even if you made your comments before getting through the entire series), it is Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley), Beck’s–that’s what she goes by, ain’t it cute?–bookstore beau/undercover homicidal stalker.
But, before transcending into beau, he must clandestinely pursue her to achieve his goal–for instance, manufacturing encounters. Like Elliott (Michael Caine) with Lee (Barbara Hershey) in Hannah and Her Sisters–because, yes, Woody Allen is a viable reference for the Joe Goldberg of the novel to look to for inspiration on how to get women; obviously, that would’ve been too hotbed of an allusion for the TV adaptation. In fact, the Joe Goldberg of the novel sounds even more faux pretentious than the one of the screen with his citations, i.e. likening Beck to Alice/Jane in Closer with the description, “You are classic and compact, my own little Natalie Portman circa the end of the movie Closer, when she’s fresh-faced and done with the bad British guys and going home to America.”
If that doesn’t make you cringe, then you might have a high enough threshold to watch the show. Because it can get quite uncomfortably maudlin–even somehow when Joe is narrating Beck’s masturbation moments (it’s one of her favorite activities both in the show and book–a testament to the dissatisfying millennial dick). It’s also uncomfortable during non-“romantic” scenes as well, for, like most judgmental men who diminish women’s ambitions (except, in Beck’s case, let’s be frank, he has every right to), Book Joe undercuttingly remarks of her “writing” resume, “Your revealing online bios at various online journals that publish your blogs (unless you want to call them essays), and your thinly veiled diary entries (unless you want to call them short stories), and the poems you write sometimes have fleshed you out.” Right. Into the perfect composite of a moldable manic pixie dream girl who happens to be thin and blonde for added good measure. If it sounds very much akin to another character on a popular Penn Badgley show based on a book, you wouldn’t be wrong. The difference being that, at the very least, Serena Van Der Woodsen (Blake Lively) was a rich bitch (as opposed to faux rich and pretend non-bitch) and non-writer. A fun-loving it girl occasionally prone to dabbling in attempts at profundity that never lasted very long (remember when she helped a minion of David O. Russell’s with adapting the screenplay for The Beautiful and Damned because, naturally, it’s her favorite book?).
Beck, contrastly, is the worst kind of “intellect.” First of all, the kind that went to Brown and goes to “poetry nights” in Greenpoint and still hangs out with her college friends as some sort of means to seem psychologically complex for wanting to spend time with the very breed she despises: the wealthy. Not to say that being white and blonde doesn’t have its perks, but it’s not as good as having as much family money as her “bestie,” Peach Salinger (Shay Mitchell, who has found herself a real niche in the “trash” psychological thriller genre for television, if you’ll also look to Pretty Little Liars, in which she played an obsessive lesbian there as well).
Still, it’s better to feel on the outside while being on the inside looking out than just plain on the outside looking in…right? Beck certainly appears to think so, much to Joe’s dismay. Watching her life from his own outside looking in (yes, it harkens back to Inside by Dan Humphrey), he marvels at how she lives in the West Village despite her poverty, having miraculously won a housing lottery. In truth, he believes this free place to live has made her even lazier with her so-called pursuit of writing (“You tweet more than you write and this could be why you’re getting your MFA from the New School”).
It is “little things” like these that lead one to draw the conclusion that a large part of Joe’s problem–apart from being unable to resist the urge to kill–is that his love-hate line for Beck (and, previously, Candace [Ambyr Childers]) is much too thin, often, it appears, veering more toward contempt for how stupid she can be (the bitch watches The Bachelor, for fuck’s sake). Because the thing is, even when Joe thinks he can “extricate” all the frivolous distractions and vacuous people in Beck’s life, it doesn’t change the fact that he can’t strip away the ultimate problem: her.
Book Joe is just as contemptuous of the life Beck covets and tries her best to lead, or at least project that she leads on Instagram. Overly meta when considering that Badgley is married to Domino Kirke (sister to Jemima, who plays “free spirit” Jessa in Girls), Kepnes writes in the voice of Joe, “The three of you were at Brown together and you all hate Girls and complain about it incessantly but isn’t that exactly what you’re all trying to do with your lives? Brooklyn, boys and picklebacks?” Apart from the fact that girls were doing this in Brooklyn before Lena Dunham falsely represented it, it’s safe to say that Kepnes has Joe’s reductive of every aspect of Beck’s life down. But, in the case of girls like these, how can a boy not be diminishing? Beck is just too easy a target in how comically seriously she takes herself despite writing Daddy issue-inspired pieces that consist of “prose” like, “The ladle’s left in the sink. Mom lets it soak. ‘Leave it,’ she says. You go away and we come home, and what’s left of you loosens, and the water carries it away.”
And, speaking of Daddy issues, this is, naturally, a key component to the chemical composition of any basique posing as someone complesso. Joe can’t help but both be attracted to it and use it to his full advantage as he instructs her to tap into her “pain” over her relationship with her father (which comes into full light in the fourth episode, “The Captain”)–to which she predictably shuts him out for before thanking him for pulling from her depths something she never knew she had within her. Oh Jesus. It’s around this time that Beck’s narcissism begins to become more pronounced. Or maybe congealed is the word.
When her writing career finally does take off due to a certain murderous act of Joe’s that directly benefits walloping her with an even more damaged psyche, that nascent narcissism goes full-on as Beck wields the phrase “my writing” at Joe a number of times that could prompt a drinking game. In fact, her love for Joe, more often than not, comes across as mostly being from a place that appreciates being allowed to talk about herself all the time–for Joe definitely doesn’t want to delve into and expose his own dark past, including the mysteriously disappeared Candace.
The douche bag that plays Beck’s boyfriend, Benji (Lou Taylor Pucci), in the pilot, says it best while pent up in his intended for rare books encasement: “Do not tell me that you’re doing this because of Beck? If you knew her, you would not be putting me in a cage and ruining your life over Guinevere goddamn Beck!” But apparently only Badgley can do justice to having the well-played hard-on for a basic bitch posing as a misunderstood-in-just-how-complex-she-really-is female with loose, unfocused ambitions of being an artist. And shit, at least for a serial killer, Joe is more attentive and “doing it all for love” than Patrick Bateman with Evelyn Richards–also a self-involved narcissist blithely unaware of her boyfriend’s bloodlust. But, to Evelyn’s credit, she owns to being a dumb bitch without the mask of “having ambition.” Again, a line drawn between rich and “poor” girls.