Toxic Omniscience: How Lifetime’s YOU misses the point

YOU aspires to be an edgy drama from the perspective of a deluded abuser. But that’s not how all viewers are taking it. Some fans are defending its protagonist. The show’s creators and a handful of journalists have fired back, explaining that abuse is bad and these naive viewers missed the point.

But they haven’t. Whatever the creators intended, the events of the show overwhelmingly justify and romanticize its hero’s abuse.

YOU’s hero, Joe, sees all of his actions — innocent and criminal — as selfless acts of love. It’s not until the climax that his victim offers an alternative point of view. He tries to justify his actions by explaining that he was just cleaning up her messed up life. At this point, she delivers the thesis of the show:

Yes, but it was MY life. It was MY mess. And I didn’t need some sociopath on a white horse to clean house. What gives you the right???

This is actually an interesting question. Because the elephant in the room is that for the entire show, Joe has been effectively omniscient.

  • After a 30 second conversation with Beck, he thinks she might be the one. She quickly falls for him and becomes his girlfriend.
  • In the first scene, he predicts which types of books a customer will purchase. He’s right.
  • After two evenings of stalking, he decides Beck’s best friend is a problem. Lo and behold, she’s in obsessive love with Beck, which means sabotaging her career, manipulating her via fake suicide, and secretly photographing her while she sleeps and undresses.
  • Joe thinks Beck could be a successful writer, if she didn’t spend so much time with her friends. He intercedes. It works. She goes from struggling in obscurity to a prominent author.
  • After scrolling past a picture of Beck’s sorta boyfriend, Joe concludes that he’s a douche. We quickly learn that he doesn’t care about Beck, tells strings of pretentious lies, stabbed his business partner in the back, and even helped murder a kid in a hazing ritual gone wrong.
  • Drunk on a quiet subway platform, Beck stumbles onto the yellow line. Joe is horrified, positive she’ll fall onto the tracks. Inevitably, she does! After making no attempt to correct her situation, Joe rescues her from a speeding train. If he hadn’t stalked her there, apparently, she would have died.
  • After a bout of writers block and a tense conversation with her dad, Joe suggests she cope with her feelings by writing about it. She lashes out, telling him he’s overstepped. He graciously apologizes and gives her space. That could have been the end of it. But then that night, she writes a poem about her dad, and it’s the best thing she’s ever written!! So she gives Joe sex and tells him he was right all along.
  • After Joe murders her best friend, Beck starts seeing a therapist to help handle her grief. Out of nowhere, Joe decides she’s having an affair with him. She is.

This absurd dynamic hits a fever pitch in the show’s climax. Joe has locked Beck in the workshop under his bookstore. The scene is intercut with Joe’s adoptive dad locking up a teenage Joe in the same workshop. The show is trying to say something about the cycle of abuse.

But…is this abuse? Is it abuse for a father to lock his disrespectful son in his room? And isn’t the justification that a parent knows better and is doing what’s best for his kid?

How is that different from Joe and Beck? If Joe is literally omniscient, isn’t the gap in knowledge so much wider for them? Doesn’t she admit that he’s radically improved every area of his life? If this is abuse, are we all in an abusive relationship with God??

(Quick note: It’s implied that Joe’s dad may have hit Joe off screen. That’s definitely abuse. But, again, it’s only implied, and caged-Beck and caged-teen-Joe is the only direct parallel.)

So, okay, maybe Joe did have a right to meddle. But what if his motives weren’t pure? Beck asserts that he’s driven by a perverse need to violate her autonomy.

But her theory doesn’t hold up. Joe manifestly doesn’t control her the way real abusers do. He doesn’t disrupt her healthy friendships, even though her friends drive him nuts. Pre-monogamy, he graciously accepts her right to bang randos from Tindr. When she dumps him, he respects her decision. When he discovers that she’s cheating on him, he forgives her as soon as she apologizes. Once he’s cleaned up a few messes, he stops meddling altogether. If Beck hadn’t discovered the murders, they would have lived happily ever after, right? Right??

Toxic omniscience is surprisingly common in our fiction. Breaking Bad’s Walter White. Rick and Morty’s Rick. House’s Dr House. Sherlock’s Sherlock. Dexter’s Dexter.

The toxicity/omniscience ratio varies. The trope is used and subverted with varying degrees of success. The heroes have varyingly compelling excuses for their behavior and varying redeeming qualities. We all lap it up. (No one more eagerly than me.)

Life is tough. Sometimes it feels like all our shortcomings are glaring, and everyone else has all the answers. Toxic omniscience turns that feeling on its head. When you’re the omniscient hero, everyone else is transparent and disappointing. Everyone else is frightened and unsure, but you always know what to do. Everyone else is subject to rejection, while your super-intelligence makes you too valuable to ostracize or, failing that, enables you to successfully destroy all evidence of your crimes. The world — especially the social world — finally becomes safe.

In their most toxic form, these characters look a lot like Joe. Their points of view drip with condescension. Their transgressions delight them. Their first impression is always right. Their feelings are facts. Differing viewpoints are always wrong.

What sets Joe apart is his averageness. He’s not a genius. He’s not the best at anything. He doesn’t save lives. Despite Beck’s accusation of psychopathy, he’s completely neurotypical. His only qualification for superiority is that he’s well-read.

In that way, he looks a lot more like the real people who claim omniscience. Bullies. Abusers. Edgy teenagers. The alt-right. Frightened people, who cling to this power fantasy like a security blanket.

We don’t need YOU teaching these people that abuse is a great way to feel powerful.

I have a guess about how YOU went wrong. Its creators envisioned a pulpy, bingeable character study of a hero who commits sickening crimes. So they drew inspiration from the obvious source: Dexter.

Dexter is a realistic(ish) psychopath burdened with a (fantastical) compulsion to kill. To slake his bloodlust as morally as possible, he investigates and slaughters criminals who couldn’t be legally brought to justice. Between murders, he struggles to maintain an acceptable facade and fulfilling relationships.

Joe and Dexter have a lot in common. Both are supposedly psychopathic. Both keep mementos of their crimes, despite their risk of discovery. Both narrate their stories, to make them easy to watch while doing the dishes. Both execute their crimes with excellence and glee. Both are morally justified. And both are never wrong.

But here’s the thing: Dexter’s slaughters are fun. They’re murder porn, justice porn, transgression porn, and power porn. Watching Dexter unleash his sick desires is the point of the show. The happy ending of every episode is that, for a moment, Dexter gets to be his true, sadistic self.

That wicked wish-fulfillment is baked into YOU’s DNA. Its creators thought following that formula would make their anti-hero palatable. It did. But it also sugar-coated the abuse.

In the end, Joe kills Beck. It’s the pivotal point in Joe’s story, yet one of the only scenes outside of his point of view.

We can only guess why he did it. Maybe it was revenge for falling out of love with him. Maybe he realized he wouldn’t do anything for her, and going to jail was too much. Maybe, since Beck had just knocked him out with a hammer, he saw it as self-defense. Maybe, as he was trying to subdue her, things just got out of hand.

YOU never settles on — or even suggests — any of these motives. A definitive answer would have been the key to successfully decode Joe’s unreliable narration.

But there is no answer, because there’s nothing to decode. Beyond some scary violins and assumed authorial intent, there’s no evidence that Joe is anything less than a magical boyfriend, who happens to stalk his girlfriend because he loves her so much, and then murders her because reasons.