Warning: the following article contains spoilers for the first half of You series four.
Since its release in 2018, Netflix’s drama You has sparked both intrigue and controversy. Based on the fictional novel of the same name by Caroline Kepnes, the show follows the life of Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley).
Goldberg seems to be a charismatic and misunderstood literary lover, but soon reveals himself as an obsessive serial killer who stalks women.
By season four, viewers have witnessed Goldberg murder, marry and become a father, before he fakes his own death to cover up his tracks and relocate to London, child-free, where he continues to stalk women. In this series, Goldberg is working as a professor at a London university, cutting a confident, tweed-clad, but ultimately dangerous figure.
Goldberg’s abhorrent actions have been the subject of many commentaries, including critiques of the show’s potential to romanticise stalking, misogyny and abuse. But he is not the only chilling presence in You.
The power of this series of You lies in how it builds up and breaks down the idealised image of British academia – an image that is at once grandiose and grim, buttoned up and brutal.
On its surface, series four of You playfully explores “dark academia” – a term used to describe the internet trend for idealising the aesthetics of university life. Think collegiate Gothic architecture, classic literature and immaculately tailored outfits.
Academia has been romanticised in literature for centuries and in films for decades. But the dark academia trend has developed and popularised the glamourisation of university experiences further through social media such as TikTok and Pinterest.
In You, dark academia takes many forms: Goldberg’s attire, the opulent interior decor on campus and aspirational portrayals of writing. The show appears to be in on the joke of its initially twee framing of British academic life, featuring Vampire Weekend’s jaunty song, ‘Oxford Comma’, in the soundtrack to episode one.
But dark academia’s presence is far from purely decorative. The show makes clear that the ostentatious aesthetics associated with idealised university life cannot cover up the harm and horrors that occur for some as part of it.
The darkness of real academia
In You – as in real life – such harm and horrors include the misogyny of academics such as Goldberg, who admonishes men who harm women despite being one himself.
“As a problematic man appropriating the words of a queer poet once said, the heart wants what it wants.” This line, delivered by Goldberg in episode one of season four, captures the character’s conviction that he is one of the “good” guys and an ally of those who are marginalised.
As well as focusing on Goldberg’s life as a poseur professor, series four of You explores the murder of a colleague, who seems to have been intimately involved with a student. In part one of this season, the student-staff relationship forms little more than a minor plot detail.
This reflects the way the sector has arguably long ignored the potential harm to students in such situations. The government regulator has now proposed universities should be forced to document or ban staff-student relationships (as Oxford has just done).
Viewers also learn that Goldberg was “a last-minute hire” at his university, an aspect of the plot that may pointedly highlight the precarious working conditions that underpin much of academia and which contrast with the wealth on display in the campus buildings. Indeed, part one was released during ongoing University and College Union industrial action, which was prompted by issues of workload, short-term contracts, zero hour contracts and equality pay gaps.
In these ways, You continues to reveal the horrors of the disarming yet deadly character of Joe Goldberg but now also deals with the more monstrous aspects of academia.