Inside YOU’s latest season: a tribute to dark academia and the classic murder mystery | Review
By Rory Buccheri
The core ingredients are all there. When an outsider boy makes it into an uber-exclusive circle of rich, spoiled kids, chaos and murder ensue.
Following the big move across the Atlantic, Joe seems unable to break the pattern of his old life. Much like the previous seasons of YOU, good intentions and new year’s resolutions are soon broken when bloodshed enters the scene.
Joe, now become Professor Jonathan, finds himself entangled in an all-British elite cluster and straight away made an accessory to murder.
All fine so far, and nothing unusual for YOU. What is different about this season is the peculiar intertextual relationship, expressed in the tributes the show devotes to genres such as dark academia and the classic murder mystery.
Addressing the latter, the references to the literary legend Agatha Christie are present on screen from episode one.
The murder mystery plot comes to life when Joe, presented with a body and a riddle on his kitchen table, asks one of his students for help. Under the guise of seeking advice for a novel he’s writing, Joe relies on Nadia, the top student in his English class, to learn about the unfamiliar genre and start solving his body problem. It sounds almost whimsical, this side-plot lightening the overall tone of the search for the murderer.
Bits and bobs slip from Murder on the Orient Express and And Then There Were None into the chaotic screenplay of YOU, but only in small quantity.
There may be a 20s Gatsby-esque flair in some of the lush parties represented on screen, and a certain ironic voice coming out of Joe, but these old-time references don’t go past the walls of Joe’s classroom.
On the other hand, the references to dark academia, and in particular to Donna Tartt’s genre-defining novel The Secret History, define the entire series.
For those who need a refresher about Tartt’s book, the story is told by young and impressionable Richard, who soon ends up hanging out with a dark clique of fellow Classics students.
Akin to the characters in YOU season 4, these peculiar kids share rich-people problems, together with an unspeakable secret, which is the fulcrum of mystery throughout Tartt’s novel.
‘I did it, fell in with the most insane, damaged people on earth’—this sentence, spoken by Jonathan, may as well have been said by young Richard in a bout of clarity.
What the show does well is bringing the characters of a somewhat outdated genre, such as dark academia, to the present day.
The spoiled ‘90s kid owning papa’s sugar plantation estate is now the NFTs artist whose revenue comes from crypto. The troubled aspiring lyricist has turned TikTok influencer.
Arguably, the fact that we are able to recognise these characters in our own day and age makes the hated easier to hate, and the morally dubious more relatable to us.
Take Rhys, the once-working-class guy now turned writer and spokesman extraordinaire.
I love an ambigouous character. It has to be one that you dislike, pity and respect at the same time. And if there is a refreshing note compared to previous seasons, it is precisely Rhys’ presence (no matter how cliche’ the upcoming finale may make him. sigh).
Whereas the importance of classics is almost commonplace, the countryside trope that Tartt’s book and YOU share is paramount.In this case the family estate background, far from being just a background, shapes defining moments in the narrative.
Indeed, the countryside escapade employed by Tartt is quite a central point of the plot. Away from unwanted looks, the students have finally license to go wild - ancient Greek style - and unleash a ritualistic hell on earth (with their first murderous consequences).
Similarly, it is at the countryside party, away from the urban landscape and from the eyes of common people, that the most sadistic and twisted of desires are acted upon by the wealthy protagonists in YOU.
In one of the finest scenes in the entire series, no one stops the chase through the woods that sees the rich hunting the poor, proclaiming to restablish the natural order of their fathers’ time.
It is poetic that it should happen on grounds belonged to ancestors who made their money out of slavery, exploitation and the subjugation of the masses. It is even more poetic how the whole estate - symbolically, physically, gloriously - ends up in flames.
Many good things came out of YOU’s latest instalment. For literary nerds and ordinary folks alike, there is something deeply charming about the way the show references beloved literary genres. It demonstrates that, despite following a similar trope every time, the show is still able to re-invent itself.
The second part of this season, which will land on Netflix UK on the 9th of March, promises a lot more than any previous season.