You asks us who the real monsters are
Eliza Janssen buries the hatchet on the Madre Linda community
You’re reading Scene & Heard, a weekly newsletter where I chat to a guest writer about the one scene from a recent Netflix release that left them floored. It’s part of Netflix Pause, a publication that’s all about hitting pause to reflect on the latest film and TV. Subscribe now to get it in your inbox every week diving into screen culture.
Howdy, I’m Joseph Lew, the new and not-so-improved editor of Netflix Pause. I’ll be taking over Jared from here on out, but rest assured because, as they say, all the best people’s names begin with a J.
Speaking of J’s, it’s time to talk about everyone’s favourite normcore boyfriend, You’s Joe Goldberg. At first glance, Season 3 of You appears to be very different from the last. Parenting? Suburbia? Momfluencers? Did I hit play on the wrong show? But while Joe may have traded glass cages for baby bottles, buried behind the bassinets and soiled diapers lie the same dark undertones of the first two seasons.
For this week’s Scene & Heard, self-proclaimed “spooky writer” Eliza Janssen investigates our relationship to true crime, building a case on how You shows us there’s almost always something more sinister lurking under the surface. In this scene, we watch Joe get schooled on Missing White Woman Syndrome, while the community rallies around, well, a missing white woman.
JL: Look, Eliza, it can’t just be me who regularly wonders how my friends and family would react if I went missing, right?
EJ: Oh, for sure. You’d want them to have a nice photo for the press and some flattering adjectives ready to go – but all within reason, you’d hope.
This season of You sees the community of Madre Linda go way too far in the right direction, rallying around the disappearance of Joe’s neighbour Natalie Engler in a really grotesque way. Joe's vocal-fry-rich narration tells us that the death he's indirectly caused is now a "domestic noir come to life, and people are here for it."
In this scene we see him retreat to the library, where his new boss Marienne (Tati Gabrielle) and her assistant Dante (Ben Mehl) explain that this isn’t one-size-fits-all sensationalism. Instead, they note that it’s a classic case of a more specific phenomenon: Missing White Woman Syndrome, a term Joe doesn’t quite seem to grasp (potentially because he’s caused plenty of folks of varying race and genders to go ‘missing’, and has basically escaped all consequences so far).
As Marienne puts it, the disproportionate public focus on photogenic, white female victims sends a clear message: “white ladies deserve to be rescued, the rest of us can fend for ourselves.” We’ve seen this in practice. Back in Season 1, Joe’s 'chivalrous' romance with Beck made her into a martyr of the literary world. And what about non-white victims from the past like Peach, Jasper, or Delilah? Barely a blip from the media, and Joe himself was able to easily move on.
Marienne brings the whole season's bougie setting into focus here, and I love her for it. Not only are we in a town of gossiping vultures keen to crack the case, but now there's also somebody smart enough to call them out for their limited focus. The scene cleverly raises the stakes for Joe, showing that the world of You – and let’s be honest, the real world too – is dangerously interested in its victims. As Marienne points out, Missing White Woman Syndrome is America's new favourite pastime "next to porn". How much of the media furore is because people actually care about Natalie, as opposed to any other rich, white, blonde woman who might disappear from “the safest neighbourhood in the Golden State”?
As an audience, we barely got to know poor Natalie, so it’s hard to know what to believe when her sobbing neighbours come out of the woodwork. In Episode 1, Sherry’s vile and hilarious gang called Natalie a straight-up bad person, but now she’s a local cause celebre. And Love, who knows that the ‘missing’ woman was making moves on her husband only days before, is capitalising on her ‘grief’ to sell baked goods!
For the record, I’m happy for my friends and family to exploit my mysterious absence to sell all the keto vanilla-bean scones they can – just don’t use my search history for any amateur sleuthing. Let me stay gone if it comes to that.
Tell me about it — as soon as someone touches my laptop, I’m climbing out of whichever hole I’ve been buried in.
Agreed! We’re starting to see more and more true crime sagas that draw from victims’ emails, posts, and DMs, which makes me want to go back and make sure my 2013 Tumblr activities are definitely wiped from the internet.
American Murder used Facebook posts to establish the sunny, deceptive façade of a killer. Every piece of evidence in Don’t F**k with Cats was dug up online, and the docuseries went so far as to point a finger at viewers, claiming that our voyeuristic clicks hold us all partially culpable. But when it comes to Missing White Woman Syndrome, the case that may come to mind for viewers is a more recent one. Due to the sheer volume of content a specific 22-year-old created before disappearing during a cross-country trip, a certain demographic of internet detectives have recently become obsessed, picking apart her every social media post with Madre Linda-esque intensity. As NBC News points out, this frenzied interest, in the same state where over 700 Indigenous people have gone missing without a fraction of the same attention is a huge problem.
It all clots together in Marienne’s criticism of true crime, and I couldn’t help but feel a pang of guilt while watching. Growing up, my family always tuned into procedurals like Law and Order and Cold Case – syndicated crime shows that followed a distinct formula, full of grim tropes you can spot coming from a mile away. Hell, we'll still stomp and air-guitar around the kitchen to their theme songs, no matter how disturbing the cold open might be. It feels kind of sick to call this kind of TV ‘comfort watching’, but once you've seen enough episodes, the murders and clues do become a kind of soothing background noise.
Nowadays, my mum will chuck on a true-crime podcast while doing laundry. I might beg her not to give the ending away, as if we're talking about the newest season of, say, You, rather than real events that ended real lives. Mostly, scripted shows like You and my old faithful Cold Case are just the right blend of 'dark crime' and 'edutainment' for me, especially when there are self-aware scenes like this very moment in Episode 3, where the very tricks and tropes of crime storytelling are called into question.
Podcasts, Documentaries, Reddit wormholes – I think there’s a lot to say about how far people will go to get closer to the action. I mean, in this scene we see Sherry using Natalie’s death for clout when, as Joe aptly points out, she never even liked her! It’s also ironic that this is what Joe has a problem with — he’s happy to murder someone, but god forbid someone else capitalises on it.
I think the comedy in You works to make us feel the same way, It’s as if being obnoxious or superficial is a greater crime than actual, violent crimes. Since Season 1, Joe has seen himself as a bookish, gentlemanly white knight trying to rescue his Obsessive-Love-Interest-Of-The-Week from a circle of fake friends that are just obstacles to him. The sickest part of all this? The satire and social commentary in You is effective enough to get us on his side. Mostly. We might not think all our neighbours are inherently bad people like Joe does, but we can still laugh and gasp along as we see them get hoisted to death by their own petards. (Side note: what is a petard, anyway?) In this season, the justification for characters getting killed off by our 'hero' ranges from adultery to custody disputes to some dodgy anti-vax rhetoric. How very 2021.
As you said, there's something about a murder mystery that beckons people into the action, and we often get way too close. Whenever I'm going down a true-crime wormhole of sorts, I tend more towards historical events and unsolved mysteries. Even that is creepy enough for me! It's surreal to access every smidgeon of data ever collected about somebody who went missing in that climbing expedition or to stare into the eyes of a smiling, uncanny composite photo. I'll stick with Wikipedia or YouTube rather than daring to visit a victim's abandoned social media accounts. But it's not hard to see how our newfound proximity to disturbing crimes, and access to a freaky amount of stranger's personal information, can encourage that kind of obsessive behaviour. Internet sleuths can essentially follow cases in real-time, and even land on clues and theories before authorities do, as in the recent case I mentioned before.
Speaking of freaky, let’s talk about this season’s new setting. When I watch You, I can’t help but think of the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. The white picket fences, the OTT crying, the empty efforts to keep up appearances — not just by Sherry but in this case, by Joe too.
The insanely expensive kids' birthday parties and vacuous tech-developer hubbies? Yes, all very RHOBH. It's a pity You didn't manage to get Kyle Richards for a cameo, considering her recent return to the horror genre. And I could've done with a bit more chardonnay-tossing in Episode 7’s library gala.
When we talk about white-picket fences and the idealised, suburban oasis that Joe and Love have chosen as their new home, it fits in with that certain kind of language we always hear in murder stories, both fictional and true. He was such a nice normal guy! You never would've expected it in this neighbourhood! This quiet, small town is shockingly full of secrets! Maybe that setting is the only reason I have the same grisly appetite as characters like Sherry and her wake of vultures (yes, a group of vultures is awesomely referred to as a 'wake'). The most disturbing crime I would've witnessed in leafy Melbourne suburbia is somebody's mum backing their BMW into another mum's BMW.
The manicured, Insta-friendly setting of this season is a clever move from the urbanity of New York and LA, where Joe seemed to expect some level of seediness. It's ghettoisation in action: the show's audience, and the in-world citizens of Madre Linda, expect crime and death to only happen somewhere else, to other people. The promo images did a great job setting up how Joe and Love will weaponise the deceptive comfort of the ‘burbs to get rid of any threats to their family unit. She's snipping roses like a NorCal Morticia Addams: he's pulling on a pair of black latex gloves, perhaps to prune back pesky neighbours. Both actors are extremely nice to look at, too. It's the perfect suburban facade to dupe some Real Housewives of Madre Linda: but not fans of You, who know to look beyond that white-picket exterior.
Now, this is one town I wouldn’t want to live in. Guess I should be thankful that my definition of a bad neighbour is one that wheels in the bins too early in the morning…
Premature bin shenanigans aren't considered a cage-worthy offence on your block? Get on Joe's level, Joseph: you guys share a name, that's gotta mean something…
Eliza Janssen is the assistant editor at Flicks.com.au and a founder of Rough Cut. She likes watching a horror movie sandwiched between two episodes of Great British Bake Off. You can follow her on Twitter here.