Of course Joe from "You" is an English professor – but how is he? We grade our antihero academic

With corduroy blazers and so much tweed, he looks exactly like he belongs in the center of a campus scandal

By Alison Stine

Staff Writer

Published February 20, 2023 12:00PM (EST)

Penn Badgley as Joe Goldberg in "You." (Courtesy of Netflix)
Penn Badgley as Joe Goldberg in "You." (Courtesy of Netflix)

In 2021, The Atlantic, following accusations of rape against former English teacher and Philip Roth biographer Blake Bailey wrote, "This kind of abuse seems to be everywhere — in the real world and in fiction inspired by it — abuse by men who allegedly found girls who loved books, girls who were conspicuously vulnerable to the written word, and then manipulated and mangled that love in enduring ways." The article cites books like the memoirs "Consent" and "Excavation," and the novels "My Dark Vanessa" and "His Favorites," all of which include abuse committed not just by educators but specifically by educators of English. 

More recently, Daisy Alpert Florin's searing 2023 novel "My Last Innocent Year" deals with the long fallout of a young Jewish woman's affair with her writing professor in the late 1990s. English departments sure hire a lot of creeps and in the cultist and cloistering nature of academia, tend to close rank around their most mediocre sons, despite the actual harm they might be inflicting upon young students. So perhaps the only thing surprising about Joe (Penn Badgley), the charming and murderous lead of Netflix's thriller series "You," posing as an English professor is that it took him this long.

In a teaser for the fourth season, the first part of which is now streaming on Netflix, Joe swears, "Gone are the days of unrequited love and longing. This time around I'm focusing on academia and instruction while keeping my typical extracurricular activities strictly professional." Joe is a killer, possibly a psychopath, with little teaching experience and lots of lying, and of course he got a job. But how does he stack up as a professor? Let's grade the academic now going by the name of Jonathan Moore. 

His outfits
Image_placeholderYouPenn Badgley as Joe Goldberg in "You." (Courtesy of Netflix)
Joe as Jonathan leans into the archetype of a professor. He grows a beard — how distinguished! The respectability of his faked profession gains him entrée into spaces where he otherwise would not be welcomed (i.e., the rich kids' club). He dresses shabbily, but that's just the absent-minded academic in him so he will be excused, allowed inside. He's so brilliant, after all, so preoccupied with books and deep thoughts. He wears corduroy blazers and little buttoned vests with burgundy ties. And tweed. So much professorial tweed. He carries a battered briefcase and rolls his sleeves up when he teaches. He looks exactly like he belongs in the center of a campus scandal.
His class
Image_placeholderYouPenn Badgley as Joe Goldberg, Amy-Leigh Hickman as Nadia Farran in "You." (Courtesy of Netflix)
Joe is a busy man. He's left a trail of bodies behind him, has assumed a fake identity in a new country, and being Joe, is occupied with obsessing over two women, one from his recent past and one right here in front of him. With all these obligations, who has time to do their job?






A hardscrabble murderer, Joe never went to college himself before assuming a position at a fictional English university. Talk about boot straps. He's teaching a course called "American Iconoclasts of the Short Story" with assigned writers including Ted Chiang. His star student (yes, that's a dangerous position) Nadia (Amy-Leigh Hickman) appreciates how he doesn't assign the "usual canonical, vaguely racist men that drink" but Edgar Allan Poe is on his syllabus. Twice. No women appear to be, though Nadia does makes him read Agatha Christie on his own time.

His teaching style
Image_placeholderYouPenn Badgley as Joe Goldberg in "You." (Courtesy of Netflix)
Joe tells himself, in one of his many voiceovers, that he's great at this "professor-ing." His pedagogy seems to be a mixture of luck, arrogance, winging it and charm. He phones it in, allowing students to teach themselves under the guise of a being a cool guy, a relaxed prof. He leans back against a table, with those aforementioned sleeves rolled up, crosses his arms and lets his students do the work.
"There are tricks to being a professor," he says in his voiceover. "Like this." Then he says aloud to his seminar, "Say more." He muses in his head, "Wind them up. Let them go. Teenagers will argue for you." You know he's not returning papers on time. Like every white guy who fell up, Joe says to himself, "I needed cash but it turns out teaching's fun."
His ego
Image_placeholderYouAmy-Leigh Hickman as Nadia Farran and Penn Badgley as Joe Goldberg in "You." (Courtesy of Netflix)
It makes sense that Joe would revel in the power of his position. He's king, at least in the confines of his classroom. Joe has always had a high opinion of himself and teaching young people who hang on his every word feeds his ego. To be called "professor" while not actually having a PhD, not having any degree, is to confirm what he's always believed about himself: he's smart and right and his ways, no matter how illegal, are correct. "This is my class," he tells Nadia, asserting his authority as she looks at him, adoringly.
Showrunner Sera Gamble told EW, "Very early on in the life of the series, [author] Caroline Kepnes told me that she envisioned him in this academic setting eventually, and I just loved that image . . . we've known for years that we wanted to eventually put him in a university. It's also fun because for the first time, really, he's talking about the books he loves so much and getting the correct level of respect that he never really got." Joe being Joe, he's unlikely to last anywhere for long (he keeps peskily murdering people), but one could imagine him firmly planting himself in the university, never publishing, never serving on the committees marginalized faculty are forced to, never facing consequences and refusing to retire. 

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A killer prof
Image_placeholderYouPenn Badgley as Joe Goldberg in "You." (Courtesy of Netflix)
Joe is a murderer, racking up nearly a dozen bodies in seasons past. He's far from the only professor to have killed. From Harvard poisoner Eric Muenter to Ohio University murderer and most-wanted escapee Gene Isaac Stees to University of Georgia professor, poet and killer George Zinkhan to Theodore "Ted" Kaczynski, professors have murdered.
Perhaps like Joe, an elevated sense of self combined with the fawning attentions of impressionable young students and academia's lack of consequences reinforces the belief that one can do anything, get away with everything, once in an ivory tower. Teaching doesn't seem like it will be good for Joe (definitely not for his students) but as a narcissist, nothing sticks to him, least of all self-improvement. And change won't happen in an antiquated place, sheltered and self-important as many storied academic institutions are. As fellow professor Malcolm Harding (Stephen Hagan) says to Joe, "Rouse young minds and et cetera. Perks of the job, rumor has it. I wouldn't possibly know."

"You" Season 4, Part 1, is now streaming on Netflix. Watch a trailer via YouTube below.


By Alison Stine

Alison Stine is a former staff writer at Salon. She is the author of the novels "Trashlands" and "Road Out of Winter," winner of the 2021 Philip K. Dick Award. A recipient of an Individual Artist Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), she has written for The New York Times, The Guardian, and others.

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