Essays · TV

How the Netflix Series ‘You’ Brings the Horror with Food

This might just be one of the best cooking shows in years.
Netflix You Food
By  · Published on October 21st, 2021

One of the most affecting methods of horror is a subversion of the ordinary. The idea that something you’re accustomed to is just… off. It could be that a family member isn’t acting quite right. Maybe there’s someone in your house who isn’t supposed to be there. Or, perhaps, there’s something up with your food. 

Horror-infused food scenes have been a staple in scary movies for decades. But does the feeling of unease go beyond that realization that there is something unfamiliar in the familiar? This question is explored in the Netflix series You, which follows bookseller and chronic stalker Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley) as he tracks unsuspecting young women. 

Season 2 and Season 3 of You center mainly around Joe’s relationship with a peppy chef named Love Quinn (Victoria Pedretti). And because of Love’s profession, food plays a significant role in their story. It also permeates much of the world that surrounds their life together. But as episodes become more saturated with twisted, murderous moments, the placement of food in the show is clearly no accident. Rather, it gives insight into the psychology of a psychopathic stalker and killer.

The series serves as a satirical critique of the upper class by way of Joe’s critical inner-monologue. And many of his complaints have to do with the way people consume food. At the beginning of Season 2, Joe moves to Los Angeles and immediately shows contempt for the city’s residents’ culinary habits. He rolls his eyes at the $14 smoothies sold everywhere, for instance. Then, when he moves to the suburbs with Love in Season 3, he groans about the locals’ obsession with everything they eat being gluten- or sugar-free. Or not allowing their children to eat fruit because there’s sugar in it. Or trying to convert everyone to a Keto diet. 

You highlights how food can say so much about a culture. If someone is spending more than 10 bucks on a smoothie, they likely have money to waste. And if someone is incredibly picky about what ingredients go into their food, chances are that’s not the only thing they’re picky about.

So, when food becomes a part of Joe and Love’s evil schemes, these atrocities get under our skin that much more. After all, how much closer to home can you get than having something sinister infiltrate your food? Employing food in their wicked deeds is also a cruel joke targeted at the people whom Joe has been consistently ridiculing.

In You Season 2, Episode 2, Joe puts one of his victims through a meat grinder. And then at the end of Season 3, he puts his own toe in a pie. Indeed, these are horrifying, nauseating images. But are they more than that? Why consistently link food and body horror so intimately throughout a show?

These scenes don’t just make for skin-crawling, nauseating punchlines directed toward the rich. They are part of a larger theme. Joe is a very successful stalker. And he never gets caught because he is exceptionally good at fitting in. Despite being a sociopath, he understands people. He studies them, and he knows how to get close to them. He puts on an act well enough to develop romantic relationships with most of the women he stalks.

This plays on how the upper class turns a blind eye to anything abnormal or unsettling. And in a culture that’s obsessed with the food they eat, Joe and Love are also able to use food against them.

The scariest part about the role of food in You, then, isn’t that body parts end up in desserts or that human flesh goes through meat processing machines. It’s that Joe and Love use food to fit in. When they arrive in the stuffy suburbs of Madre Linda, they’re perceived as outcasts. Then Love opens a bakery, which allows her to assimilate into high society and befriend a group of local influencers and socialites. 

Because food represents the normal in You, we see the act of cooking right down to the very last detail. It might be Love hypnotically folding layers of batter as she prepares cupcakes for a big party. Or slicing vegetables for a romantic dinner with Joe. But why do these sequences feel objectively unsettling? It’s just cooking, right?

Wrong. Their resemblance to the murder and dismemberment scenes is uncanny. At the beginning of Season 2, Love kills a neighbor because she suspects Joe is having an affair with the woman. After Love tells Joe about the murder, the two work together to dispose of the body. The mopping up of the blood looks similar to her cleaning a counter before cooking. When Joe breaks her finger, it sounds like the chopping of raw vegetables.

In making the comparison between cooking and killing, and in the couple treating the two acts in a similar manner, You bridges the ordinary with the abnormal. Throughout the series, Joe goes the extra step to appear to be just a regular guy, particularly in his relationships with women. When food becomes such a big part of the series, it just makes sense. Using the common ground of food, Joe and Love are able to able to tap into the mundane and become successful, unsuspected killers as a result.

You is now streaming on Netflix. 

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Aurora Amidon spends her days running the Great Expectations column and trying to convince people that Hostel II is one of the best movies of all time. Read her mostly embarrassing tweets here: @aurora_amidon.