If there were an award category for Best Actor in a Creepy Role, Penn Badgley would have racked up at least two nominations for his work in both You and Gossip Girl. And as You season two premieres, I’m reminded that one of Badgley’s greatest talents is simulating dead-eyed masturbation. I’ve heard actors say it’s hard to laugh believably on-camera, and cry, but as a nonactor, I have to imagine that faux masturbating with absolutely no expression has to be challenging as well. And well, Badgley knocks it out of the park.
In You season one, Badgley’s character, Joe, is working at a rare bookstore on the Upper East Side and obsessively stalking a woman named Guinevere Beck (she just goes by Beck, which is fine). It starts out as innocently as stalking can, but quickly escalates to him murdering several people to be near her. One night, he’s watching her masturbate through a window of her brownstone — which has giant windows, seemingly no curtains, and is on the first floor — from the stoop of a brownstone across the street. He is also masturbating. Her scene is fairly typical as female masturbation scenes go: sensual and porny. Badgley, meanwhile, has the face of someone who is just thinking, Okay, let’s just get this over with. His head isn’t thrown back in pleasure, his eyes aren’t closed, and he looks ready to stop at any second to, say, help an elderly woman with groceries open the door he is blocking. Which he does. Badgley told Cosmo that he made the choice to have his eyes open because it is creepier. “They wanted me to close my eyes, and I said, ‘No, why?’ And they said, ‘Because it’s too creepy when you have your eyes open.’ And I said, ‘What are we doing? What do you mean, It’s too creepy?’” It’s really remarkable that of all the creepy, illegal, and malicious things Joe Goldberg does in season one, somehow the masturbation scene is still the most unsettling. Probably because he’s so casual about it, despite the circumstances — it’s like he’s done this a million times before.
Thankfully, Badgley brings his specific set of talents back in season two. Joe has relocated to Los Angeles, and has started working in a health-food store called Anavrin (Nirvana spelled backward). In L.A., Joe is hiding from his ex Candace, and seemingly pledges to keep his murderous, scheming impulses behind in New York. But 20 minutes into the first episode, we see it again. Joe has met a woman named Love — seriously — and has become obsessed with her in seconds. She’s an amazing baker! She’s warm! They talk about fruit innuendos! He meets her at work, and then quickly ducks into a backroom to jerk off. This time, instead of a brownstone stoop, he’s in a supply room of a grocery store, surrounded by palettes. He’s swaying back and forth, and every time he opens his eyes, he has a thousand-yard stare that communicates he is feeling physically good, but there’s nothing sensual about this act. It’s totally devoid of pleasure, further proving that his obsession with Love is way more about him than any kind of desire for romance from her.
As soon as Love expresses autonomy that can’t be predicted, for example, by kissing him after they had agreed to be just friends, he freaks out. So in this sense, his dead-eyed masturbation is a believable performance. His look is very “watching porn 20 minutes before his roommate is supposed to come home.” It feels like it’s perfunctory, self-serving, and totally unsexy to behold. At the start of the season, it’s the first hint that Joe is up to his old tricks — a ten-out-of-ten performance from Badgley.