The Visible Man
New York magazine|August 30 - September 12, 2021
Penn Badgley is famous for his roles as a gossip and a stalker—and he’s a little disturbed by what fans see in him.
Jackson McHenry

Penn Badgley spends a lot of time thinking about a just end for the serial killer he plays on TV, if justice were ever to exist in the universe of You. His character is Joe Goldberg, a bookish, seemingly nice guy who has a habit of stalking and killing the women he loves and anyone who gets in his way. So far, Joe has eluded any attempts to thwart his bloodshed, slipping from a literary New York in the first season to a health-food-and-crystals Los Angeles in the second. When You returns for its third season this October, Joe is a golly-gee young father living in a fictional Bay Area suburb populated by tech billionaires, anti-vaxxers, and mommy bloggers. His new wife, Love Quinn (Victoria Pedretti), is just as willing to kill for love as Joe is, but his violent tendencies remain unsated. “When we watch a character like Joe, do we want him to pay?” Badgley muses. “Do we want retribution? Do we want vengeance?”

We’re eating grain bowls by the Hudson in lower Manhattan on a sweltering, 90-plus-degree August day. Badgley, 34, is wearing a black shirt and boots, his beard slightly overgrown and his hair slightly tangled. Since the pandemic began, like many other 30-something Brooklynites, Badgley has left the city— moving first to L.A. and then upstate and started to acquaint himself with prison-abolitionist thinking. In the past, Badgley says, he had a glib go-to answer for how he’d like to see Joe go out: A Black woman should kill him, an easy liberal revenge fantasy. “But it’s not fair to do that to that woman,” he admits. “Punishment is important, but what form of punishment is actually effective? With Joe, the irony is that death is almost too easy for him.” Badgley has weighed it all out: Maybe Joe could be tortured (“He deserves it, but does someone deserve to have to do it?”). Maybe he just deserves to be eternally miserable (“But he already is miserable”). The actor is prone to existential musing, shifting the premise of a standard interview into an ethics seminar. “It’s a strange question to ask because I really don’t know,” he says, “and this show isn’t going to answer that question.”

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