Never take a writer to a bookstore. Unfortunately for our cohort, there's not one, but two writers to corral at The Last Bookstore in always sunny Los Angeles. Sera Gamble and I can't make it more than four feet in any direction without pulling a book off the shelves. Gamble, showrunner of YOU and The Magicians, turns to me with a copy of The Virgin Suicides in her hands and points to a modern reinterpretation of the cover, a stark white box of black text set against a collage of roses.
"People talk about judging books by their covers like it's bad. But sometimes I've picked up a book just because the cover was cool and it's been amazing," says Gamble, whose shows are lauded for providing wildly eclectic and entertaining entry points into the vagrancies of the human psyche. ("I also buy wines based on their labels exclusively.") The last book she picked up using this methodology was a volume of classical Greek poetry, which she knew nothing about until the universe threw it in her path. Despite her low-brow approach, Gamble seems to end up chewing on high-brow concepts anyway.
Gamble's writing brims with these kinds of delicious contradictions. She describes her shows, both adaptations of popular book series, as fanfic of the authors' original narratives. But in execution, both The Magicians and YOU remix story, character, tone, and genre into singularly fresh takes instantly recognizable as Gamble's work. YOU in particular, which returns to Netflix for Season 2 on Dec. 26, is a bracing blend of traditional rom-com beats and suspenseful horror. Unreliably narrated by the truly delusional Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley), YOU is simultaneously the story of a man with a moral code driven by love, and an insidious stalker who manipulates women because he feels he is owed something.
For those who haven't read Caroline Kepnes' novel, the premise of YOU might seem too messy to be a satisfying watch. Even Gamble's mother was confused, asking if her daughter was writing another sociopath, albeit this time, one whose hunting ground was the beloved bookstore where he was raised rather than a magical kingdom called Fillory. "Joe's not a sociopath," Gambles insists, to me and her mother. (Her mother, a psychiatrist who then quoted the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders at Gamble, might disagree.) "Killing isn't easy for Joe, but he obviously has something inside him that allows him to cross lines in what he considers extreme circumstances," says Gamble. The knee-jerk reaction is to categorize Joe, a Nice Guy (™) who attempts to kill nearly every single one of his romantic partners, as a different species entirely. But Gamble is far more interested in the ways she (read: the audience) and Joe are alike. She believes that mostly, "people who do bad things aren't that different from people who don't", except in one crucial way: People we generally think of as good simply aren't acting on their darkest impulses.
YOU is the beautiful, squalling brainchild of Gamble's theory and Kepnes' canon. The series is filled with horrifically relatable and entertaining people whose bad decisions have bloody stakes. It revels in exposing the ugliest thoughts of each of its characters, often without hope of redemption, which should make YOU unwatchable. In fact, the lackluster ratings of the show's original cable run — 1.1 million viewers on average per episode, but only 611,000 in same-day ratings — were disappointing enough that despite previously announcing a Season 2 pick up, Lifetime canceled the show.
But Netflix, like Gamble, saw something thrillingly addictive in pulling apart an archetypal romantic hero and stepped in to save the series. Within a month of being repackaged as a Netflix original, 40 million accounts streamed Season 1. Somehow, Gamble created a hypnotic narrative audiences binged with euphoric delight — regardless of whether we were simply counting the episodes until Joe's eventual comeuppance, or rooting for his romantic interests' happily ever afters. YOU is a car crash you can't look away from, caught between the paralyzing fear that this could just as easily happen to you, and the deliriously joyous relief that it's not.
We're at The Last Bookstore partly as a f--- you to Joe Goldberg, but mostly because Gamble is on a mission. "There's a really beautiful city here — actually a million cities in one glorious sack — if you're not just seeing it from the windshield of your BMW on your way to work at WME," says Gamble. Every Angeleno has a different snapshot of L.A.; even sifting through the places she has been introduced to by her own similarly creative, financially comfortable friends, Gamble fires off a cornucopia of treasures that have nothing to do with Hollywood. Despite what Joe and other L.A. haters think, the city is a simmering cross-section of cultural enclaves if one wanders beyond Instagram walls.
"I might sound a little defensive," says Gamble. Taking in The Last Bookstore — which in actuality is the last hybrid book stall, sculpture garden, indoor market, art gallery, performance space, and record shop — it's easy to see why. It's a temple to everything Joe holds dear, a nexus of curiosity, intelligence, and artistic expression he doesn't believe can exist outside of New York. Gamble spent her work lunches in smaller but similar used book stores during college, leaving behind the detritus of devoured universes in stacks of paperbacks whenever she left. She survived those crucial young adult years at UCLA without a car, and as a result, her snapshot of L.A. is quite low to the ground. Gamble's Los Angeles is a place where the effort required to get somewhere (three buses to get from campus to dance class in the Valley) is rewarded by an enriching experience; which could mean anything from a perfect taco (location strictly off-record), to 15 minutes of actual silence (Lake Shrine), to creative inspiration (cafe-hopping in her neighborhood to write), to romantic connection (date night means LACMA).
This is the L.A. Joe Goldberg begins to experience in Season 2 of YOU after he meets his new obsession, Love Quinn (Victoria Pedretti). While trying to outrun the consequences of Season 1 — in which one ex ended up dead while the other came back to life seeking revenge — Joe falls for the young chef who drags him to far-flung corners of the city in search of Joe's perfect bite. The 10-hour date (I'm accounting for traffic) culminates in a home-cooked meal made with love by Love, kickstarting a familiar spiral for Joe. The first of Joe's delusions that Love confronts is his hatred for L.A., but it's certainly not the last.
"YOU is much more interested in the ways we lie to ourselves than fetishizing murder" says Gamble, acknowledging that the journey to self-awareness usually lacks a body count. Joe's ability to gaslight his crushes (and subsequently, the audience) comes from the fact that he genuinely believes he's a good guy. The delicious friction of Joe's romantic delusions kissing a homicide charge riddled reality made YOU a runaway, viral success. That Netflix, notorious for keeping its ratings data (and methodology for viewership accounting) under wraps, deemed 40 million viewers a statistic worthy of wide release marked the series, and in turn Gamble, as a juggernaut.
But 40 million is a number Gamble can't quite wrap her head around, so she doesn't. Instead, she lounges on the stairs of The Last Bookstore in a bottle-green lace dress and apologizes to shoppers waiting for us to finish up our photoshoot. As we pause to let foot traffic pass, more than one person stops to tell her how much they love her shows. Gamble graciously accepts the compliments, surprised to be recognized outside Hall H.
The sound of the city fades away when we enter the Peace Awareness Labyrinth and Gardens. Gamble strolls through manicured foliage during the dusky side of golden hour, and sits with a sigh of relief at the edge of a suspiciously melodic water feature. This is the kind of L.A. oasis Gamble is willing to make a trek for; she loves being instantly transported to an unexpected world. "There are people who really devote themselves to make these spaces beautiful, making them a space where you can go and contemplate; be quiet and feel a little bit of nature," says Gamble, face tilting to catch the last of the sun's rays as a brisk November night rolls in. The gardens, and the mansion that sits on the property, give off an old money but New Age vibe. There's no doubt in my mind every white person on the grounds knows more about yoga than me, an actual Indian person. As I pretend to understand, nodding along, the die-hard New Yorker in me yearns for the concreteness of Hot Duck discourse. Gamble, always present in conversation, catches the disconnect and bestows a bemused smile. I am chastened to find that I'm the Joe Goldberg of this tête-à-tête.
Earlier in the day, over lunch at The NoMad Hotel, Gamble declares, "I'm secure enough in my identity that I can admit, publicly, my astrologer is fire." She goes every six months, an IRL level-up from the Co-Star notifications the rest of us can't seem to put on mute. There's a certain amount of L.A.'s "New-Agey woo woo" that Gamble buys into — though as we unpack this, it's clear she considers anything woo woo-ish a refreshing challenge to her tried-and-true perspectives. Like opening up a random book because of great cover, or purposefully getting off at the wrong bus stop to wander, Gamble enjoys the uncertainty any interpretation of the stars holds. "I've shared [my astrologer] with all my friends, I've even gifted a session to Greg Berlanti," says Gamble, referencing her YOU co-showrunner.
"L.A. is a city full of driven people with big dreams — whether that be worldly, like really making waves in this specific sort of business, or whether it's a self-actualization kind of vibe, which is also huge here," says Gamble. "People's ambitions might not be to run a production company, but rather, they want to figure out who and what they are, what their purpose is in the world. Maybe that means getting really f---ing good at yoga." These things aren't merely decorative or performative in L.A., people are finding new ways and tools to be effective, and some of it is — Gamble makes an ephemeral, all-encompassing gesture — working for her.
When she was young, broke, and trying to get staffed on her first TV show, Gamble would seek out serene spots where more spiritually inclined Angelenos would gather to meditate, and do her own version of that: Churn through pilot scripts. She had spent her post-college struggle years trying to break into acting and met a group of women who wanted to write their own material to perform in the L.A. theater scene. Feeling an instinctive tug that said, We're f---ing onto something, Gamble partnered with Raelle Tucker, a friend from the group (and current showrunner of the Facebook Watch series Sacred Lies) to sell a screenplay after several successful theater projects. The only catch: They had no real understanding of how to pitch projects or even get agents, so the pair turned to reality TV to make their dreams of financial stability happen.
Gamble and Tucker's season of Project Greenlight — a reality competition series created by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck to launch a new generation of Hollywood talent — aired in 2003, two years before YouTube was even a thing you could Google. It's nearly impossible to find clips, but Gamble assures me there's nothing juicy there, just a generous edit of two baby-faced writers trying to understand the industry in a "pre-internet-ish" world. The best part of the experience for Gamble was losing. "Project Greenlight was the biggest thing that had happened for me professionally up until that point. It felt like a breakthrough potentially," says Gamble. "And after we lost, it then took another year or so for me to get a job in the industry. The interim year was me making a lot of connections and meeting people and drinking a lot of bottles of water on a lot of couches."
If that sounds like generic networking bullshit, the kind of meeting guaranteed to go nowhere, that's because it is. But, in the true fashion of a first-generation immigrant kid (of Polish parents) whose practicality stems from having no financial fallback, Gamble also spent the year using the meditative quiet of places like Lake Shrine to prepare. Reading scripts, taking story notes, readying pitches for inquisitive showrunners if she was lucky enough to get a meeting — Gamble describes it in hindsight as percolating, hitting critical mass. "Not getting absolutely everything I want right away is much better for me," says Gamble. "And it has been much better for the longevity of my career."
At the end of a seemingly fallow year, Gamble and Tucker took a meeting with John McNamara, who then hired the pair on his 2005 ABC drama about tech savvy private investigators, Eyes. Over a decade later, Gamble still adores working with McNamara, who currently serves as her co-showrunner on The Magicians, a fantasy series about a found family of disillusioned magic students struggling to make sense of their twenties. Her relationship with her mentor ("John hates when I call him that.") is so strong that the two optioned Lev Grossman's novel in 2013 with their own money, despite both being painfully unemployed at the time. Gamble had just left a grueling two-year stint as Supernatural's showrunner, before which she spent five years leveling her way up Eric Kripke's writers room. While grateful for the master class in making producible genre TV, Gamble was burned out, and needed to work on new ideas that would replenish her.
"I guess I was looking for the flow state," says Gamble, noting that for her, its pleasures are up there with sex. "I love sitting down to write with only the basics of the scene, and then getting so hooked into the voice of that character that I find them saying something that doesn't even necessarily make sense to me right away, but that I'm kind of discovering. I love the feeling of allowing the scene to go in a direction I didn't plan, it feels really good to discover a human truth about these characters. A little bell rings inside of me and that becomes the North Star of the piece — "
A car horn pierces through the gentle harmonies of the Peace Garden's water feature, but Gamble gamely barrels on.
" — and I will protect it through a million notes calls."
Gamble's instincts, born from a bizarre alchemy of kismet and self-determination, serve her well. Between YOU and The Magicians, Gamble and her teams have told some of TV's most nuanced stories about depression, toxic masculinity, rape culture, alienation, and much more. But as Gamble learned early on at Supernatural (a show and fandom she deeply loves), when her North Star feeling doesn't line up with the internet's expectations of the show, it can be hard to keep her footing.
"I thought I knew how Game of Thrones should end," says Gamble as Hollywood whips past the car window, drawing a direct parallel between herself and the outpouring of Magicians' stans who shut down her mentions after the extremely divisive Season 4 finale. Having grown up in the message board era of online fandom (read: Buffy, OG Star Trek reruns), she knew Quentin's death and Jason Ralph's subsequent departure from show would draw heated critiques. Quentin's passing was read by some as the character giving in to the suicidal ideation he struggled with his entire life, a question McNamara told Vulture was ambiguous by design. Compounding that reading was the fact Quentin's death killed a queer ship that felt on the verge of becoming canon. (One could argue that the fandom anointed One True Pairing already was canon, as the characters technically spent a lifetime together. But considering that narrative was condensed into a 45-minute runtime in an alternate timeline, it was not the romantic payoff fans were clamoring for.) There were a lot of tweets from fans telling Gamble they wouldn't be back for Season 5, just, you know, not so politely.
Gamble gets it, wincing at the imaginary tweets she likely would have sent Joss Whedon had social media existed during Cordelia Chase's exit from Angel. "When I'm watching something I love, yeah, I sometimes feel entitled," she says. "So I try to keep in mind that sometimes [backlash] happening [on Twitter] isn't personal, it's not really about me. It's somebody who is really connected with the material, and right now, really needs to speak and be heard."
Hale Appleman, who plays the Eliot half of Queliot, is queer himself and has a special resonance with that section of fandom. On the phone, he describes individuals he's met at various cons around the country with affection and by name, a sign that he considers himself one of them. "[When the finale aired] I longed very badly, to let them know that I feel them," says Appleman. "I understand coming from a place of discovering community for yourself at a later time in life, because you weren't afforded the same necessary privileges of basic acceptance." Simultaneously, Appleman is able to "hold space for the fact that every plot point that happens on The Magicians opens up the possibility for something else...a huge event, like the death of Quentin, opened up this deeper story that we're able to tell about Eliot, about all the characters."
In troubled waters, Gamble will take a moment and check in with herself, remember why she's writing this narrative in the first place. "My responsibility as a storyteller is not always exactly the same as my responsibility as a citizen, or an ally, or generally somebody who is trying to live her life by a certain set of principles," says Gamble. "There is a difference between what we want in a human way for characters we relate to, and what we need for the story to be cathartic, interesting, challenging, and something that could go on for a while." As a storyteller, Gamble's looking for difficult to define, often ugly truths in her characters; she's interested in exploring the shadowy parts of self with a sense of humor and compassion — which she is quick to point out is different from redemption or forgiveness. Her work will never scratch everyone's itch, will never tick all the boxes of a perfect character arc, and Gamble's at peace with that.
"I'm excited for people who find things they're passionate about and have conversations with it. I just think that conversation is very infrequently any of my business," says Gamble. "We have a job to tell that story. Then the fandom gets to do whatever the f--- they want because they're just people living their lives, enjoying the entertainment they enjoy."
Appleman hopes fans hurt by Quentin's death will follow up with the Brakebills crew in Season 5, as he feels "we might have had our best year yet." According to Appleman, Gamble's innate ability to "hold entire universes in her head" while simultaneously "choosing the right moment to sucker-punch you with emotional resonance" is bearing strange, rich fruit five seasons later. Gamble doesn't like to leave characters behind; even in death, the ripple effects of Quentin, Beck (Elizabeth Lail), and Peach (Shay Mitchell) are felt by their living loved ones.
For Appleman specifically, Episode 6 of the upcoming season is "essentially, an Eliot movie, where the specificity in the writing, in terms of what he's literally going through, moment to moment, is more than he's ever had before." He feels like "Sera was crawling through the folds of my brain, and putting a magnifying glass on some of the thoughts I had actually had about Eliot's baggage" as early as the pilot.
"There is someone that Eliot can reveal some of his innermost feelings to [this season], someone who is there to echo and mirror aspects of Eliot's psychology that he isn't always comfortable expressing, but they're not quite a therapist," says Appleman, noting that the two come into each others lives through a magical circumstance. "What Eliot thinks he deserves or doesn't deserve in terms of relationships, these ideas really came to life [in Season 5] in a way that even took me by surprise," says Appleman.
"It's painful at times. It's also emotionally resonant, layered, and complicated in a way that is common in a queer context... There seems to be this alchemy by which I understood that Sera Gamble is a witch."
If Gamble is a witch, then the story she's telling me must be a fairy tale. In 1968, a young Jewish doctor flees Poland to escape an anti-Semetic purge. Four days after arriving in Sweden to claim political asylum, he spots a bright young woman across the refugee camp. He does her dishes, just to have an excuse to talk to her. He discovers she's a college student, or would be if an entire generation of Jewish intellectuals weren't currently being displaced. They fall in love. His immigration papers come through for New York City. He tells her not to wait for him. She travels to America a year later to marry him.
"That's pretty much the whole story of how my parents met," Gamble says nonchalantly, as if she's not describing the kind of period piece that's basically guaranteed an Oscar nomination. While grand romance has always been part of her origin story, Gamble, who recently got married herself, says matter-of-factly, "At the end of the day it's just about two people doing their best."
This is the kind of practicality that's often hard-won, built painstakingly from a graveyard of relationship mistakes. Heading into Season 2 of YOU, it was a lesson Joe Goldberg desperately needed to learn in order to not repeat the exact narrative beats of Season 1. But also, "f--- that", because there is no universe of the million floating in Gamble's head where the accumulation Joe's good deeds wipes out the bad. "Penn and I talk about this all the time," says Gamble. "He started reading the scripts for Season 2 and asked, 'How self-aware can I possibly be?'"
The answer is trickier for Gamble than it is for Kepnes, because the show could be renewed for another season. Without a definitive end date in sight, using the (spoiler!) incarceration ending from Kepnes' sequel, Hidden Bodies, wasn't in the cards. Gamble also doesn't have the advantage of surprise in Season 2 — the show's audience learned their lesson; we know we'll have to wait patiently for Joe's comeuppance and possibly watch him be taken apart piece by piece rather than in one fell swoop. But, keep viewers waiting too long, or let Joe skirt one too many consequences, and people will abandon the show.
"To me, the way that each season ends actually is what legitimizes the show," says Penn Badgley a few days before Season 2 premieres. "The first season doesn't let anybody — us as the people who've made it, and also the viewer who's watched — get away with having fun without also coming to terms with the consequences. When I don't understand how a given event or moment or emotional turn for Joe is possible, I place my trust in Sera. She's onto something here that I don't always understand fully in the moment...but now looking back at the two seasons, I am really impressed at the integrity of the allegory."
Gamble turned back to the "classic rules of horror" to make all these conflicting emotional puzzle pieces work. Season 1 unleashed the horrors of Joe Goldberg on the world; in Season 2, the world unleashes it right back. "He's learning from his past relationships in that he's making new mistakes. You can see he's evolving," says Gamble. "He's arguably picking women more suited to him, but you know, Joe's justification for murder hasn't evolved terribly."
As Joe works towards being someone who deserves Love's love — no stalking, no public masturbation, no kidnapping — he begins to see himself more clearly. His justifications for murder ring hollower and hollower until finally, the Season 2 finale forces Joe face-to-face with himself, the way Beck saw him while pleading for her life. Culminating in what is sure to be a divisive ending, YOU Season 2 traps Joe in cage of his own making.
"We just continually threaten Joe's veneer of denial," Gamble says, punctuating her words with gleeful stabs of her salad fork. "It's delightful to put that character on when writing him because I've had fears about men like him for my whole life." Gamble, already an articulate person, starts speaking in thesis sentences as we hit upon her North Star(s). Most, if not all, women live with similar fears and traumas. A majority of us do so silently because conventional means of justice are usually not viable options in the face of a white man's privilege. At least on YOU, Gamble and her writers "can show men like Joe who they really are."
Karma is cathartic. Gamble enjoys unmaking Joe Goldberg piece by piece, and I, a humble viewer, enjoy watching an effigy of all the dating red flags I've ever ignored go up in smoke. Sure, it's just a TV show, but one providing an avenue for people to "face down really dark shit" in the world with a (maniacal) smiles on their faces. YOU Season 2 is a perfect exercise in releasing pettiness — or would be if it weren't for that pesky Season 3 (and beyond) question.
"Not sure if Joe dying would be letting him off the hook," Gamble teases, as if reading my mind. "Greg and I have talked a lot about this...without saying too specifically what the situation might be, we want to keep stretching the edges of this character's self-awareness as we sort of traverse through the landscape of what romance is in your adult life, and what happens when you cause the kind of damage he does."
"Ultimately, Joe was born so we could burn him to the ground," says Gamble hedging her answer, but not her wicked grin. "I promise we won't redeem him."
In Sera Gamble we trust.
YOU Season 2 premieres Dec. 26 on Netflix.
Photography: Jessie Cowan
Editors: Chris Rosen, Noelene Clark
Makeup: Natalia Malova
Hair: Steven Mason
Styling: Gamble's own
(Disclosure: TV Guide is owned by CBS Interactive, a division of ViacomCBS.)