The Following, created by Scream writer Kevin Williamson, is easily the least defensible show I watch at the moment. It’s trashy, violent, occasionally disgusting, and occasionally forgets about the main gimmick of the big bad guy. But in a way, that’s a strength unto itself. Things happen, and keep happening, on The Following. The usual way I describe the show is that it’s willing to “go there” several times an episode. The exact location of “there” varies from episode to episode, but in a show featuring people getting shot with spear guns, serial killer threesomes, two separate love triangles with one woman, one serial killer telling another serial killer “You’re crazy!” and meaning it, and Kevin Bacon straight-up murdering a couple dozen people.
The series feels like a Batman pitch in a lot of ways. Ryan Hardy, a retired FBI agent, is an alcoholic and burnt out. Years ago, he captured Joe Carroll, a serial killer, professor, and novelist with an Edgar Allen Poe fetish. Carroll went to jail, Hardy wrote a book, Carroll languished in jail, Hardy had a brief relationship with Carroll’s ex-wife Claire, and life went on. The series kicks off when Carroll escapes from jail a short time before his execution, murders a lady he considered unfinished business, gets captured again, and then sets about unveiling his “sequel.”
You see, while he was locked up, Carroll met a few fellow travelers that he quickly turned into minions. Imagine a serial killer sleeper cell full of people with specific instructions who are hiding in plain sight and utterly, terminally dedicated to the worship of Joe Carroll and death. He bestows his adoration of Poe upon them, and they take to the streets in Poe masks, with Poe-themed crimes, or with Poe’s work on their lips. Carroll wants Hardy — dead, alive, or in his bed, I’m not sure which — and his followers want to show their lord and master how dedicated they are. Hardy and Claire want to both stop Carroll and retrieve Joey, Claire and Carroll’s son. I want to see what comes out of this meat grinder.
The glue that kept the show together for me was Emma, who was played to the hilt by Valorie Curry. She’s by far the most interesting part of the show on almost every level. Ryan Hardy is depthless, and every attempt at giving him depth was more bathos than pathos as a general rule. Joe Carroll ranges from tedious to incredibly tedious on average, though he has his moments. Kevin Bacon and James Purefoy, who play Hardy and Carroll, are talented, and perform well, but don’t have much to work with that you haven’t seen before. Claire, played by the fantastic Natalie Zea, is crucial, and I think a solid #2 for the show.
Emma has a lot going on. She’s part of a surprise love triangle between herself, her boyfriend Jacob, and her boyfriend’s accidental boyfriend Paul. (They had to pretend to be gay for a couple years so Carroll could spy on Claire. Paul was and is gay. Jacob was not, but might be bisexual now.) She’s in love with Carroll, the prototypical powerful male mentor. She doesn’t hate Claire, which I thought was a nice touch, but that doesn’t mean she’s totally fine with Claire being in the picture, either.
But what really clicked for me was that Emma is both ruthless and intelligent. She’ll cut you open from ear to ear if you give her a chance, but she also knows when to cut her losses and run. She struggles with her love, but she knows what she has to do. She has dueling commitments, and the bulk of her drama derives from how those commitments conflict with each other. When she finally chooses, it’s cold-blooded and sad, but appropriate and logical.
Claire, on the other hand, has one goal: her ex-husband does not get to ruin her son like he ruined their marriage. Everything she does in the show can be traced back to that motivation. Zea is a solid enough actress that you believe it, especially when she does something unbelievable. We’re privy to the thoughts of Hardy, Carroll, and Emma, by virtue of their mountains of screentime. But Claire is often left to react to what the other characters do, instead of doing things on her own, so she remains a slight cipher until she picks up a gun and makes a decision.
That makes her exciting in a way that Ryan Hardy, who is all Guilt and Shame and Anger, is definitively not. We know how Hardy’s story plays out, but Claire? She’s in a position to do something new and different, and she does. Repeatedly. The gun, the knife, the fight in the hallway, the screams, the submission, the betrayals — she works. Claire & Joey vs The World plays better, and more honestly, than Hardy vs Carroll ever could. Their conflict is a game of wits, a conflict between two men who are determined to prove that their way is the right way. Hers is simple: “Not my son.”
Carroll wants his family back, Joey and Claire included. He wants to live with them in his serial killer paradise, and he wants Ryan Hardy to die or submit to him. He’s playing the “I’m smarter than you, de-tec-tive” game, in addition to fetishizing death and murder. He’s a cult leader, and full of that pompous swagger that makes these dudes so boring. He’s all about how important he is, how remarkable his ideas are, when the opposite is true. It’s not Carroll that matters. Carroll is tedious. He wants sex and power, but he dresses it up with words like “family” and “literary” and pretensions of following in Poe’s footsteps. His big hideout is a light house. Why? ’cause his hero wrote a story about one.
His big revenge plan is not a scheme or outline. It is a novel, that he is writing, about exactly what’s going to happen. He is, when you break it down, writing fanfic about himself and Ryan Hardy with a smug omniscient narrator telling the tale. At one point, Hardy gets a copy of the manuscript and begins reading aloud… a passage about him finding the manuscript and reading it aloud!
Hardy’s not much better. Kevin Bacon plays him well, but believing in Ryan Hardy means believing in a whole bunch of nonsense. He’s retired FBI, and deputized at one point in the series, but not before he catches five or six bodies. By the end of the season, he’s killed so many cult members that the cult has to kill a bunch of people semi-offscreen just to balance the scales for the viewers. He’s an old and tired character type, and the writers refrain from doing anything new with him. The revelation of his sad past is more of an eye-roller than tear-jerker, and by the time he gets to the point where he tortures and then murders a defenseless cult member… well. You’ve probably already checked out by that point.
The Following succeeds when it’s indulging in spectacle (spear guns, threesomes, gaping throat wounds) and well-executed emotional content (Emma and Joey’s relationship, Claire and Emma, Emma/Paul/Jacob). Those parts range from good to great, and satisfy on a very basic sex/violence level. But when the series tries to do anything with Edgar Allen Poe, or Hardy and Carroll’s motivation, it stumbles. There’s not enough to Carroll or Hardy. They’re both sad old men who don’t see people as humans so much as tools.
Hardy is presented as the one man that can stop Carroll, both by Carroll and the show itself, and that isn’t right at all. Hardy is nothing. He’s just a dude, an object of Carroll’s affections and the object of his obsession. But Carroll wants him, and that works to shine a spotlight on him. But just outside of that spotlight, where Emma and Claire live, is where the real action happens. That’s where the heart of the series is, but The Following is so in love with the idea of clever twists and two men battling each other for pride and justice that it misses the mark.
The season finale was the worst episode of TV I’d seen in a while, though the weird and worthless incest double bluff episodes of Sword Art Online I saw this weekend actually beat it. It’s everything that’s awful about The Following, and precious little of the good. Ryan Hardy goes full heel, Joe Carroll becomes even more insufferable, and the focus is on the spectacle and the boring conflict between the men. It makes sense, since that’s where the story was headed anyway, but it feels so empty and tired, like reruns of a story you already know well.
The supporting cast shines, though. I really liked the experience of watching The Following, especially when chatting with #TeamBeloved member David Wolkin and my friend Keri, but I can’t say as I’ll watch it again. Season two might get a glance or three, just to see if it turns into The Following: Emma & Claire, but I don’t have high hopes.