“This is my chapter and I can write it any way I want to!” – dim-witted ex-prison guard, Jordy
If you were in an inauguration induced euphoria coma last Monday night or were breaking down Beyoncé’s previous live performances frame by frame as an amateur lip synch detective, you may have missed the pilot of The Following, Fox’s serialized horror/suspense thriller answer to the cable networks creative drama takeover. Set up as a vehicle for a Kevin Bacon v. James Purefoy good guy/bad guy chess match filled with “jump out of your seat” thrills, gratuitous violent acts, suspense and angst filled show oversight by Kevin Williamson, and a growing motley crew of obsessive cult followers of Purefoy’s (less than as far as I can tell) charismatic English professor turned serial killer Joe Carroll, The Following had some Dawson and Joey sized growing pains. Besides the fact that I am not sure if I am even allowed to call it a “cult” yet (I should check with Annie Parisse’s new addition squad leader who is from the alternative religions bureau unit – I kid you not – who seems to have the last word on which words are acceptable to use when discussing Carroll’s murderous groupies), pilots must be given the benefit of the doubt. Our gauge of a show’s future success is better considered when we have a few episodes (or in a bit of condescending tone to the viewer, “chapters” as they are deemed here) under our belt, so let’s see what this week’s installment had in store.
The Following: Chapter Two began where the pilot left off (a trend that seemed to continue this week), showcasing the next victim (or this case, victims) of the Joe Carroll Killing fraternity (or in this case, sorority). Dim-witted (we were reminded of this a few too many times by a few too many characters – there must be something here) prison guard turned animal cruelty captain Jordy, pays a visit to a neighborhood collegiate sorority and decides to kill a few of the sisters (many of them while they are sleeping). Having seen the “sorority sister” archetype victimized in several too many a horror movie before, this subplot all seemed a bit usual and expected (and thereby unnecessary). Since we are all made to question Jordy’s comprehension of everything, was this just an arbitrary decision by a man incapable of decision making?
Back at investigation headquarters, personnel changes are the talk of the squad room. Bacon’s Ryan Hardy wonders why Mason (initial good riddance, but after an hour with her miscast replacement, I may change my tune) is off of the case in a move that was triggered by anyone who watched Jeananne Goossen’s troubling performance in the pilot. Annie Parisse plays Debra Parker, aforementioned alternative religion unit member and English language critical analyst, who is a strong frontrunner for the 2013 television award for “role that least matches the actor playing it.” We immediately learn that she means serious business and is going to be tough on all aspects of Ryan Hardy (until she’s not). The current investigative focus centers on the abduction of Joey Matthews (the young son of Joe Carroll and his ex-wife Claire Matthews) and the true identity of his three abductors, the nanny, Denise, and the two gay men that had been imbedded neighbors of Sarah Fuller, Maggie Grace’s pilot episode featured Joe Carroll murder victim.
It is not all book readings and Edgar Allen Poe impersonator parties at the house where Joey is being kept. In order to spice up cult abduction life, it turns out that the gay man Will is not actually, but is madly in love (with flashbacks and sex scenes to prove how “special” he thinks she is) with Denise. Billy, on the other hand, may actually have fallen for Will (three years living as a couple may do that) and is struggling as the third wheel in this new troubled triangle. At least Joey has some replica toys to check out.
Meanwhile, Hardy and company are hard at work tracking Denise’s connections to Joe Carroll and discover that her real name is Emma (in a flashback we learn that after attending a Carroll book reading in 2003, she begins visiting him in prison and practicing his teachings) and has been a Carroll plant at the Matthew’s home as a nanny all this time (even though Claire did a background check!). Denise/Emma/Will’s lover had an old address and the Hardy Boys Troupe go to investigate. After an illegal break-in (“You can’t, but I can because I am not an official federal agent”), a house tour reveals ground zero of the Joe Carroll and Edgar Allen Poe obsessed worshippers. Lines of text graffiti the walls, portraits and Poe artwork are everywhere, and there are some creepy Poe masks that would absolutely kill at a late nineteenth century Halloween party. It turns out that one of the masks is a person trying to remain hidden amidst Hardy’s search, and, after the one goose pump (you got me KWill) increasing moment of Chapter Two, the masked Poe jumps up and knocks out Hardy before escaping (we meet him or one of his masked brethren in the final scene). Hardy recovers from the blow to discover the body of Denise/Emma/Will’s lover’s mom in the wall who, in her two flashback scenes, had an “I am about to be murdered by my daughter” effect written all over her before she was actually murdered by her daughter (because she had finally had enough?). Yes, she may be a good nanny, but now that Denise is revealed to be a killer, Joey’s artificial bedroom suddenly does not feel so safe.
After an unsuccessful attempt to yell the location of her son out of him (not before he easily forced her to reveal that she was “quite satisfied” during her two month affair – “after the divorce!” – with Ryan Hardy), Claire returns home to a clinic in how law enforcement can least protect the ex-wife of a serial killer. She is brushing her teeth upstairs when the one upstairs officer (there appeared to be thirty doughnut eating and coffee drinking colleagues downstairs) is easily removed by the not-too-bright Jordy (remember me!) who then holds Claire at gunpoint. Hardy leads a federal agent raid of the upstairs and after averting a Jordy bullet firing, enters the bedroom upon Jordy’s (and based on Carroll’s instructions) request. Hardy is to kill Jordy (although he is not sure he is ready to die yet) or Jordy will kill Claire. Hardy tries to flip the script by reasoning with the deranged police impersonator, Jordy freaks out because he was promised full authorship of this chapter by Carroll, and Hardy has enough and shoots him in the arm (to the disdain of Carroll who in their next prison room tea time seems particularly ornery when he learns that Jordy the opposite of fast is still alive). Hardy spends the night by Claire’s side (to her credit, is there anyone else she can trust – “If you are not a federal agent, get out of the house!”) and all is well – for now.
The episode ends with two final intentionally important notes: Annie Parisse delivers Carroll a collection of Poe’s work (he had requested some reading material!) to the intrigue of the increasing second week viewers (A clue!) and a masked Poe (reminiscent of the Joker gang during the amazing first ten minutes of The Dark Knight) pores kerosene on some guy (who we have never seen before) in broad daylight and burns him alive (because apparently we hadn’t reached our violence for the sake of violence quota yet this episode, sorry, chapter).
Two weeks in and The Following is doing some things very well. Williamson’s command of tension and pacing is at a high level. The show moves and has so far had a pleasant balance of delayering clues from the past with forward moving action. I am on the edge of my seat (although too often wanting to fall off) and Bacon is (not surprisingly) a competent and somewhat enjoyable guide of this story and genre. I am appreciative of production for removing the pilot’s least inspired character (see you later, Mason) and for its willingness to “go there” in killing off Sarah Fuller (and the “talents” of Maggie Grace). This malleability will be essential in The Following’s ability to move forward successfully. Also, the Poe masks are admittedly kind of creepy (even if the man on fire is to this point another meaningless killing).
Unfortunately, this whole cult (Am I even allowed to call it that yet, Annie Parisse?) following thing is one of the toughest television buy-ins since The Magic Hour. I don’t buy that James Purefoy’s Joe Carroll is either charismatic enough or his followers are messed up enough (eh, with Jordy, this may not be true) to make this all logically work. Purefoy, as far as I can tell, seems to be a moderately charming man because he is British? I think back to Javier Bardem’s first scene in Skyfall (well played, Sam Mendes) and just how mesmerizing (albeit creepy) Silva was. I could understand how others could follow this dude and do what he said (if anything out of fear). Purefoy has little of this effect and seems to be just a waste of everyone’s time (the surprisingly very convincing Natalie Zea as Claire Matthews seems to be the only one who kind of gets it). The whole “two gay men and a nanny” subplot was excruciating to watch (just keep playing with the toys, Joey!) and it seems like each reveal of more of “the why” makes any previous interest I had in “the what” rendered moot. Again, we are only two episodes chapters in and I am digging spending some time with Kevin Bacon on the television, but as U2’s first track on Boy did not say, “Walk away, walk away, walk away, walk away – I will not follow” for long.
What do you all think? Am I allowed to call it a “cult” yet? Will Joey get bored of checking out the toys? Will Hardy ever get to sleep (c’mon people!)?
David Bloom can be reached on twitter at @davidbloom7. His other pop culture writing can be found on Bishop and Company (bishopandcomp.com).