Poor Ryan Hardy. The burdensome symbiosis of his relationship with serial killer and incarcerated Poe mask cult leader Joe Carroll (as we learn in this episode, Hardy may have had time as one of Carroll’s followers, albeit non-violent) haunts his every waking (of which there are only, he’s not going back to the hotel to sleep) moments. Each layer of Carroll’s master plan Hardy touches seems to be mired with new death by new means (Eye stabbings! Public burnings!). Hardy’s career success (each episode features another “I loved your book!” vignette) is intertwined and forever linked to Joe Carroll’s own serial killer career aspirations. Without Carroll there is no Hardy and more and more, without Hardy to torment, Joe Carroll is just another charismatic English professor of 19th Century American Literature.
Although “The Poet’s Fire” was stuffed with some of the troublesome dribble that had diluted the enjoyment of the “Pilot” and “Chapter Two” (the scenes with the nanny and the fake gay neighbors are some of the worst moments of television I have ever experienced especially when Paul decides to “blow off some steam” in town), I am beginning to see this show in a different light. As discussed a few weeks ago, The Following was billed as Fox’s attempt to bring a “the revolution was televised”-like show to network television, with all of the grittiness and storytelling risks that can come with it. So far, those “risks” seemed to be consigned to superfluous “in your face” violence that were unwarranted and wholly unnecessary. It was violence for violence’s sake (because The Following was somehow different) and as a talking point for the water cooler blogosphere, a challenging viewing experience. “The Poet’s Fire” may have burned some of this silliness out of the system and illuminated The Following for what it really is – a well-paced, intense, “danger around every corner” thriller, that is less about the minions who cause damage, but more about the pyschological chess match between Ryan Hardy and Joe Carroll. It’s ceiling is not Breaking Bad or The Shield, but instead a post Bush administration version of 24 in which Ryan Hardy’s Jack Bauer (and “Greatest American Hero” as dim-witted prison guard so maniacally sang for us) has a nemesis that is less about destroying the world and more about destroying Hardy’s world.
What made 24 so successful for so long (Kim Bauer and cougar battles aside) was the understanding that Jack Bauer’s tribulations through each “bad day” were going to be inherently compelling, but had to be relentlessly suspenseful. We were going to go down all of those (often unrealistic roads) because Jack was our guy and we inevitably wanted him to succeed amidst all that adversity. If The Following keeps the gas and the focus on “torment Ryan Hardy machine” and maintains its already somewhat successful serialized pacing, there may just be something here. When Annie Parisse interviews Carroll, he turns to the camera (and Ryan Hardy’s audience on the other side) and says, “It must be very hard for you to be surrounded by the stench of death again. I know this takes a terrible tole on you. You must be careful. What, with that little heart of yours.” Yes, The Following writers! This is what I am talking about! Everything that Joe Carroll is doing is meant to destroy the already “drinking alcohol out of water bottles” Ryan Hardy. Hardy recognizes that Carroll is “bating [him]” and that he “should have seen it coming.” Even minion of the week and fire obsessed Rick wants to “tell Ryan it was all for him.” In a final stroke of “nail the point home” clarity, Joey’s email video to mom ends with a smiling and waving to Ryan.
This narrative path with Ryan Hardy as the ultimate fooled follower who “knows what [Carroll’s] followers feel” may be Fox’s ticket to success. Monday’s at 9:00 PM (24, House) have been a traditional Fox winter haven, and The Following may have, in its third week, found a formula for a meaningful future.
What do you all think? Can The Following be a 24 incarnate? Is Jordy going to be missed? Why does the kidnapping subplot irritate us all so much?
David Bloom can be reached on twitter at @davidbloom7. His other pop culture writing can be found on Bishop and Company (bishopandcomp.com).