The Following sure is weirdly touchy about the word “cult.” For the second week in a row, this mean and scary thriller about a mean and scary culture gave us a character that got huffy when fallen hero Ryan Hardy described serial killer/storyteller Joe Carroll and his legion of sociopathic thralls as a cult. “Let’s not use that word. People don’t hear it well,” snipped Agent Debra Parker, head of the FBI’s alternative religions unit and the new head of the Carroll investigation. (Agent Mason was relieved of command for mismanaging Hardy.) It was Carroll who previously tsked-tsked the term – the malevolent prof with the Zuckerbergian IQ preferred to call the members of his lunatic social network his “friends” — so linking the two characters made me suspicious of Parker. Might she be another acolyte? Ah, but she didn’t want us to use that word, either.
Curious that The Following should sweat the connotations of “cult” in an episode that poked at a certain kind of tribalism that keeps magazines like Entertainment Weekly in business. “Chapter Two” focused on Emma Hill, aka “Denise,” the nanny who abducted Carroll’s son Joey in the pilot. Her tale had a certain Twilight twinkle to it: Emma was a geeky-bright, starry-eyed bookworm who became spellbound by an author of neo-Gothic fantasy, who in turn facilitated a romance with a model handsome lad with a very flexible identity named Jacob. Of course, “Twi-Hards” and their ‘shippers belong to the larger phenomenon of followings inspired by pop culture – groups often labeled “cults” by clever-clever journalists like myself. So many islands of fandom in the proverbial ‘Gothic Sea’ of our dark fantasy moment, from Beautiful Creatures to The Walking Dead to The Vampire Diaries, which was adapted for television by the creator of The Following, Kevin Williamson, a guy who probably knows a thing or two about the lucrative potential of Gothic Romanticism, “the pathology of today’s Internet/techno-bred minds.”
“Chapter Two” left me convinced that anyone coming to The Following looking for a realistic depiction of serial killers and a thoughtful inquiry into their pathology will not only be dissatisfied, but are wrong to do so. Joe Carroll is not a window into real world evil. He is The Antagonist personified, and as such, reflects back the current bogeyman fashions. To borrow a phrase from another Kevin Bacon chiller, he’s a stir of echoes, reminding us of so many other villains, and a cultural moment fascinated by, even enamored with villains. He’s The Vampyre, or the Bryonic anti-hero/rogue of early Romantic/Gothic lit. He’s The Joker, the calculating chaos bringer making sport of heroism. He is Voldemort with Death Eaters, The Phantom Menace with Sith Lord apprentices. He is every malevolent mastermind Kevin Spacey has played since Verbal Kint, perhaps most relevant to “Chapter Two,” the crypto-sicko sermonizer who put Brad Pitt through a transformative passion play of perverse performance art in Seven. (Become… wrath, Ryan Hardy.) Of course, he is Hannibal Lecter, luminous with devilish knowing that looks chilling but actually warms us with this hope: That the problem of evil is but a puzzle to be solved, and that the answer will make everything right. Follow the clues. Solve the mystery. You’ll never get fooled again.
But we were talking about cults, weren’t we? At the center of any “alternative religion” is a figure with an allegedly sacred text that offers his followers identity, community, and purpose. In return, said figure expects – demands – attentiveness, obedience and fidelity, and more, emulation and creative evangelism. And so it went Jordy Raines – a serial killer savant alternately described as “disorganized” and “low I.Q.” and “the village idiot” who found calling and competency by living according to the manta What Would Joe Carroll Do? – butchered three sorority sisters, scooped out their eye sockets, and scrawled “Nevermore” in blood. One of the victims was strung up with arms outstretched like Christ on the cross. “He’s paying homage to Carroll, following in t he footsteps of his hero. It’s ceremonial. The work of an acolyte,” said Hardy, who quickly received a watch-your-language correction from Parker, who liked “accomplices” better. Call it what you want, Hardy said. “This is mind control at work.” Fanboy Jordy, worshipping his idol with his own version of fan fiction, not to mention a painful sacrifice of eyeballs. TV networks would kill for loyalty like this.
The theme of faithfulness was also at the heart of Carroll’s much anticipated reunion with his ex-wife… although he clearly didn’t put much stock in their divorce papers. Over Hardy’s protests, Parker agreed to yield to Carroll’s demand to see Claire. They all hoped Carroll would reciprocate by revealing Joey’s whereabouts or authorizing the boy’s release, and ASAP: They worried the Friends of Carroll were planning to slice lad up as a sacred blood offering. Joe showed – or pretended quite successfully to show – that he was still mad about her. He tried to get her to reminisce about a lazy, romantic idyll in Antigua. But Claire was too freaked, too appalled, too on point: She just wanted Joe to cough up Joey and be done with it all. Carroll changed the subject to her “affair” with Hardy. He wanted answers to the three questions he put in his letter from last episode. Yes, she said, she did date the man who brought Carroll to justice – but only after the trial and the divorce. “Noble Claire,” snarked Carroll. “Only a proper little diddle will do.” Sounding quite Lecteresque, Carroll went for the intimate details. Was Hardy good in the sack? “Did you body quiver to his every touch?” Claire looked aghast – and then realized she could punch back. Yes, you bastard, she said cooly, the sex was good. Nah nah nah-nah nah! And the third question? Well, it was never spelled out. But Claire answered it. “I don’t know!” she cried. “How could I ever love anyone after you destroyed me, you son of bitch!” She snapped and slapped at him. He subdued her and pulled her close. “I will always love you.” The agents pulled Claire away. Joe’s attempt at marital reconciliation: FAIL. Of course, this assumes this was Carroll’s agenda. My guess is that the third question was: Do you still “heart” Hardy? In a moment, a theory as to why that question might have been important to Carroll.
NEXT: House of Flies