Rick Kester didn’t think he had it in him to kill someone with a knife. He had tried practicing — by stabbing his sadly supplicant yet utterly dear wife Maggie — but something about wielding a blade just didn’t feel right, and not just because he was, you know, STABBING HIS UTTERLY DEAR WIFE. No: The cut-up technique wasn’t his literary calling. “I like fire, sir,” Rick told his hero, Joe Carroll, during a jailhouse pledge of allegiance years earlier. “It started as a kid and it just stuck. I’m not good at knives. I have been practicing getting better, but I still prefer fire.” Joe approved. “It certainly makes quite a statement,” he said with a smirk, visions of spectacle flaming on the screen behind his eyes. Joe liked this guy. And he knew exactly how he to use him: As his vengeance-questing dark knight proxy.
When the time came to produce his chapter in Carroll’s sinister Exquisite Corpse storytelling project, Fanboy Rick dressed up as Edgar Allan Poe – black suit, rubber Poe-face mask, fake black bird perched on his arm – and proceeded to the Historical District in Richmond, Virginia, a haven for street performers and literati cosplay. He took position atop a flight of stairs and began reciting Poe’s “The Raven” with bad actor brio. Toward the end of the show, Rick spied a rumpled man grumbling on his cell phone while talking toward a hot dog vendor. The man was Stan Fellows, a book critic who had given a scathing review to Carroll’s Poe-inspired novel, The Gothic Sea. He was barking at someone who didn’t like something he had written. (Even a critic has critics.)
Rick closed with a dramatic flourish. “Quoth the Raven, ‘Nevermore!’” he squawked, and showered the audience with confetti. Rick removed a canister of gasoline from a bag. He beelined for Barnes and doused him with petrol and lit him on fire with an automatic lighter. As the crowd watched the critic burn to death, the author of this horror walked away, unwatched and unmolested. And in this way, The Following produced a wish fulfillment fantasy for every furious artist ever stung by a negative notice, and metaphorically dramatized the plight of the professional critic, currently losing relevancy and livelihoods to Internet-based fanboy culture and user generated reviews.
Oh, yes. I am sure that is exactly what The Following was going for.
FACTCHECKING ERROR OR SUBVERSIVE INTENT? We would later learn that each piece of confetti thrown by Ricky had the same quote on it: “The gen’rous Critick fann’d the Poet’s Fire, And taught the World, with Reason to Admire.” The line was attributed to Poe – but it was actually written by Alexander Pope. Clearly someone hasn’t been spending enough time on the Internet, or in a library, or in the Historical District. But perhaps the mistake was intentional? After all, this is a show about the legacy of Poe — and how Carroll and his proverbial Dead Poets Society are actually warping, perverting, and (according to one Poe expert) grossly misstating Poe’s work, ideas and philosophy, even though they’re doing totally the opposite. Hence: A deliberate error in scholarship, serving to make a point?
At the federal pen in Richmond, Ryan Hardy and alt religions expert Agent Parker were griping about their motel accommodations and trying to decode the cryptic graffiti and other décor that had been found inside the Friends of Carroll’s abandoned clubhouse. “I don’t understand what this cult is about,” said Parker. “What’s Carroll’s message?” As they pondered Carroll’s authorial intent, Hardy pondered the villain’s ability as a “brilliant motivator” and seducer (a major theme of the episode) by recalling his talent as a master teacher. In a flashback to 2003, Hardy watched Carroll in action at Winslow University as the certifiable John Keating passionately lectured about Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (an interesting text, given Carroll’s complaint with Claire’s romance with Ryan and about what he perceived as adultery). “Hester had broken free from all of it. She had created her own moral code,” said Carroll, whose rather Romantic view of Hester Prynne portrayed her as a counter-culture, Byronic-Feminist-Existential hero, shirking “Bad Faith” in pursuit of an authentic self, or at least more meaningful constructed self. “What is your moral code?” Carroll asked his students, his megawatt charisma twinkling with a little wink. “Make it unique unto yourself, and it will bleeeeeeeed into your writing.” In other words: Seize the day, my followers. Make your lives… psychotic.
Carroll’s followers provided varied examples/metaphors for what it means in to be a follower, as well as the poet’s quest to find a distinctively unique “barbaric YAWP.” (I kept waiting for the episode to namecheck Harold Bloom so I could go deep on “The Anxiety of Influence.” Thankfully for you, it didn’t.) Case-in-point: Jordy Raines – demented dog killer; idiot savant slayer of sorority girls – was content to be a Carroll clone, a copycat homage artist. He found meaning and joy by replicating Carroll’s murderous masterworks right down to the gruesome letter: He pissed on Ricky’s want for fire because immolation couldn’t take out the eyes the way Joe’s knife could (although according to Emma, the doofus was wrong about that). So when Hardy told Jordy that he had spoken with Carroll, and that Carroll was disappointed to learn that Jordy had failed to kill Claire Matthews, Jordy got nervous. My mentor and hero, upset with me? Say it ain’t so, Joe! When Hardy turned up the pressure on Jordy to spill secrets, the faithful acolyte tried to block out his interrogating critic by singing the theme song to “The Greatest American Hero.” The first verse expressed Jordy’s feeling of fulfillment from the good fortune of being entrusted with an important part in Joe’s great work: Look at what’s happened to me, I can’t believe it myself/Suddenly I’m up on top of the world, should’ve been somebody else!
NEXT: In which we decode the significance of this reference to William Katt’s greatest claim to fame