March 15, 2013 at 04:00 AM EDT

Someone is about to lose an eye on the set of The Following…we just can’t tell you who. Filming is under way for one of the final episodes of the Fox thriller about a murderous cult led by the Edgar Allan Poe- quoting serial killer Joe Carroll (James Purefoy), and secrecy on the set is at an all-time high. Production has taken over a Westchester County, N.Y., police station on this gray February day to film an attack scene in the waiting room between an unhinged cult member brandishing a sharp hairpin and…a person who will later need an eye patch (or, at the very least, a really big Band-Aid). The scene climaxes with the FBI and former agent Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon) shooting the follower dead.

The Following, which airs Mondays at 9 p.m., probably isn’t going to win over any optometrists — but legions of TV viewers are hooked. Born from the rascally mind of Kevin Williamson (Scream, The Vampire Diaries), the show is the biggest success story of the winter TV season. Halfway through its initial run, The Following‘s 11.4 million followers (including DVR playback) have made it the second-most-watched new network drama in adults 18–49 and Fox’s most popular thrill ride since 24. ”I knew that the pedigree of this show was really high and obviously the expectations were there,” says Shawn Ashmore, who plays rookie FBI agent Mike Weston. ”It’s really a relief to know that all came together.” And Fox COO Joe Earley boasts, ”It’s a psychologically intense piece of work unlike anything on broadcast.”

The crucial question is, can The Following maintain that dramatic intensity and ratings momentum through the rest of the season — and beyond? Williamson has already plotted out the next few seasons of his thriller, but even he knows that any show that walks a high wire of suspense always risks falling off and losing viewers on the way down (see: Twin Peaks, Heroes, Prison Break, The Killing). ”You want to make sure you respect your audience and keep them coming back,” says Williamson. ”I’m hopeful we don’t make too many wrong turns.” One way The Following‘s mastermind plans to stay on course: by holding all details about the April 29 season finale hostage. ”I refuse to tell anyone the last act of the finale,” admits the creator. ”Act 6 won’t go out in the script. I’m just trying to preserve. You [journalists] are very scary!”

If anyone knows how to terrify audiences, it’s Kevin Williamson. Back in the mid-’90s, the writer had an idea for a script about a professor–turned–serial killer (loosely inspired by the 1990 Gainesville, Fla., murders) when he decided to focus instead on a project about a town stalked by a movie-loving murderer. That became Scream, a $100 million-grossing phenomenon that yielded three sequels and a slew of copycat films. But Williamson never forgot his other serial-killer idea, and in 2011 he revisited the concept — which he initially planned as a feature — as a vehicle to explore another one of his interests: cults. ”The power of mind control is really quite simple,” he says. ”It’s just about finding the vulnerable mind and filling it with what it wants to hear. When you realize how simple it is to persuade people to do what you want them to do, it’s quite terrifying.”

Pitching Fox Entertainment chairman Kevin Reilly was equally creepy, but for different reasons. In the middle of the meeting, recalls Williamson, ”Kevin Reilly stood up and walked to the door. I thought he was walking out, he had lost interest. But he turned the lights out, came back and sat down, put his feet up, and said, ‘Some atmosphere for your pitch.”’

The mood lighting worked; now all Williamson needed was his star. He actually mentioned Bacon to his agent as a potential Ryan Hardy. ”I knew this was such a crazy plot I wanted someone like comfort food, to be that comforting presence,” says the writer. ”Kevin Bacon is that familiar person, like we’d all let him hug us.” Bacon had been interested in doing television for some time, but he wanted the freedom to do films while on hiatus. So when Fox approached him with The Following, he said yes, on one condition: The series would have to have a shortened 15-episode season, rather than the standard 22. ”There was no part of me that thought they would agree to this,” admits the 54-year-old actor. When they did, Bacon joined the show — even though Williamson didn’t tell him much about the show he was joining. ”He didn’t spell out s—,” jokes Bacon. ”He played it very close to the vest. People find it amazing that I was willing to sign on without knowing every single beat I was going to play for the whole year. But I never really expected that, somehow.”

More challenging for Bacon was getting used to the rigors of his first TV show and collaborating with a showrunner. ”I work with directors — I don’t work with showrunners,” he says. ”And [Kevin Williamson] has never worked in the same kind of way with an actor. It’s been an adjustment. So we’ve had our bumps in the road and probably will again, but we now have a little bit more of a dialogue.” Adds Williamson, ”I was worried about working with a big star, and it turns out that he’s probably the most amazing person I’ve ever worked with. I actually seek out his advice. I’ll call him and go, ‘I was thinking about doing this.’ And he’ll go, ‘Yeah. Why are you calling me? That works.”’

Part of what makes The Following so compelling is how fast it moves. Just eight hours in, former professor Joe Carroll has once again broken out of jail and — with the help of his league of followers across the country — has his kidnapped son Joey (Kyle Catlett) in hand, and is perilously close to forcing a reunion with his ex-wife (and Ryan’s old flame), Claire (Natalie Zea). The speed with which the show is plotted can involve a few leaps in plausibility — as when Carroll’s lawyer holds a nationally televised press conference and quotes Poe, clearly a signal to her client’s acolytes, but no one at the FBI notices. ”I’m hopeful that we don’t jump the shark, but we’ll see,” Williamson admits. ”It’s always a matter of walking a fine line of credibility and when the audience says, ‘Okay, that was just too far.’ But this is one of those ‘too much’ shows.” Adds executive producer Marcos Siega (Dexter), ”We’re going to take you on a fun ride, and like any good series, you have to suspend your disbelief for some things because you’re going to enjoy the storytelling.”

The episodes leading up to the finale will be a countdown to the inevitable face-off between Carroll and the man who put him in prison and rescued (or stole) his family, Ryan Hardy — a showdown that Carroll sees as the basis for his next literary masterpiece. Explains Williamson, ”Joe has a plan in play, and Claire is very important to the book that Joe is writing. He wants to finish the story.” Along the way, we’ll be introduced to more of the followers, including one (Homeland‘s Marin Ireland) who attempts to lure Claire out of protective custody. ”Claire’s already kind of taken things into her own hands by meeting with [follower] Charlie,” says Zea, ”and she ups the ante once again after resurfacing. And then things get really weird — in a great way.” (Could hand-wringing Claire become a badass? Yes, please!) Meanwhile, viewers will get more flashbacks to Ryan’s past, including his life before the FBI and with a possible old love. Laughs Bacon, ”Believe it or not, there have been other women in my life besides Claire.” Agent Weston will get out of the hospital after his brutal beating by Carroll’s followers — but something about him will be different. ”What happens to Weston in episode 8 changes who he is in the show,” says Ashmore. Does that mean he’s gonna go cuckoo for Carroll? Teases the actor, ”[Since the pilot] Kevin Williamson has planted the seed that you can’t trust anybody.”

But Williamson insists that audiences can trust him to pay off the series’ setup and not lead them down a Rosie Larsen rabbit hole. ”Let’s put it this way: The very last episode of the year is called ‘The Final Chapter,”’ he explains. ”There is resolution and finality to this story.” According to Bacon, it’s a resolution that may leave viewers a little misty-eyed. Says the actor, ”I read it a few times and I’m slightly embarrassed that I was very emotional.”

After the finale, The Following will still hold a mystery: What is season 2? Will Carroll once again be the villain? Will one of the followers take the lead? Or will Ryan have to chase down an entirely new serial killer who quotes John Grisham? ”I don’t want to give anything away,” says Williamson, naturally. ”But there will definitely be a new story and template for season 2… Who’s part of that remains to be seen.” Even the cast is in the dark. ”I’m sure there are certain days where Kevin Williamson would love to get rid of me — other days, not so much,” says Purefoy. ”It’s tricky because it’s called The Following, so they’ve got to follow someone. Whether it’s going to be a new serial killer next season, I have no idea.” Of course, the only man who does know isn’t talking, except to say that he’s got a plan mapped out for The Following through season 3. ”After that, I don’t know,” says Williamson, adding playfully, ”Then we’re in a spaceship.” Spoiler alert!

Cult of Personalities

Haven’t been following The Following? EW has your primer for who’s who on the Fox hit — as well as our theories on what lies ahead for the players this season.

Ryan Hardy, Kevin Bacon
The former FBI agent with a bad heart and a drinking problem is obsessed with catching Carroll (and ending up with the killer’s ex-wife, Claire).
What we think: He’ll likely get his man — and his lady — but not without some bloodshed and tears.

Joe Carroll, James Purefoy
The serial killer, who’s attempting to reconnect with his family and inflict terror upon Ryan Hardy, is a total Poe fanboy.
What we think Carroll is a failed novelist. We want to know: Is his new ”book” about his redemption or Ryan’s downfall?

Debra Parker, Annie Parisse
FBI agent Parker’s interest in cults runs deep: She was raised in one.
What we think: She severed ties with her still-cult-bound parents but gave Carroll a Poe book in prison. We vote yes on her being cray-cray.

The Followers, Valorie Curry, Nico Tortorella, Adan Canto
These acolytes love Joe Carroll, and each other. Awkward love triangle alert!
What we think: We want Jacob and Paul to end up happily ever after. And Emma to grow her hair out.

Mike Weston, Shawn Ashmore
Weston has been shot and beaten by Carroll’s followers…but still managed to survive.
What we think: This FBI agent seems a little too good to be true. Is he a follower or a red herring? Our bet is that he goes full-throttle wackadoo by the end.

Roderick, Warren Kole
If Joe is the CEO of his cult, then Roderick would be his No. 2. Even murderers need help sometimes.
What we think: Roderick seems unfailingly loyal to Carroll now, but we suspect that relationship will be tested before the season ends.

Claire and Joey, Natalie Zea and Kyle Catlett
Carroll’s ex-wife and son are the prime targets for capture by Joe and his cult.
What we think: They have to live, right? Then again, this show does love to shock — hello, three- fingered lawyer!

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