Giovanni Rufino/Fox
April 20, 2015 at 05:15 PM EDT

Throughout Ryan Hardy’s (Kevin Bacon) quest to hunt down Joe Carroll (James Purefoy) and his followers, The Following’s dogged FBI agent has crossed pretty much every line possible—even going so far as to cover up Mike’s (Shawn Ashmore) brutal execution of Lily in season 2. That coverup has haunted Ryan & Co. throughout the third season of Fox’s serial killer drama. As Joe’s execution looms, will Ryan finally pay for his choices? EW caught up with executive producer Alexi Hawley to get the scoop:

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Is the plan to see Joe’s execution day in the season finale?

ALEXI HAWLEY: We will see the execution day sooner than that.

What’s that conversation like in the writers’ room, when it comes to whether you can really go another season without killing Joe Carroll?

This season, from the beginning, is about “what is The Following after Joe Carroll?” Does that exist? Clearly it needs to, in order for the show to have life. Ultimately, we found that with Michael Ealy’s character. We can have a really compelling Big Bad who isn’t Joe Carroll. We don’t want to do Joe Carroll light. James Purefoy is brilliant and there is no replacing him, so rather than going, “Let’s get another actor to play a part like that,” we went the opposite direction.

In terms of Joe, yeah, the conversation is he’s escaped from jail several times during the course of the series. Obviously we nodded to it during last week’s episode, but it ultimately ended up being a fantasy. We feel like we can’t do that [again]—so how do you tell a compelling story and give closure? I don’t want to spoil where it’s going, but I will say that his execution day episode will be completely unexpected and very shocking.

Joe’s potential death is really making Ryan spiral. How far down the rabbit hole will he go? Will he try to get a sense of closure from Joe before he dies?

He goes pretty far down the rabbit hole. The thing that we were conscious of is the Hannibal Lector of it all. Joe’s in jail. We want him to have a relationship and be a part of the show, but we don’t want to do Hannibal Lector where Ryan is coming to Joe for information. We’ve touched on that, but it’s to a bigger purpose—because ultimately it really is about this relationship, which Ryan has always denied is real. At the same time, as we’ve seen, there is something special between these two guys. We thought we could use that structure to really investigate the bonds these men do have.

Ryan has declined to attend Joe’s execution. What is that going to do to Joe? Joe thinks that he and Ryan are best friends, so Ryan denying it clearly is going to infuriate him. How’s that going to impact Ryan? Ultimately, Ryan is going to have to come face-to-face with what this relationship really is. He’s dreaming about Joe. He dreamed they were best friends and drinking. Clearly, on the surface, Ryan wants to deny that Joe means something to him, but his subconscious has another message to send him.

Is there a part of the team that’s a tiny bit nervous that Joe’s execution day won’t go to plan?

Everybody is a little nervous about it. Obviously Theo has now occupied the front of their minds, but Gwen (Zuleihka Robison) is very nervous about Ryan’s relationship with Joe, and rightfully so. A lot of things she’s saying to Ryan—because the audience loves Ryan, they maybe don’t like her as much for saying it, but I’m Team Gwen. Joe is bad for Ryan. Ryan literally threw up after he saw him, because it’s the Joe sickness getting back into to him. Gwen is trying to fight for Ryan to divorce himself from Joe, but Ryan’s found himself drawn back in. I do think that besides Gwen, Mike and Max (Jessica Stroup) are also very cognizant of the fact that the execution day is coming—and how that’s going to impact Ryan, even if he’s denying that it’s going to impact him at all.

I can’t believe that you’re Team Gwen! I can’t trust her. I feel like she’s hiding something. I get nervous every time she asks Ryan to tell her the truth. Will there be an a-ha moment with her?

I can’t answer that question. And do not take that as a yes or no, because it’s not fair to ask that, to a certain extent. It’s the blessing and the curse of the show. Personally, and I was not on the show in the first season, what was so fantastic about the show was that it was the ultimate paranoia show. Anybody could be dangerous; anybody could be bad. That was a great atmosphere, but it also set the audience up not to trust anybody. There are still people out there that think Mike is a follower. You don’t actually have to do much to make people think that she’s up to something.

Theo (Michael Ealy) has vowed to tear Ryan’s life apart. Is everyone in Ryan’s immediately vicinity in danger?

Absolutely. The thing that’s really interesting for us in coming up with Theo’s character was the idea of somebody that was the complete opposite of Joe. Joe is a man who embraces the spotlight and wants to be a public figure, even if it makes his life more dangerous. But Theo has lived his life in the dark. He has created these lives—and we haven’t even seen all of his lives that he created—in order to kill anonymously. He even kills through murder/suicide so nobody knows there was a murder committed. Now he’s been exposed. His most important fake life, where he had a wife and kids, has been blown up. Now his photo is out there and he’s become everything that he didn’t want to be. He’s in uncharted territory, which is really interesting. It also makes him a little desperate and more dangerous. He’s so incredibly resourceful that it makes him even more dangerous to Ryan. We’re going to see starting in episode 9 that he’s attacking on a bunch of different fronts.

Mark (Sam Underwood) is still out there, so can you tease what his next move will be?

He actually comes back this week. Him and Daisy (Ruth Kearney) are both back. Both of them are very interesting in the sense that they both lost the person who defined them, really. For Mark, he and Luke were basically a single entity. Mark, as we’ve seen, has been channeling his brother. Mark knows that Luke is dead. He’s not delusional. But he’s so at sea that when he became Luke in his head, it’s because he needed reassurance or needed somebody to tell him that he was doing a good job. What we’re going to see going towards the rest of the season is this sense of loss of identity and his overriding need for revenge. What is that going to do to him? Obviously he’s incredibly dangerous, even more so now that he’s been betrayed and he’s looking for revenge.

Tom (Gbenga Akinnagbe) is so shady for stealing that laptop. Will Max finally find out that her boyfriend has been spying on her?

She will eventually. That storyline has a really explosive conclusion, which we’re building towards. The thing that was really interesting for us when we were talking about Tom was this idea that he’s not a follower, but we’ve only really seen people who are bad or good on this show—people who have been exposed as followers, but they’ve been bad already. The thing with Tom is that slippery slope. Most of us would’ve taken that laptop. We see video of our girlfriend sleeping with her ex-boyfriend. If it gets taken into evidence, everybody at the FBI is going to see that and laugh at him; at least that’s what he thinks. In a moment of weakness, he stuffs it under his vest. Now it’s that slippery slope of making sure she’s not cheating on him still. What we’re building to is ultimately the bad decisions start to escalate until it gets to a place where ultimately it goes all bad. Max will ultimately discover his betrayal. The reality is he has stolen evidence from a crime scene, so he’d probably lose his job at best, but he’d probably go to jail.

Is there any hope for Max and Mike?

There’s always hope for Max and Mike. There’s absolutely hope, but we’re not making it easy on anybody. That being said, coming into the season, we faced a choice. It’s a year later and if Max and Mike had been together for a year, then we have robbed the audience of the electricity that comes at the beginning of a relationship. It felt inherently more dramatic to start off with tension and to show the audience, hopefully, the journey back together. Even him leaving her on the docks, and she got badly hurt, is all part of that story of she’s not with Mike because, as she said, he chose revenge over love. Part of Mike’s journey has been coming to a place where he realizes that was a mistake. So much of this season has been about revenge. Mike clearly wants revenge on Mark and Mark wants revenge on Mike. Theo blames Ryan for exposing him and for what he did to his family, so clearly he wants revenge. Even Daisy blames Ryan for Kyle’s (Hunter Parrish) death. It’s a lot about the cost of that obsession on both our bad guys and our good guys.

Will the truth of what Ryan & co. did ultimately come out, or have they covered their tracks enough and discredited everyone else in this coverup enough that they’re okay?

Yes and no. In terms of the truth coming out on a larger public scale, we got as close to the edge as we could on that, and that part of the story is over. Obviously this entire season has been about the repercussions of their actions. Mark’s need for revenge is based on the deaths of Luke and Lily. To a large extent, they are responsible for what’s happening to them this season.

Will there be any main character deaths as we head into the final episodes of the season?

You always have to be worried about our main characters on this show. That’s part of the pleasure and the pain of a show like The Following. That’s the real jeopardy. With a lot of shows, you know your top people are never going to get hurt or killed. We definitely live in a world of extreme violence. There will be some death along the way, which will hurt.

The Following airs Mondays at 9 p.m. ET on Fox.

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