A serial killer with a twisted master plan lures Kevin Bacon (and us) into playing along in 'The Following' 

By Jeff Jensen
January 22, 2013 at 01:55 PM EST
Sarah Shatz/Fox
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Why would anyone want to follow The Following? The serial killer thriller (yes, just what TV needs: more visits to Ripper Street, more sadistic Criminal Minds) wears its repulsiveness on its sleeve the way The Ice Pick Lady wore lines of Edgar Allan Poe on her milky flesh for all the world to see. That much-advertised image should have been sufficient notice to anyone bothered by sensationalistic violence and sexual exploitation to stay away. The premise of the show – a charismatic egghead psycho with a secret society of sycophants who execute his bidding (and/or just execute people) – is strikingly similar to what The Mentalist has been doing (quite well) for several years with its ongoing Red John storyline. The Following would seem easy to resist if you’re unmoved by the considerable charms of Kevin Bacon and appalled by clichés, derivativeness, and, like, evil and stuff.

I am not one of those people. The series premiere left me wanting more of this Silence of the Lambs for Generation Hashtag. It was a well-acted, well-directed, often very scary hour of television, and the odious elements were mitigated by a few interesting ideas and an outrageous implausibility that I found enjoyable. Like the Grand Guignol of American Horror Story, The Following serves heady horror with over-the-top relish and nightmare logic plot turns. The subtext: Don’t take this too seriously. It’s a problematic strategy, but it often works for me.

I can identify the moment when The Following captured my imagination. It came at the end, when James Purefoy’s diabolical deviant Joe Carroll could have easily gotten away from Kevin Bacon’s haunted ex-FBI agent Ryan Hardy… but instead allowed himself to be captured, although not before activating a legion of lunatics made in his image to start slashing up the country… among other sinister things. The Following isn’t an epic cat-chases-mouse thriller, which is what I was expecting. It’s a cat-forced-to-play-with-mouse-to-catch-baby-mice thriller, set in an America made madly Gothic by a malevolent man who fancies himself a master storyteller with important things to say. Whether that tale aspires to produce deep (if cracked) meaning or just lurid kicks is part of the point. I think. Regardless: Carroll – a former literature professor and artsy-fartsy failed novelist who views his crimes as works of art –strikes me as a very interesting guy with a lot on his mind about our culture. The pilot left me thinking this: During the eight years of his incarceration, Carroll used the Internet to reach out into the world to create a living puzzle narrative, stage-managed and enacted by obsessive fans who have been warped by their fascination with human darkness. Now, Hardy must assay and solve this interactive experience, relying on the most unreliable of narrators, Carroll himself, for guidance. In other words: An open-ended game of Dungeons & Dragons, with Carroll functioning as Dungeon Master and Hardy as player.

Or, put another way, Carroll is the showrunner, and Hardy is us, the viewer. The Following comes to us from Kevin Williamson, whose brilliant screenplay for Scream turned genre deconstruction into entertainment and paved the way for an era of self-referencing, audience-implicating horror like Funny GamesSaw, American Horror Story, and the upcoming drama Cult on The CW. While The Following is a heavier, grimmer piece of work than Scream, it possess enough self-awareness to suggest that it, too, aspires to be a subversive commentary on crimetime pop and serial killer thrills, which is definitely having a moment this TV season. Coming soon: NBC’s Hannibal, A&E’s Bates Motel. Joe Carroll’s America, now teeming with serial killers, is a reflection of the TV landscape, with its growing population of mass murderers. As someone who has both produced such stuff and routinely consumes it, I submit to the critique. Why would anyone want to follow The Following? Perhaps that’s exactly the point. But we shall see.

The Following gets rolling quickly. We watched Joe Carroll – disguised as a security guard — escape a maximum security prison with seemingly ridiculous ease, leaving a trail a dead jailers behind him. This brief but effectively creepy scene was bracketed by two interesting musical cues: A guitar riff lifted from Marilyn Manson’s menacing goth rock cover of The Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams” and the enchanting Patsy Cline singing “Sweet Dreams (Of You).” And so The Raven leaves the cage, ready to cast his sinister shade across the land.

The dream-themed song choices — in a show about a serial killer who collects eyeballs for trophies and serves as a muse to aspiring serial killers — made me wonder if Kevin Williamson was familiar with The Corinthian, a character from Neil Gaiman’s erudite dark fantasy comic book saga, Sandman. The Corinthian was a seductive living nightmare created by Morpheus the Dream Lord, who took the form of… a serial killer who collected (and ate) the eyeballs of his victims and served as the muse to other serial killers. In the storyline “A Doll’s House,” The Corinthian escaped Dream’s domain, killed his way across America, and made his way to a serial killer convention where he was ultimately caught and destroyed by Morpheus. He was later revived – this time, as a hero.

To Brooklyn, where Ryan Hardy awoke with a pounding hangover and to the urgent bleating of his iPhone. He rehydrated with a bottle of water, then clicked on the TV. On every channel: Breaking news of Carroll’s escape. The phone rang again, and this time, he quickly answered. His old bosses at the FBI – the ones who forced him out a couple years earlier for reasons TBD – wanted him to come back and help re-capture Carroll. Hardy was reluctant to get back in the game. His last battle with Carroll left him physically damaged (he got stabbed in the heart, requiring a pacemaker that bulges from his chest) and emotionally damaged, too. See: The obligatory haunted cop drinking problem. He went, anyway, nudged by heroism, and a desire to preserve the legacy of meaning he achieved by bringing Carroll to justice: Hardy had thwarted Carroll’s last attempt at murder, saving the life of a college student named Sarah Fuller, who had since gone on to become a successful doctor. Something in Hardy’s gut told him Carroll aimed to destroy that happily ever after. He packed a bag and poured a to-go bottle Vodka, and with that, our literally broken-hearted hero, was flying by crow-black chopper back into the heart of darkness.

The field agents assigned to Hardy – Troy Reilly, Jennifer Mason — greeted him at Carroll’s prison with suspicion and resented his presence. He had a reputation rich with even more hero cop cliches. He didn’t “play well with others.” He got canned because he became obsessed with the Carroll case and “lost it.” Hardy didn’t do much to make a good first impression. He reeked of ‘I don’t want to be here’ surliness. In his defense, the sick spectacle of security guard bloodbath was something of a buzz kill for him. Welcome back to the horror show, kiddo.

NEXT: Professor Carroll’s Psycho Syllabus

Hardy examined Carroll’s cell. There was a bookshelf stocked with Poe, Faulkner, Hawthorne, Shelley, Melville and more. “Still a Romantic,” muttered Hardy. Indeed, Carroll’s life story – an erudite Englishman who came to America to become a writer (The Gothic Sea, a critical and commercial flop until he became an infamous mass murderer) and teach Romantic literature (the hunky-dreamy prof was particularly popular with female students) – struck me as a metaphor for the entire subgenre known as Dark Romanticism, which one could argue began that gloomy summer at Lake Geneva in 1816, when the English Romantics Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley, Lord Byron and John William Polidori gave birth to the mad men and alluring vampires that spawned the monsters and sexy beasts which haunt contemporary fiction in a variety of forms. Carroll encompasses the American tradition, too, as Poe, Hawthorne and Melville are often lumped in this category, too. Burning Question: How much did you enjoy the lit stuff? While the references appealed to my inner liberal arts teacher and my passion for Wikipedia-assisted pop archaeology, I didn’t find the Poe of it all quite as fascinating as the show did. (But that may be part of the point, too: By episode’s end, even Carroll talked as if he was cutting bait on trying to be smarty-pants pretentious, confessing that no one got it, and that it hindered his desire for a large audience. More on this in a bit.)

But the book in Carroll’s cell that most alarmed Hardy was the one he wrote about Carroll, entitled The Poetry of A Killer. As a rule, convicted murderers aren’t allowed to possess material about their crimes or their victims. Hardy was peeved: “Who let him have this?!” Carroll had left a note for Hardy. Dear Ryan: Enjoyed your book. Have you ever considered a sequel? Best, Joe. The implication was clear. A new game was afoot. And this psychotic Moriarty was going to make his Sherlock Holmes play it, whether he wanted to or not.

The action shifted to the FBI’s “Catch Carroll” command center, where we met another member of the team: Agent Mike Weston, the show’s adorably geeky/comic relief archetype. He was a Joe Carroll know it all (he wrote his FBI Academy thesis about him) and a Ryan Hardy fanboy. So Weston didn’t feel too stung when Hardy took control of his briefing to clarify some key points. Carroll considered Edgar Allen Poe his “hero,” and that he shared Poe’s belief in the “insanity of art,” that “it had to be felt.” Hence, Carroll didn’t just eviscerate his 14 victims, all of them female college students. “He was making art.” And the eyeball thing? Nods to Poe’s, “The Tell Tale Heart” and “The Black Cat” – short stories told by unreliable narrators who become guilt-wracked killers — and the author’s fixation with eyes as a symbols of identity, “our windows to the soul.” (From “The Tell Tale Heart”: “I think it was his eye! yes, it was this! He had the eye of a vulture –a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees –very gradually –I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever.” From “The Black Cat”: “I took from my waistcoat pocket a pen-knife, opened it, grasped the poor beast by the throat, and deliberately cut one of its eyes from the socket ! I blush, I burn, I shudder, while I pen the damnable atrocity.”)

Hardy began to earn his keep when he learned from the team that Carroll – who was a month away from execution – was acting as his own lawyer and filing his own appeals and using the database at a local law library in order to do that work. Theory: Carroll was using the computer to do other kinds of research, and possibly communicate with to accomplices.

As the agents mobilized to investigate Carroll’s Web history and computer cookies, Hardy noticed a group of women waiting in the reception area of the command center. They were Carroll’s “groupies” – he attracted a lot of them – and the FBI had brought them in for questioning. One woman in particular caught Hardy’s attraction, a ghostly pale mouse clutching a pink purse. Her phone buzzed. She checked the message and seemed to gulp nervously. In almost ritualistic fashion, she removed her shoes, stood up, took a position in the middle of the room. She pulled a scary-long ice pick out of her purse. She disrobed. Carroll had calligraphied her skin with Poe quotes, most of them from his narrative poem, The Raven. (“Once upon a midnight dreary…” “Nevermore”)

“Lord help my poor soul,” said Ice Pick Lady, citing Poe’s famously puzzling last words. “Lord help my poor soul.” Hardy pleaded with her — Careful, sweetie! You might poke your eye out with your unhealthy fixation with horror pop that thing! — but this Team Carroll loyalist was too far gone. She completed her awful performance art by plunging the rod into one of her peepers. She quickly died; the Ice Pick Lady quoteth no more.

It was enough to move Hardy to take a pull from his secret Vodka stash. “Mint?” asked Weston, who could smell the booze on Hardy. Way to go with the co-dependency there, fanboy. Readers: Does anyone else suspect that this Ryan Hardy Wannabe might be one of Carroll’s many minions?

Computer forensics led to a major discovery: Carroll had another Follower. His name was Jordan Raines, who had worked at the prison for four years and helped Carroll escape. Team Hardy raided the Raines home. They found a fridge festooned with flyers advertising missing dogs. Turned out Raines was the poochnapper. He had been killing the canines and removing their eyes. Carroll was teaching him how to be Carroll. (One of the episode’s most jolting BOO! moments: The socket bored, almost-dead German Shepherd giving one last jerk before giving up his ghost.)

“I can handle dead people,” barked an upset Weston. “You kill a dog, I go crazy!”

How was Carroll convincing all these people to sell out their mind, body and soul to him? Was this extraordinarily gifted teacher truly that charismatic, that inspiring? Were his followers really that needy, damaged and weak? Might there be more at work here? Mind control technology? Hypnosis? Blackmail? Money? A reality show?

Those questions took a back seat as Hardy’s team tried to figure out who else Carroll may have contacted. Perhaps those who once knew him? And so the investigators paid a visit to Carroll’s former wife, Claire Matthews, who was also a literature professor. She was raising a boy, Joey, Joe Carroll’s unfortunately named son. But we quickly learned that Claire had had a romantic relationship with Agent Ryan Hardy (the FBI wasn’t wild about that), and we eventually learned that Carroll had figured that out: One week before his escape, he sent her a letter calling her out on it. Hardy and Claire had not seen each other in several years. He apologized for his silence. “I belong in your past,” said Hardy. “I work better in people’s past. I always have been.” It was here that I began to feel that Hardy was starting to grow out of his cliches and become a character I could care out. The Kevin Bacon of it all certainly helps.

NEXT: Scrawled the fake (?) gay guys, “Nevermore.”

Claire inquired about The Victim Who Got Away, Sarah Fuller. In a flashback, we saw that Sarah had aroused Carroll’s attention – and more – by knowing her Poe. Specifically: That Poe equated beauty with death. “Art was about beauty, and nothing was more beautiful than the death of a beautiful woman,” she said during one of Carroll’s seminars. The professor’s eyes twinkled. Gold star for you, sweetie. AND MY KNIFE. Hardy – who began working undercover on Carroll’s campus as a student during the course of his investigation into the teacher – sensed that Carroll had taken an interest in her. That gut instinct paid off one night when Hardy went patrolling the campus, bumped into Sarah, then subsequently heard screams coming from within her sorority house. He found Sarah on the floor, a knife protruding from her abdomen. She was suffering so much, she had actually tried to push the blade deeper into her body, so she could puncture an organ die more quickly. Before Hardy could get assistance, Carroll jumped him from behind, then knifed him through a ventrical. Carroll was microseconds and millimeters away from slashing Sarah’s throat when Hardy mustered the strength to pull his gun and shoot Carroll in the back. And in this way, Carroll was captured.

Sarah recovered from her injuries and went on to become a doctor. Carroll’s wife was pleased to hear this. “I’m glad someone was able to get beyond this,” said Claire. “I’m sure that upsets Joe.” Why’s that? Because of the Poe of it all, of course: The author left behind an incomplete manuscript called The Light-House. Carroll’s novel The Gothic Sea was “sort of a way to finish what Poe started.” Hardy – who had noticed a drawing of a lighthouse in Hardy’s cell – put some things together. His busted heart sank. His worst fear. Carroll wants to finish what he started. He’s making a move on Sarah.

But they were too late. Hardy and company got to Fuller’s home and learned that despite 24-7 armed guard, someone had abducted Carroll’s unfinished work in the middle of the night. The culprits: Sarah’s seemingly good hearted, hyper-protective gay neighbors of three years, Will Wilson, a second grade teacher, and Billy Thomas, a computer technician who worked in the fraud division of a regional bank. In truth, they were Followers of Carroll. In one of the pilot’s best, most suspenseful scenes, Hardy discovered a panel in Sarah’s closet that that disguised a corridor that connected her home to the adjoining Wilson/Thomas house. Hardy and the agents traversed the dark passageway, searched the Wilson/Thomas house, and found, in the garage, one of two murdered policeman assigned to protect Sarah. On the wall, painted in the blood: NEVERMORE from The Raven.

This sensational sequence was immediately followed by one of the pilot’s weakest scenes. One of the cops actually rolled his eyes at Hardy’s Evil Fake Gay Guys theory. He could accept that a mass murdering Poe obsessive could brainwash a lady into ice picking herself to death and convert Jordy Raines into a mutt-butchering sychophant. But convincing two men to act gay and babysit The Victim That Got Away for three years?! That’s going too far, Hardy! (Let’s hope there’s a lot less of this bogus incredulity moving forward.) Bacon was made to say a line that explained the title, just in case you were expecting a weird and wacky comedy about Twitter users and were horribly, alarmingly confused. “He’s finding people to help him do it on the damn internet,” said Hardy, sounding like a cranky old luddite. “It’s… It’s like they’re his… followers.” Carroll had cultivated a fanatical obsession. A cult. As Hardy began to suss it out, he found himself sink anew into Carroll’s madness, and as he sunk, he became panicky. “Poe! The Raven!” Hardy cried, pointing at the bloody NEVERMORE graffiti. “Poe is symbolizing the finality of death!”  He started barking orders, which in turn nettled the federal marshal in charge of the manhunt, who knew Hardy from the original Carroll investigation, and didn’t care much for his reckless obsessiveness. “I knew you’d show up eventually. This is the Hardy I remember.”  He told the petulant consultant to take a time out.

After cooling down, Hardy got a status report from Weston. Billy and Will had visited Carroll in prison four times. They also owned some property in Lake Whitehurst, Virginia. Hardy noticed a photo in the guys’ house – a shot of Billy and Will in front of a bed and breakfast called… The Lighthouse. It was located in Lake Whitehurst, Virginia. Hardy should have immediately shared this intel with his teammates. Instead, Hardy decided to go rogue and investigate the lead solo.

To the lighthouse, then, to catch a big bad Virginia wolf. The B&B really was an actual old lighthouse, but it had gone to seed long ago. Hardy found the structure surrounded by a fence and boarded up. This is the part in the horror movie where we well at the screen and tell the hero to call and wait for back-up. But no. Hardy went into the shadowy tower alone. He heard a sound and instinctively reached for his gun. But he was no longer a cop, and he no longer had the heat. He considered his options. “I came alone, Joe! Isn’t that what you wanted?” Hardy yelled, trying to draw Carroll out. In response, there was a scream. A woman in agony. Long, drawn out “NOOOOOOOs!” It was Sarah.

NEXT: The Inciting Incident

Hardy sprinted up the lighthouse steps, taxing his mechanically-assisted heart. The screams lured him to a the tower vault, where Carroll ambushed him with a 2 x 4 to the head. “Hello, Ryan,” said the villain, who proceeded to bash him some more. “I was curious to see how your heart was holding up. I see it has its limits.”

“Where is she?” Hardy asked.

“You know, the human eye is connected by several muscles,” said Carroll with a smug grin. “I removed each one individually. You know how hard that is to do?” Hardy heard Sarah’s screams again – and realized that they were coming from a digital tape recorder in Carroll’s hand. Hardy was too late. Carroll cut a rope, and down came Sarah’s lifeless body, dangling from the feet, bloody holes where the eyes used to be.

Hardy rushed Carroll. He grabbed the monster by the throat and began to squeeze. “I would like to turn myself in,’ croaked Carroll. “I surrender! I surrender!” But Hardy kept squeezing. Would he have killed him? The question remained unanswered as agents Mason, Reilly and Weston entered the room. Reilly pulled Hardy away. Carroll dropped to his knees, put his hands behind his head, and smiled.

Aftermath. Weston reported that Carroll had produced 47 websites and tens of thousands of blogs, chatrooms and the like. Worse, Weston said three bodies with gouged eyes has been found in Seattle, Boston, and New York (all infamous real world serial killer locales). The psychotic Joe Carroll Subculture sounded as vast as the current field of serial killer pop, and growing larger by the day.

Carroll demanded to speak one more time with Hardy. The agents still needed to get Carroll to spill his master plan, so Hardy indulged the monster. Even chained to the table and floor, Carroll commanded the room with menacing charisma and knowing airs. He declared Hardy “a disappointment.” He ridiculed Hardy’s book as “true crime drivel.” (How dare Hardy degrade Carroll’s artistry with crappy recapping!) When Hardy characterized Carroll’s followers as a “cult,” Carroll blanched (“I’m not a big fan of that word”) and instead called them “my friends.” He teased Hardy by diagnosing him – correctly – as being friendless, and got us to jump when he lunged forward with a rattle of the chains and said, with a tone so arch it seemed to come back all the way around to sincerity: “I will be your friend!” (Beat.) Even though you slept with my wife.I do look forward to seeing how The Following is going to deal with what could one of the creepier love triangles TV has given us in awhile.

As Carroll chased after Hardy’s goat, we began to hear the musical cue that opened the show: “Sweet Dreams” by Marilyn Manson, a po-mo goth rocker with name swiped from another serial killer cultist. And as Carroll began to reveal the true significance of killing Sarah Fuller, The Following went full metal meta. Carroll didn’t murder The Victim Who Got Away just to complete an unfinished saga. Sara’s death was the start of a new one.

“I thought I’d make it more traditional this time. Hero versus villain, good versus evil. I need a strong protagonist so the reader can truly invest in a flawed broken man in search of redemption. And that is YOU,” Carroll told Hardy. “You are my flawed hero. I insured that by killing Sarah. She was the inciting incident. The hero’s call to action!” It was if Carroll was analyzing the very pilot we were watching through the prism of Joseph Campbell monomyth. I wondered if there was a copy of Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey stashed in Carroll’s cell, too. “This is the beginning,” said Carroll. “That’s the entire point of Sarah’s death. It was for you.”

And, of course, us.

Something I found interesting about Carroll’s story pitch was his seemingly dismissive regard for it. His previous crimes were (in his mad view) attempts at producing high art, the kind of transcendental, naturalistic ecstatic experience that the Romantic chased after. His murders were meaningful. But he claimed he had no such pretensions this time around. He wanted to go mainstream. He wanted a large audience. A massive following. “Even Poe whored himself out by the end,” Carroll cracked. Again, it all felt very self-referencing. His sell-out defeatism was as intriguing as it was dispiriting. Will The Following itself live up — or down — to Carroll’s meager vision? Or does it harbored a stranger, deeper ambition?

Whatever. Hardy wasn’t amused. He blew his stack and got in Carroll’s face and began breaking the psycho’s fingers. “If this book ends with anything else but you’re death,” said Hardy, “you better plan on a rewrite.” Rimshot! FINGER CRACK! Carroll screamed.

But Carroll had the upper hand, nonetheless. For at that moment, Carroll wannabe Jordan Raines was about to collect his first set of eyeballs by murdering a sorority house full of co-eds. Also at that moment, Carrol’s ex-wife Claire was suddenly realizing that Little Joey was nowhere to be found. For also at that moment, another Carroll acolyte — Denise, Joey’s babysitter – was driving the boy to Will and Billy.

Carroll told Hardy he wanted to see Claire. “This is just the beginning,” said Carroll as the guards dragged him away to the infirmary, leaving Hardy to fume and fret. “It’s going to be a classic! it will be our masterpiece!’ And with that, the first chapter in this strange and sick and surprisingly compelling serial came to a close. My mind percolates with theories: I suspect Carroll’s endgame is all about corrupting Hardy into a killer, or maybe framing him for crimes to come, which would lead to the role reversal of season 2, in which Hardy goes on the run and Carroll helps the FBI catch him. I also wonder what’s going to happen if one of Carroll’s wannabes becomes the student that surpasses the master. Perhaps The Following’s biggest big bad is still to come. I’m clearly engaged. Are you? Will you be following? The message board is yours.

Twitter: @EWDocJensen

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