Psychotic fanboys, culty geeks and bizarre love triangles deepen the mystery and expand the mayhem in 'Chapter Two'

By Jeff Jensen
Updated January 29, 2013 at 03:13 PM EST
David Griesbrecht/Fox

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

Failing to get Joe to cough up Joey, Hardy and the team dug deeper into The Nanny Formerly Known As Denise, Emma Hill, and “The Gay Neighbors,” Jacob and Paul. Agent Weston tracked down Emma’s old address in Petersburg, Virginia. It belonged to a house that had been untended for months. The FBI agents couldn’t enter without a warrant, but Hardy didn’t think the rules applied to him. After all, he wasn’t an agent. Wasn’t even allowed to have a gun, despite his request for one. Hardy broke into the home through the side door and found a squalid space that looked part crack house, part Friends of Carroll clubhouse, totally crazy. Lines of Poe scrawled on the walls, images of eyes and gouged sockets, schematics of buildings, names and portraits of the women in Poe’s life and work who died (and pictures of the women in Carroll’s life, too), newspaper clippings of Carroll’s divorce, fingerprints of eight or nine people, and more. It was like a nutty Carroll shrine site adapted into the real world, or what might happen if Doc Jensen’s dumb head exploded and sprayed the walls with pretentiousness, pulp, and poorly conceived blah blah blah.

The inevitable BOO! moment was a genuine jolt. We watched Hardy search the house solo and enter a bedroom and examine four rubber Poe masks. We saw those same Poe masks – plus one more that hadn’t been there before — in a mirror as Hardy turned his attention to another object in the room, a copy of his book, The Poetry of a Killer. It was a clever shot that disguised the fact that the extra Poe mask wasn’t on the shelf with the others but on the head of a mystery man who was shadowing Hardy. Faux Poe attacked. “You shouldn’t be here. You know you’re going to die. Just not today.” Faux Poe cracked Hardy upside the noggin with his gun, then split and disappeared. It wouldn’t be the last time in the episode that Hardy was reminded that in many ways, everything that’s happening is somehow, someway about him and for him – an idea I find creepy and intriguing.

Hardy recovered. More madhouse archaeology and analysis. Parker was finally ready to use the word she had been resisting. “So: We have a cult!” she said with near glee. Yay! We’re officially in my area of expertise! Let me now lay some dubious media theory on you! “Carroll’s using Poe’s work as a religion. He’s speaking to people through Gothic Romanticism – the pathology of today’s Internet/techno-bred minds. It’s created a new vacancy in our humanity.” Just when I was beginning to wonder if she might be referring to me – You’re talking about the fanboy geeks who like to play with their Twitter, aren’t you? AREN’T YOU?! — and implicating me and my kind as potential Friends of Carroll, Parker let us off the hook with this: “Find the ones with additional disorders: Jackpot.” Ah. THOSE geeks. Yeah, they’re, like, Totally Lost! She continued: “Enter a handsome, charismatic man who can touch them. Make them feel their lives for the first time. Conditions them. The only way to truly live… is to kill.” So… Neil Gaiman gone Hannibal?

Agent Weston made a gruesome discovery: A corpse buried in the walls. “’The Black Cat.’ ‘The Cask of Amontillado.’ Classic Poe,” said Hardy. The dead woman was Emma’s mother, and in flashbacks, we revealed the young woman’s twisted saga of empowerment and transformation, as well her strange relationship with the ambiguously gay duo of Jacob and Paul. Emma met Joe Carroll back in 2003 when the professor had not yet been exposed as a monster, giving a reading of his novel, The Gothic Sea. The passage seemed to describe, via allegory, a culture that could no longer believe in heroism, that now romanticized darkness. “Good and bad no longer existed. It was all degrees of evil now. Gwendolyn held his dying body as the storm raged on. Death had finally arrived and it was glorious to the touch.”

Afterward, Emma fawned. Praised him for his “vivid” prose. Carroll ate it up, then sent Emma swooning by tucking a lock of hair behind her ear. “You have such lovely eyes, Emma. Don’t deprive us of them,” said the creepy peeper collector. Emma – oblivious to the irony – asked if Gwendolyn died at the end of the story. Carroll was more interested in her theory — the savvy dodge for any writer or showrunner without a master plan. “I think she died!” she said excitedly. “She was swimming toward the horizon, toward the sun. In death, she found hope.” Emma Hill: A spooky little death eater indeed.

Then Emma’s mom – a floozy flirty cougar named Sharon with a low opinion of her nerdy daughter’s femininity or interests – showed up to crap on the charged moment. She tried to hijack the attention by flattering Carroll’s looks and undressing him with her eyes. Carroll’s glances suggested he thought little of the woman, and pitied Emma for not having a mother worthy of her. He finished signing her book. “To Emma: Hopefully yours, Joe.”

He was. And she was all his. Emma remained faithful even after Joe was imprisoned for his 14 murders. She visited him four times, and during one their meetings, Emma showed up with a new haircut. She lost the long locks that Carroll had brushed away for a stylishly butchy Anne Hathaway-in-Les Miserables hackaway. “My Mom says it makes me look like a boy, or a girl who doesn’t like boys,” said Emma, fishing for a compliment. She got one, and something more: Carroll wanted to set Emma up with another one of his friends. He came off as quite sincere, as if he was trying to push her away and break her obsession with him, but gently. Emma looked a little rejected (Say it ain’t so, Joe! Say it aint’ so!), but quickly forgot the hurt when she laid eyes on Jacob during their first date. “Joe said you’d be my type,” he said with a big grin. Intriguing. The Girl With The Boyish Makeover gets hooked up The Boy With The Shifty Sexual Identity. Clever, Joe. Clever. Jacob thought Emma was “special.” The feeling was mutual. Love bloomed. And it was what Joe wanted.

NEXT: A New Order to a Bizarre Love Triangle

Their relationship took a pivotal turn one fateful night in 2006 when Emma invited Jacob over for dinner… and something more. While Emma cooked, Floozy Mom drank white wine and flirted, and the episode continued to cast shade on Jacob’s sexuality. When he said he was between jobs, Mom replied, “Well, you’re too pretty to work.” Mom said she couldn’t believe the two were dating, and found it even harder to believe that anyone could love her daughter: “So you like the no-fuss plain janes. That’s sweet. Most boys don’t.” And with that, Emma snapped. She jammed a carving knife into her Mom’s back. She collapsed, gurgled, expired. Paul’s eyes: Girlfriend, you are scary. AND HOT. “You did it,” he said. “You really did it.” Emma eyes: Ice pick cold. Her transformation into something strong and terrible was complete. The soundtrack drove it home: “Change (In The House Of Flies)” by the Deftones.

I watched a change in you/It’s like you never had wings/And you feel so alive…

Sometime after the matricide, Emma and Jacob embarked on their separate assignments like missionaries sent into the field. Jacob was paired with Paul, a computer whiz with a history of fraud and skilled at creating false identities. They posed and lived as a gay couple as they watched and managed Sarah Fuller, The Victim Who Got Away, until Carroll was ready to bust out of the joint and finish her off. Emma worked as Joey’s nanny so she could abduct the boy at the appropriate time, i.e., the last episode, when Emma, with sleeping Joey in tow, rendezvoused with Jacob and Paul and took off for parts unknown…

Which turned out to be a spacious ranch house in Rural Someplace, Some State. As they drove up, we saw Joey bolt out of the car as if trying to escape… but then he smiled, and Paul ran after him and scooped him up, and we realized they were just playing. Emma had convinced Joey that his mother, Claire, wanted to keep him safe and hidden until the business with Joe Carroll had died down. The kid didn’t seem to be aware of the exact nature of Carroll’s crimes. “Why is my dad such a bad man?” he asked Emma. The faithful Friend of Carroll – who held a high rank in Joe’s army of darkness — broke character just a tad to defend her liege: “Maybe he’s not so bad. Maybe we just don’t understand him.” Joey reallyreallyreally wanted to call Mom, but he rolled with it, especially after he settled into a bedroom that was pretty much an exact replica of his bedroom at home, from the space-themed bed sheets to the ninja warrior toy. He trusted Emma.

But Paul did not. In fact, he didn’t really care too much for this plan at all. He hated the kid. Wanted to “snap his neck.” And he resented having to give Jacob back to Emma, or at least share him with the bossy tomboy in the leather jacket. This peculiar and increasingly fraught love triangle mirrored, in some ways, the Carroll-Claire-Hardy love triangle. In a tense moment between the two romantic rivals, Paul asked about the sleeping arrangements. Emma said she and Jacob would be sharing the master bedroom: “You’re not gay anymore. Remember?” Paul balked. He wasn’t gay, he insisted. But maybe they should keep up the pretense because of Joey. Prettyplease? Emma recognized the point, but sure as hell didn’t like being wrong. Later, after she kicked Paul out the room so she could get to boning with Jacob (“Be a good wingman, Paul”), Emma spelled it out in piggish terms: “Are you sure he’s straight? Because he’s acting like a jealous little bitch.” She cocked an eyebrow when Jacob tried to empathize – “He just feels like the third wheel… It was just me and him for a long time!” – and we were made to wonder just how straight “The Gay Neighbors” were during their time together.

We left them for now as Paul cruised past Emma’s bedroom and peeped on the lovers as they continued to make up for lost time, Emma once again on top. He fumed, feeling like a cuckold. He had never felt more like the master he served. To be continued…

NEXT: The Village Idiot Strikes Again

Meanwhile, at Claire’s house, another Friend of Carroll also found himself struggling to keep the faith. Jordy Raines had infiltrated Casa Matthews despite dozens of cops on guard. His mission seemed to be to kill Claire. But things got murky as Jordy held Carroll’s ex at gunpoint, and as Hardy tried to talk him out of murder (with a gun in his waistband as a back-up plan, thanks to a cop who deftly placed it on his person as Hardy shut the door). “You. Finally,” said Jordy upon seeing Hardy. “We’ve been waiting for you.” As the drama played out, Jordy showed signs of losing his nerve. “I have to kill her, and you have to watch. Those are the rules, or… uh… you have to kill me,” he said. “I’m not sure I want to die.” He tried to pump up his flagging courage by exploding at Hardy for trying to sweet talk him into surrendering. “Joe chose me,” bellowed the demented disciple/freaky fanboy. “This my chapter, and I can’t write it any way I want to!” Hardy got the better of Mr. What Would Joe Carroll Do by suggesting that they double-check the Will of JC by giving him a call. After all, Hardy had a direct line to Joe’s heavenly cellblock. When Jordy looked toward the phone, Claire punched to create some separation and Hardy drew his weapon and fired. Jordy went down in a heap, but he did not die.

Which meant that everything went according to Joe Carroll’s plan. Well, almost. In the aftermath, the villain – once again ending the episode with a Campbellian deconstruction of the tale just watched — told Hardy that Jordy’s role in the narrative was to reactivate Hardy’s heroic agency and romantic fire by functioning as the first threshold guardian to be overcome in the epic journey now unfolding. “I was hoping you would save her. A heroic victory by the leading man cements the love story,” said Carroll. “You have to toughen up, Ryan. You’re dealing with depraved minds, sick and twisted. Jordy was a mere puppy. Compared to some of the games I have in store for you.” The one beat that didn’t go as scripted? Hardy was supposed to kill Jordy. Carroll tried to not look troubled, and Hardy clearly took some satisfaction that he had subverted the puppet master’s manipulations, and he resolved to interrogate Jordy to figure out what he knew that Carroll didn’t want him to know. My theory about Carroll’s endgame? This week, it’s this: Carroll is driven by regret. What if Joe doesn’t have as much control over his minions as we think? What if he saw that his legacy had taken on an awful life of its own and now he’s trying to do the socially/culturally responsible thing, albeit in the most anti-social, culturally toxic way. He’s trying manipulate, manage and ultimately extinguish his abominable fan following, but not before directing it toward accomplishing another redemptive goal: Rehabbing Private Ryan. I think Carroll’s biggest regret is leaving his true love so heartbroken that she can’t love another man again, and about leaving his boy without a father to raise him. But Ryan Hardy could be that man, and be that father. He just needs a little work – an adventure designed to turn this wandering ranger to the mighty King Aragorn he believes his family deserves.

Or maybe I’m completely wrong, and Poe’s” The Conqueror Worm” explains it all.

“Chapter Two” rang out on a long montage set to a song from another dark metal band, Sepultura’s “Angel.” We saw Ryan agreeing to stay with Claire and watch over her. We saw Agent Parker slip Joe Carroll that big book o’ Poe. Again: Acolyte? Or is the alt-religion/cult nut just simply fascinated with/drawn to Carroll like a moth to the flame? And we watched Faux Poe (real name Rick, we were told) douse a man with gasoline and set him on fire. It was the first act of violence in The Following so far that really troubled me, and a truly chilling note for the episode to end on…

And yet: Subtext? Here was a Faux Poe, producing a public spectacle of seemingly random, meaningless violence – literally a spectacle, as we watched dozens of looky-loos watching the man burn to the death as the author of this madness walked away, scott free. I watched this episode with Stephen King’s recently released Kindle essay on gun violence in mind. He explained how he decided to recall the first novel he ever wrote – Rage, about a school shooting, published under the Richard Bachman pseudonym – after learning that it had been read by some real-life school shooters. King’s rationale echoes some of Agent Parker’s diagnosis of Joe Carroll’s psychically/emotionally busted followers, and his choice of words toward the end evokes the episode’s climactic image. “My book did not break [the school shooters it appears to have influenced] or turn them into killers; they found something in my book that spoke to them because they were already broken,” King writes. “Yet I did see Rage as a possible accelerant, which is why I pulled it from sale. You don’t leave a can of gasoline where a boy with firebug tendencies can lay hands on it.”

Does The Following aspire to say something about the hot button issue of pop culture’s relationship to violence? Is it exploiting the current conversation to make more sensationalistic thrills? Both?

To be continued next week. Hopefully. The message board is yours.

Twitter: @EWDocJensen

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