The Friends of Carroll struggle to find their unique psychopathic voice while Ryan Hardy reveals a shameful secret in 'The Poet's Fire'

By Jeff Jensen
February 05, 2013 at 03:01 AM EST
David Griesbrecht/Fox
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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

Jordy’s implied reference contained an irony that he clearly wasn’t hip to: The Greatest American Hero told a story of a guy who becomes a superhero after receiving a suit of power from aliens. The problem? He loses the instruction booklet. He bumbles and stumbles his way toward learning to master and express his abilities – a metaphor for the artist struggling to find his own voice. Jordy is The Greatest American Hero, except he  has an instruction manual: The historical record of Carroll’s crimes. But it renders him hopelessly derivative. Also, a stickler for literalism and genre rules. When Hardy – frustrated by Jordy’s sing-songy stonewalling – snapped and pushed on Jordy’s wounded gut, Jordy cried foul on Hardy for not playing his part properly: “YOU CAN’T DO THAT!” But Hardy – no longer a deputized agent – did not feel obligated to abide by the structures of law enforcement society. Hardy: The poet with his own moral code, letting it bleed into his work.

Rick Kester stood in nuanced contrast to Jordy’s form of discipleship. He wanted to push forward Carroll’s movement but he wanted to do it with his own unique style. His assignment was to punish those who had impeded Carroll’s artistic flourishing. Revenge. An essential Poe theme, he believed. The hit list began with the critic who blew up Carroll’s Poe-inspired The Gothic Sea, and continued with Phillip Barnes, the Dean at Winslow University, who denied Carroll tenure because of the perceived failure said novel. Circumstance didn’t allow Rick to work with his preferred media, fire, so he had to assay the challenge of using a knife  — and he surprised himself by successfully gutting Barnes with ease. Rick not only looked awestruck by his achievement, but also transfixed by the beauty of The Dean’s expiration. So this is why Joe worked with blades! My eyes have seen the glory!

Maggie Kester presented herself as a different kind of f’d up follower trope: The abused wife. Rick’s suffering spouse claimed that she had suffered her scary, domineering husband for years. She decided to finally stand up for herself and make a break after Rick lost his job and got mixed up with the Friends of Carroll. Yet from the get-go, Hardy found it very hard to buy her story. Still, everyone wanted to believe her, even after finding credit card statements showing that the Kesters had bought items to furnish Joey’s room at the Friends of Carroll’s new HQ in Rural, Somewhere. After all, as Agent Parker explained, abused/enabler wives like Maggie were commonplace. Her family, she said, was full of them.

Agent Parker assigned Agent Troy Reilly to take Maggie home and watch over her. Hardy – reeking of Vodka-Coffee mood equalizers — was commanded to go back to the motel, sober up, take a nap. But his Spidey sense was tingling. His gut told him Rick Kester would make a play for his wife. Agent Weston joined him for a clandestine stakeout by pretending to go rogue, too. In truth, he was a good soldier, following Parker’s secret order to babysit Hardy. Yeah, Ryan was Weston’s FBI Academy role model, and sure, it was cool that Hardy “marched to his own drum” and all that. But Weston was a junior agent who couldn’t afford to take risks on hisway up the ladder. And he needed the paycheck. “This is my career,” he said. Hardy kinda understood. But when Weston tried to bond with him by sharing personal life details  – Hardy was raised in Albany; he never went home; clearly some issues there – Hardy bolted out of the car. He was there to be do a job, not to be known by a fellow life traveler. Later, we’d understand a little better why he was so reluctant to let his guard down, even with comrades.

But other places, the walls were breaking down. Agent Parker worked her sly, disarming wiles on Jordy, pushing a button she knew would work: Sh promised Jordy she would grant him an audience with Joe if he told her what she wanted to know. Jordy didn’t believe her. “Character!” responded Parker. “I say what I mean and mean what I say!” That made sense to narrow literalist like Jordy. And so he talked, and Jordy coughed up the detail that conformed what we all knew. Maggie was no wounded shrinking violet. She was full bloom crazy Carroll loyalist. Agent Parker left Joey wailing in despair as he realized he had been seduced and deceived and had failed Carroll. He responded the way devoted ronins respond when they fail and dishonor their sensei: He committed by suicide by eating and gagging on his shirt. If Jordy didn’t like fire before, he’s going to hate it now. And forever.

(Agent Parker is quickly becoming my favorite character on this show. I loved her smirky showdown with Carroll. The content of the scene served to reinforce the idea that Carroll’s plan is all for Ryan’s benefit/destruction – I still believe Carroll is trying to build Ryan back up into a heroic husband/father for Claire and Joey – but the chemistry between the two actors kinda had me hoping she’ll remain a permanent part of the series… although do I worry that her “fascination with abomination” — to borrow from Joseph Conrad — is going to get her killed?)

Calls were made. Heroes rushed in. But Hardy and Wetson were too late to save Agent Reilly when the text message signal arrived for Maggie to unleash her own barbaric YAWP: She knifed him in the throat. RIP the good man, sadly divorced and full of regret. “She wasn’t the problem,” he told Maggie when she pried for intimate details and seduced him further into truth. An awkward action beat that followed, Hardy shot and killed Rick Kester, who showed up to spirit away his faithful bride, but Maggie herself got away. Will she adopt her husband’s vengeance motif? Will Maggie’s next stab at homicidal artistry be… an attempt to kill Hardy? TBD.

NEXT: The love that dares not speak its name. Especially to Emma.

The other major storyline in “The Poet’s Fire” also explored what it means to be a good follower, but from another angle: What it looks like to be a bad follower. Such was the story of Paul, who tried to make peace with his waning relevancy in the life of the man he had grown to love as Jacob and Emma continued to re-bond after years apart, and more, play house with a son surrogate, Joey, Carroll’s son. In flashbacks, we saw that “The Gay Neighbors” had been prodded to perfect the act of smooching by Emma herself during a night of talent-honing/truth-or-dare at the old clubhouse. “It’s what Joe wants,” said Emma. And no one wanted to disappoint Joe. Initially, they seemed to recoil from “playing gay” the away Rick recoiled playing with knives. But in making them kiss, Emma set in motion a chain of events that changed (our perhaps clarified) Paul, and perhaps Jacob, too. For while they were pretending to “The Gay Neighbors,” they really did go all the way with their act — at least once, during a drunken night of touchy-feely joshing. For Jacob, it might have been pure experimentation or an expression of bisexuality or “love the one you’re with” loneliness. For Paul, it was something more. He had either locked into his authentic self, his own moral code; or at the very least, he felt he had found true love.

He tried to bury the hatchet with large and in-charge Emma. He may have lost Jacob, but he couldn’t lose his other identity, his elevated standing within Carroll’s Dead Poets Society. “Can we sorta pretend that we like each other and see where that goes?” Paul offered his hand. Instead of shaking it, Emma slashed it with a butcher knife. “Don’t try to turn Jacob against me,” she hissed. “It won’t work.”

It came to pass that while watching Jacob and Emma play happy family with Joey, Paul snapped. He stormed out of the house, jumped in a car, tore away. Echoing the Parker/Jordy bit, Paul called Jacob out on crap character – his hypocrisy. “You’re a liar,” he said. Jacob looked stung. Emma freaked. They were wanted fugitives. Their faces were everywhere on the news, and while they relished their newfound celebrity (such shallow artists, this American Idol/youtube-weaned generation!), they also realized it made them vulnerable. Paul was going to get them caught. They just knew it. “Why doesn’t anybody do what they’re supposed to!” cried Emma. Welcome to leadership, bossypants.

Paul had other reckless plans. He went to a supermarket and flirted with a stock girl popping some price tags. He might have liked boys (or just Jacob), but he was a handsome lad who knew how to seduce a girl. Her name was Megan, and like her sound-alike, Maggie, she was vulnerable to wanting to be wanted by a man. Unlike Maggie (and more like Emma), she had a steely sense of self-respect. One thing led to another, and later that night, Paul and Megan were pounding brews and wrestling tongues. “We’re not having sex,” she said. “Let’s just take that off the table.” It’s possible that Paul wasn’t in the market for that kind of hook-up, or if he would have even enjoyed it with a lady. But he certainly didn’t like yet another strong woman telling him what to do, drawing boundaries on his sexuality, impeding his fulfillment. As they continued macking, Paul turned barbaric, perhaps subconsciously so, self-loathing rising and taking over. He began chewing her lips, and then lightly choking her. Megan pulled away. She didn’t like it rough. And she was spooked. She wanted to go home. Paul pretended to oblige, then slammed her head against the vehicle four times, knocking her out.

Paul brought his trophy woman back to the Friends’ safehouse. He bound her to a chair and gagged her mouth with tape. He was proud of his awful artistic accomplishment, and he tried to rub his proof of monstrous talent in Emma and Jacob’s faces. Of course, Paul wasn’t just trying to shore up his worth. He was trying to subvert Emma’s control by gumming up the works with a complication. He was also trying make Jacob jealous, and seemed to want to use Megan in such a way to further confront Jacob on the lie of his straightness, and to expose the love they shared that Jacob dared not speak of. Especially to Emma. The specifics of said plan: TBD. We left them as Jacob tried to defuse the ticking bomb that was Paul, and Emma plotting a more permanent solution.

Joe Carroll set one of the most compelling and subversive examples of good following. In a flashback, we saw Hardy seek out Carroll’s counsel on the Poe murders. Maybe Hardy already suspected Carroll as the culprit, and he was trying to trap the killer into exposing himself. Regardless, Carroll did everything right. He modeled good citizenship by helping Hardy with everything he had, but humbly, and with greatly sensitivity. And as Hardy made the error of offering Carroll a glimpse into his soul, and the toll the case had already taken on him, Joe played the good sidekick by fluffing the superhero’s flagging spirit with empathy and encouragement. “I couldn’t turn it off if I were you,” said Carroll as they communed over Scotch. “It must be hard with friends and family, too, running around chasing the bad guy. I must imagine it gets quite lonely.” He paused. “But the payoff! Helping people. Saving lives. I think what you do is quite remarkable.” They drank some more. Hardy had been hooked.

“I know what how followers feel,” said Hardy in the present, bonded with Agent Parker over being played by Carroll and his Friends. “They’re better for being near him. It gives them a little piece of what they’re missing. I fell for it — and five more girls were murdered.” But at least had a kindred sprit ally in Agent Parker.

In the coda, the themes of good following and bad influence came to a head when Claire Matthews received an email from Emma. It came with a video showing Jacob schooling Joey on how to be a chip off the old block – which is to say, to be a killer. Joey balked when he nixed making like firebug Rick by frying an insect with a magnifying glass. But Jacob worked on him. Why kill a beetle? “Because we can,” said Jacob. “If we kill the bug , it dies, and that means your life means a little more.” With that, Jacob asked Joey to put the lid on a jar containing a field mouse. Joey complied, and Emma and Jacob celebrated the boy’s triumph as they watched the rodent suffocate. One more thing? “We’re just getting started.”

“They’re teaching him!” said Claire.

But the last line reminded us – and Hardy – who this story is all about.

“Hi, Ryan!” said Joey, repeating the line fed to him by Emma, beginning his strange journey to being a good follower, and a unique artist his own right. Forget fire, knives, and strangulation.

I’m predicting light sabers.

Of course, I don’t believe the Friends of Carroll will successfully turn Joey into a psychopathic Sith lord. In fact, I think stopping them from corrupting Joey is part of the hero’s journey Carroll has scripted for Ryan. That’s my theory, What’s yours, faithful followers of The Following? The message board is yours.

Follow me on Twitter @EWDocJensen… SO I CAN CORRUPT YOU INTO PSEUDO-INTELLECTUAL POP CULTURE ZOMBIES!

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