In case you didn’t know, Fox’s newest crime serial (yes, there is yet another show out there looking to steal your soul) has been tearing up Monday nights since January, and it’s well worth the investment. It is about the pursuit of convicted serial killer Joe Carroll and the collection of psychopaths and wannabes that have evolved around him. He calls them his friends. The FBI calls them a cult. They are united by their devotion to Carroll, who they believe has given purpose and guidance to their lives. Their goal so far is unclear, other than seriously distorting classical literature and driving Kevin Bacon’s character, Ryan Hardy, out of his mind.
The Following is about a lot of things. It’s about violence and victimization, about conspiracy and paranoia. I think principally, though, it’s about love. Between the killers and the heroes, there lies an intricate web of intimate bonds and tentative alliances. Faithful friends, loyal followers, and the unbridled passion of sworn enemies. The show seems to be asking how much can you trust the person next to you, and how much stronger are the bonds between people who know each other’s darkest secrets? In the process, The Following is bucking the common heteronormative ties that most shows focus on, and instead developing a web of relationships that are both sincere and pretty scary.
“Welcome Home” is the first episode where you really see Carroll in his element, where he belongs. As opposed to behind bars, constantly manipulating and antagonizing his enemies, he’s now been set free and brought to a mansion where apparently many of his “friends” reside. Here we see him in a setting where he is revered and desired. He’s with his son, Joey, for the first time since the boy was an infant, and is surrounded by acolytes including his closest confidant and first “student,” Roderick.
It’s very interesting having a house full of sociopaths, particularly since they exist on a pretty wide spectrum. There are cold-hearted killers, passionate maniacs, and those who hold frightening convictions. Like Charlie, for example. Out of all of the “Followers,” Charlie seemed the most unhappy. A former Marine with a firm and unyielding personality, who is both aggressive yet highly controlled and orderly, it is clear that he doesn’t have the same sense of self that the other characters do. He’s not satisfied unless he is fully devoted to something bigger than himself, and that something is Joe Carroll. So when he fails twice to bring Carroll’s wife to him, he decides that the only way for him to pay for his mistakes is for Carroll to kill him. He tells his mentor that he wants his life to matter as he hands him a knife. The stand in all the romantic glory of their new home, roaring fireplace and open wine bottle and all, on top of a plastic tarp to keep from staining the good carpet. Carroll embraces him and tells him “You always mattered.” Then he kills him.
It is a strangely moving scene, but also a big turning point. It’s hard to tell what exactly emotion means to these people. Carroll is pretty touchy feeling with all of his followers, men and women, but the moment with Charlie was highly intimate. The others seem to understand Charlie’s need to show how loyal he is, but Roderick in particular seems disturbed by how moved Carroll was by the experience. Carroll, a notorious serial killer and predator, was clearly unsettled by what he was asked to do. Louise barely seems to notice anything amiss, though it’s clear from her other scenes that she has little understanding of emotions.
Emma, a young woman who had been in charge of bringing Joey into the fold and did so successfully even under serious police and FBI scrutiny, on the other hand sees something else in Carroll – opportunity. Throughout the show, Emma has proved herself to be an extraordinary manipulator, and that doesn’t stop with the man who is supposed to be their leader. In an old farmhouse where she kept Joey, she finessed her two cohorts, Jacob and Paul, into obedience and into bed with her. After abandoning them when the FBI took the house, she seems to have moved on from their loss quite well. She first tries to seduce Carroll by getting him horrendously drunk, and while he obliges, he insists that he remain faithful to his wife (again with the unexpected morals!). However, once it’s clear that Carroll has been rendered emotionally vulnerable by the incident with Charlie, she tries again and this time he caves. Their love scene is contrasted against a much more violent sex scene between Louise and Roderick, in which Roderick aggressively manhandles Louise until they fall to wrestling each other on the couch.
I’ve got to take a moment and acknowledge the serious raised eyebrow this scene gave me. What went on between Carroll and Emma was only vaguely consensual. But do we feel bad about it? This is a prolific killer of beautiful young women, being taken advantage of by a beautiful young woman. It’s very interesting, and I tip my hat to the writers for it. I think it’s an indicator of a power switch that may be developing. There are a lot of great female characters in this show, but the male characters are the main instigators. I’m thinking things may not stay that way.
Many fans are predicting that this is the beginning of the end for Emma. Her efforts to become number one might inspire jealousy in the rest of the group, not to mention Jacob and Paul are still out there and not too happy with her. However, I think there’s a lot of potential for Emma. If she manages to succeed in being made Carroll’s primary partner, she won’t just supersede his wife but Roderick as well. And I think there’s a reason why she’s able to do this better than the others. Even if she doesn’t feel it the way most people would, she understands emotion. She understands love, and she uses it to her advantage.
The final moments of the episode cut from Carroll/Emma and Louise/Roderick, to our hero, FBI consultant and expert on Joe Carroll, Ryan Hardy in the hospital with his fallen comrade, agent Mike Weston, who has been tortured by Roderick, Charlie, Louise and a couple of redshirts in an effort to find out where Carroll’s wife is. The strangled, desperate power plays of the Followers and Carroll are contrasted against the real love between friends, and they pale in comparison. Hardy is a character wracked with guilt and angst, and in this way he’s a very typical rugged, white male protagonist. But when he says he wants to go with Weston to the hospital he says it’s not because he feels guilty for what happened. It’s merely that hospitals suck, and he doesn’t want Weston to be alone when he wakes up. He makes a point to say that the gesture is not about his ego but simply about supporting a friend.
The Following is a show that is heavily based around the Romantic, in the traditional sense. Carroll was highly influenced by Edgar Allen Poe and took the darkest parts of his stories and manifested them in his killings. Likewise, the show’s take on lower-case-r romance is drawn from this – the dynamics are less about who is going to end up with whom, but rather what does love in this context mean? And whose love will triumph over all?