It’s been a long time since a television show made me jump out of my seat, but last night’s episode of The Following got me good. Ryan is inside the nanny’s house, alone. As he searches for clues, I’m staring at those grotesque Edgar Allan Poe masks, reading quotes from The Raven on the walls—then boom! One of the Poeheads is attached to a body and the dude goes berserk like Ray Lewis before a game. We’ve already come to expect gross-out gore each week; for a show about serial killers, that’s low-hanging fruit. What the show needs are moments like these—clever surprises that keep us on the edge of our seats. Less eye-gouging, more sneak attacks!
Alas, they can’t fill an hour with mask-wearing nutjobs tackling unsuspecting victims (even if that does sound like a Fox reality show waiting to happen). Now that the cat-and-mouse game between Ryan and Carroll is well established, the flashbacks focus on his acolytes, specifically Emma, the babysitter. Turns out she was a nerdy fan of Carroll’s bad prose and dreamy charm. She’s also sleeping with Jacob, one of the not-gay gays. That seems to really piss off Paul, the other not-gay gay, who might really be gay after all and hates kids. (If there’s a Poe line that can make sense of all this, please share.) After a blind date arranged by Carroll (add “matchmaker” to his many talents), Emma and Jacob’s love is cemented when she takes a knife to her Joan Crawfordesque mother’s skull. Don’t let the pixie cut fool you—this nanny is nasty.
Jordy, the other key Carroll devotee, makes an impressive debut as a serial killer, batting three for nine in killing coeds and applying all the right artistic touches. The eye removal as a nod to Poe’s philosophy works. But isn’t the bloody “nevermore” a little too obvious? We get it. You killed them. They’re nevermore. (I wonder if, on some level, there’s a shot being taken at smug English lit professors who charm impressionable students with some Hawthorne quotes, write lousy novels and spout things like, as Carroll says to Claire, “Did your body quiver to his every touch?”) Jordy also apparently passed an introductory ninja course, as he lowers his rather portly frame silently from the ceiling and ambushes Claire’s security detail. He ends up serving a greater purpose, as Carroll appears troubled that Jordy wasn’t killed. For the first time since Carroll’s “sequel” began to unfold, it’s Ryan who takes control of the narrative.
Next to the Poehead ambush, the best moment comes when Ryan learns sour-puss agent Jennifer Mason was transferred away, possibly to somewhere she’ll never be seen again, like a role on Cougar Town. In her place, we meet Agent Debra Parker, who’s really hung up on the c-word; she prefers the phrase “alternate religions.” While Mason was useless, Parker’s knowledge of cults is even greater than Ryan’s, and she’s not afraid to hit him with tough questions about his drinking. Or sleeping with Carroll’s ex, which will likely happen again, considering all of Claire’s not-so-subtle PDA.
Parker also shows her sense of humor as she theorizes about the social media age: “It’s created a new vacancy in our humanity … Enter a handsome charismatic man who can touch them, make them feel their lives for the first time. He conditions them. The only way to truly live is to kill. Or some crap like that.” Her soliloquy is familiar by now, as the show keeps building the case for the plausibility of Carroll’s hold over his flock. But this line suggests something deeper, that a killer like Carroll isn’t just Charles Manson with wi-fi access. He’s the sinister inevitable underbelly of a disconnected society.
Will the show push that idea further, perhaps spending less time justifying the realism of its conceit and more time making Carroll’s followers feel more human while exploring bigger themes? Maybe. Here’s what we know for sure: The Poehead will be back, perhaps to set fire to more unsuspecting coffee-truck patrons; little Joey is in trouble; and Parker is playing jailhouse librarian with Carroll. Are they in cahoots? Hopefully not. The show doesn’t need a “mole in the FBI” storyline. Instead, it should drill down into the backstories of Carroll’s worshippers, which could be even more satisfying than guys in masks who make us jump.
CATCH-UP: Read Richard Rys’ recap of episode one of The Following.