For the first time this season, I’m scared and it has nothing to do with a guy in a freaky Edgar Allan Poe mask. There were plenty of ridiculous and implausible moments last night, as usual, but the one that shocked me most wasn’t on screen—it was in my head. Is this the episode when the show turns a corner toward something pretty good? Or am I slowly getting brainwashed, in some weird meta-twist where the audience starts blindly following The Following?
Before we get to the good stuff, let’s review a few of the more absurd events that went down. Most of the action takes place in two locations: the farmhouse, which is surrounded by a team of semi-competent feds, and the makeshift command center where Charlie has stashed Claire. To clarify from last week, here’s a head count on the new devotees: Hank, who died in the barn; Charlie, Claire’s personal stalker; and the yet-unseen Rodrick, who appears to be Carroll’s second-in-command. We learn that Charlie is ex-Army, a “cyber-surveillance” expert and the IT mastermind behind Carroll’s jailhouse websurfing. He’s also been stalking Claire on a daily basis for two years, a fact he’s happy to explain to her by showing off his hourly accounts of her every move and a super-creepy video of her asleep in bed. Of course, this killer of terrorists, soldiers and civilians decides to let Claire roam free throughout his bunker, which leads to an escape attempt. For those of you concerned that Claire is wearing way too many clothes, she obliges by hiding under a leaky pipe, getting wet, then stripping down to a sleeveless white shirt.
Back at the farmhouse, the Menage A Trois Gang holds a rather sassy Ryan hostage while they await orders from Rodrick. Emma happens to have a Taser handy and uses it to great effect on Ryan’s pacemaker. Watching Ryan play head games with those nutjobs—and laugh at their love triangle—was one of the most entertaining moments in the series so far. It’s satisfying to see that we’re not the only ones chuckling at these storylines; even the characters think it’s nuts. When the SWAT team finally moves in, there’s genuine tension in knowing that somehow, the raid is going to fail. One reason why: as I not-so-impressively predicted last week, the wide-eyed local cop was working for Carroll all along. This is an example of when our pop-culture awareness sometimes spoils the fun. On a show like this, with very few characters that we get to know up close, any new face who gets screen time is automatically a suspect (or marked for death, or in the cop’s case, both).
What raised the bar in this episode was Debra’s backstory. Clichéd as it is that the cult expert was raised in a cult, it’s still some much-needed character development; Ryan can’t be the only good guy we not only root for, but understand. When we learn that Debra’s mother didn’t save her from sexual abuse at the hands of their leader, it was more powerful than any throat-slashing or gut stabbing. It also led to the best line of the night, as Debra gives Emma an emotional fist-bump for offing her mother: ““Most of us only dream about doing it. There have been so many times I’ve wanted to whack my mom.”
Yet as well as that worked, I’ve now begun to dread hearing the slow, pulsing drumbeat of Ryan’s heart, which means chest pain—and a free pass for anyone he’s pursuing—is coming. A couple shots at the tires of Emma’s getaway car and Joey would finally be safe. That would have also spared us from the other big cliché moment in the end, when Claire throws a fit as Ryan gives her the tough-love comfort hug and they both melt into a pain embrace. How many times have we seen that before in bad movies and soaps?
Still, Debra’s tortured past gives me hope that there’s more to look forward to than the next wildly impossible chapter of Carroll’s game (like Mike’s backstory—surely he can’t really be the Boy Scout we’ve seen so far). In the closing moments, Debra opens her purse to reveal a pendant. It’s a symbol of the cult she grew up in. Maybe some will see that as a clue that she’s moved from one sick group to another and is now working with Carroll. For me, it’s a red herring; even for a show this unconcerned with reality, a cult expert who grew up in a cult and now is working with the cult she’s trying to bring down is too absurd.
So what is Carroll’s next move? I’m guessing that soon, he’ll somehow escape from prison. And who is Rodrick? Charlie admits the name is a Poe-inspired alias and refers to Rodrick as a “he.” My first thought was the marshal, who is guaranteed to lose the person he’s protecting or pursuing. Otherwise, the only other guy we know so far is Mike and that would be lame. Maybe it’s one of the two bald dudes who helped Emma escape with Joey? Or maybe it’s a woman after all? Or could Rodrick be … little Joey?
Just kidding. I think? Nothing would shock me anymore with this show. But I’m hoping for more pleasant surprises, like Debra’s demons, and a little less ridiculousness and fewer easy outs, like the telltale beating of Ryan’s faulty heart.