For awhile there, television started to move away from the deeply dark and flawed anti-hero characters at the center of dramas, but then the 2012 pilot season came along, and there they were, splashed across every network but much more than just brooding. Kevin Williamson has taken this concept and perfected it for FOX with The Following, a cable-worthy psychological thriller that is going to challenge what you thought they could do on network television.
The Following starts with a brutal rampage murder and prison escape by convicted serial killer Joe Carroll (James Purefoy), a once prominent professor and less-than-acclaimed author. Almost ten years ago he was captured after torturing and killing fourteen young women on the campus where he worked, despite being a family man in his off-hours. Greatly inspired by the works of Edgar Allan Poe and the romanticism in death, Carroll’s own crimes mimicked those he read about in Poe’s works. Only things have gotten much, much more complicated than that.
Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon) was the FBI agent who brought down Carroll and then wrote a best seller about his experience, but said experience did not leave him without scars—physically and psychologically. Though he is no longer an agent (a pacemaker means he can’t be in the field; a drinking problem means he probably shouldn’t be able to function at all), he is the first call after Carroll escapes, and he somewhat reluctantly becomes a consultant. The Following pilot, then, is a character study into two equally obsessive, maladjusted men—just in very different ways.
Bacon embodies hard-weatheredness and introspection for his complicated hero Hardy. At times he is downtrodden, like a dog that has spent its life beaten and in chains. He clearly doesn’t think much of himself or what he has to offer; he can’t see what a calming force he actually is for many around the case, even if simply because of his history. When Hardy talks about Carroll (“He could inspire people; it’s a gift”), there is a twinge of both sadness and admiration in his eye, as if he feels he could never live up to the kind of greatness Carroll has achieved—even if Carroll channeled all of his kinetic energy into the absolute wrong line of work. It certainly appears Hardy won’t find his own self-worth again until he catches Carroll and his entire contingent of “friends.”
Williamson’s writing is so sharp it is clear to the audience, even though not all of the characters, just how much Hardy has inspired people, too (namely the eager, young FBI agent Mike Weston, played by Shawn Ashmore, who hangs on Hardy’s every word, a student of his own inadvertent teachings), though, making it that much more tragic he can only see his failures. Carroll’s ego is so grandiose, in a way you can’t help but hope a little of it rubs off on Hardy.
The dichotomy between the men is on what The Following absolutely lives or dies. With just a curl of the lip, Purefoy can take Carroll from charming and mysteriously sexy to a dead-eyed psycho. Hardy is much more even-keeled, though you get the sense that he’s purposely holding back because being a loose cannon won’t win him any friends in the job he previously lost. Right now The Following seems less of a back-and-forth between the guys but a basic mind game that Carroll holds all the cards for. With time, though, Hardy starts to come alive again—dare we say inspired? by the challenges Carroll offers him. The show doesn’t slow down enough for you to absorb the weight of what that may mean, but it is a dark thought that lingers with you well after the episode fades to black. And that is what makes The Following so strong: it makes you question what you think you know—including about your own limitations.
Hardy has a surprisingly calm effect on those around the case, though—from Carroll’s last victim, the one who actually survived, Sarah (Maggie Grace), to his now ex-wife Claire (Natalie Zea). He is absolutely integral to catching Carroll, but catching Carroll is the least of the FBI’s problems. Any criminal worth his salt amasses groupies, and Carroll is so innately charming, his are devout enough to live false lives for years, lying in wait, and then kidnap and kill for him. You may wonder ‘Why now?’ while watching Carroll’s plan unfold, but the simplest answer seems to be it here: it takes time to build trust.
While the focus on the pilot episode is getting Carroll behind bars, immediately a number of other key players come into play with long-term goals that Carroll instilled in them and therefore only Carroll can stop. Maybe. The thing about sociopaths is that they’re narcissists, so Jordy, the corrections officer (Steve Monroe) who helped Carroll escape, Claire’s baby sitter (Valorie Curry), and Sarah’s posing-as-gay-to-gain-her-trust neighbors (Nico Tortorella and Adan Canto) may be doing Carroll’s dirty work now, cogs in a bigger machine, but who’s to say they won’t want to handle things their own ways soon enough?
A decade and a half ago, Williamson revitalized the horror film industry with clever death scenes and motives in Scream. Today, Williamson is doing it again on television, which is an arguably harder feat, considering the amount of characters and story that have to be serviced week after week. What this show can get away with in the 9 p.m. hour aside, the pilot episode’s momentum is amazing, though we know he won’t be able to keep it up by killing off a new cast member every week. And while The Following certainly delivers visual shock value, but it is actually best when it is just intimating at what’s to come, rather than showing gruesome and gory images of Carroll’s victims. The Following will get under your skin because it introduces the idea that any seemingly regular guy or girl next door can be a cold-blooded killer. Carroll took the time to teach them to be killers, but their psyches were already damaged enough to let him. They were all missing something that Carroll provided, and therefore they will repay him with undying loyalty...even if that means they, or others, actually do have to die. There is nothing scarier than seeing what drove someone to the edge of snapping and the sense of paranoia it creates.
Hardy seems a prime candidate for this. Intellectually as a viewer we know he must hold it together in order to stay the hero and get his guy(s)—but that’s the thing about Williamson’s writing: it doesn’t promise your typical, wrapped up in a bow happy ending. It certainly doesn’t deliver that in the pilot, though we have to admit we have a hard time imagining how far past a first season the show can go without Hardy losing it. And if he loses it, it becomes a very different show. But we won’t get too far ahead of ourselves just yet…
Williamson does something so clever before the final act of The Following pilot. He gives Hardy a speech about the “so many mistakes” he has made, allowing the character to prematurely sum up what he thinks to be Carroll’s reason for escaping prison. If The Following were a mere movie, this would be the neat, Hollywood bow that allowed the hero to smugly get the last word. But nothing about The Following is what it appears to be on the surface, so Hardy’s words are haunting because he is still so damaged he can’t see that he is actually making the biggest mistake right then: he is underestimating Carroll.
The truth is, Sarah wasn’t Carroll’s last victim, not really; Ryan was. He was the last person Joe stabbed before getting arrested that first time, and he is the person who has been most destroyed by Joe in general. If Joe merely wanted to kill Sarah, he wouldn’t have been toying with Ryan so much all along the way, and he certainly wouldn’t have allowed himself to get caught again. No, Joe’s cat and mouse game has just begun; the government can’t kill him now that he’s the only one who can lead the investigators to his disciples, after all. The true tragedy in all of this is just how broken Ryan is because if he doesn’t shape up soon, he won’t be the worthy opponent Carroll is so desperately looking for. And when sociopaths don’t get what they want, that’s when things get really messy.