The Following started out so seemingly simply: with a cat-and-mouse game between a serial killer (James Purefoy) and the former FBI agent who caught him (Kevin Bacon). But before the end of the pilot episode, the story had exploded into dozens of tiny little fragments, each one Bacon’s Ryan Hardy would have to pick up on in order to truly get to the bottom of Purefoy’s Joe Carroll’s plan. Carroll was writing a new story for him and Hardy together, and the supporting characters were plentiful, each one worthy of devoting an entire chapter to their individual deception and piece in Carroll’s puzzle. In that way, The Following does follow some traditional procedural elements, but rather than simply follow a “bad guy of the week” as Hardy hunts down Carroll’s “friends” one at a time, he, and the audience by association, gets thrown into the cesspool that is their collective twisted “Cult of Carroll.”
There were a lot of little things hinted at but never fully explored in the pilot of The Following (there is only a finite amount of time in one episode anyway), and enjoyably, the show in only its second episode, “Chapter Two,” took the time to be explicit rather than leave fleshing out the supporting characters to the imagination. You may not have needed to see a flashback to where Emma (Valorie Curry) first met Carroll to understand why she would be so drawn to him (sometimes, people are just searching for something, and they find it in the most f*ed up of places), but the result was something you didn’t even realize you wanted. It’s a chance to get your own insight and knowledge into the same characters Hardy is tracking, though cleverly the show keeps you from getting too far ahead of him.
First of all: if you didn’t see Will Wilson and his boyfriend Billy being aliases coming, you may not have been paying attention to the pilot. But rather than just deliver a straight, ‘these guys were doing undercover work for Carroll’ story, there is deception within Jacob (Nico Tortorella) and Paul’s (Adan Canto) deception. Jacob certainly seems to take the reigns in that relationship; he is quick to manipulate where he can-- with Paul as his own follower. The way he looked into Paul’s eyes and told him he likes kids—especially little Joey (Kyle Catlett)—reeked of a wannabe, trying to use his draw to command his will, as Carroll does with his own charm. Jacob doesn’t really have that kind of authority, though, and even if he did, there’s Emma floating above his head, seeming to think she is on par with Carroll. The tension within their group goes well beyond simply sexual (though, come on, that’s a big part of it, too—Jacob may not be gay, but I’m thinking Paul is…), but a part of me doesn’t want to see them self-destruct because it would mean Carroll erred in choosing them. And Carroll is nothing if not compulsive with his planning. He needs these three for something big, and he has entrusted them with something even bigger: his son. He wouldn’t have done that with just anyone. The twisted part of this show is I find myself hoping they don’t.
Emma, Jacob, and Paul have been tasked with keeping Joey safe and hidden, no doubt to torture Claire (Natalie Zea) just a little bit more for sleeping with Hardy, but that was only an educated guess on Carroll’s part prior to them sitting down face-to-face in jail. Taking Joey away was less of a mind-f**k for Claire and more about influence for Carroll. By putting his son with his students, his followers, his acolytes, Joey wouldn’t hear what a monster his father was. In fact, over time, it certainly seems the opposite: Emma was already easing him into hearing a different side to the story.
The thing that irked me about these three, though, was how sloppy they were. They’re just immature kids. Carroll knew their faces would be caught on security cameras visiting him in prison, so the fact that he didn’t insist on internet only correspondence proves just how much he wants Hardy to learn in order to write their so-called sequel. Hardy may think he wasn’t supposed to find Emma’s old house, but all roads led to it so easily, it was just the tip of the iceberg. Is Carroll setting up these kids by exposing some of their other crimes (like Emma’s mother’s murder), or did he just underestimate the amount of caution they would take, compared to what he would? The scrawling on the walls certainly read as something only a mental patient would do—and only on TV or in the movies anyway. Perhaps he hitched his so-called star to the wrong wagons. If you want to do something right, after all…
Having someone on the inside would also help with that. It may be too TV convenient for a police department or government agency to have a mole, but I’m sensing not necessarily a partnership with but a deep admiration of Carroll from new special agent Debra Parker (Annie Parisse) anyway. She so eagerly took charge of the case, so hungrily profiled him, so quickly lit up when in Emma’s house, and so dismissively refused the world “cult” surrounding him. Those are the actions of someone enthralled, infatuated, even if just with the idea of him and his kind of power. It’s a different kind of dangerous but still so nonetheless, especially since she could have slipped any message in that book.
Then again, Carroll underestimated Hardy and the fact that he would take down Jordy (Steve Monroe) without actually killing him. So though the pilot led us to believe Carroll was some kind of mastermind, maybe that’s just a romanticized perception. Maybe he’s just a common criminal after all—one whose self-confidence is bordering on arrogance and so it has let others assume he’s as great as he thinks he is. Just about every common criminal amasses “followers,” and it usually has very little to do with the criminal himself. The follower projects what he or she wants and needs onto their new found leader because the follower needs to believe in something remarkable. It is always easier to believe when you can attach to a tangible image. A damaged psyche will do whatever it can to repair itself, even if it means seeing things that aren’t there.
Carroll is not a God; he’s just a man, and a mediocre one at that. After all, ten short years ago, he was projecting what he needed to see onto Edgar Allan Poe, trying to live up to him as a writer and then an actual murderer. He failed in the writing part, and you could argue he failed as a murderer, too, since ultimately he did get caught. What he was good at was teaching. It’s like with the cycle of abuse: they will always find someone a little worse off than themselves to manipulate. The problem here is that Hardy is so messed up right now, he’s playing right into Carroll’s cycle.
Carroll may have been Hardy’s most formidable opponent; he challenged him, and when he was gone, he left Hardy a mess, not only physically, but because no one else could measure up. He left a void. Recognizing that kind of dependence could destroy anyone, and it would certainly explain why Hardy slipped so far. He did not deteriorate completely without Carroll to chase, but he lost a lot of his self-confidence, perhaps putting his worth squarely on the shoulders of the specific case. Now that Carroll is back in his life, he is slowly coming alive again. As great as that can be for his self-confidence and his skills (it shouldn’t be long before he can actually stop playing catch-up with Carroll and instead actually see ahead to stopping the next “surprise” part of the plan before it comes to fruition), the minute you stop to consider the source, it screws with you all over again. Carroll’s greatest work—more than any book or murder—may just be to corrupt he who stands for justice.