It’s abundantly clear in The Following that everything Joe Carroll (James Purefoy) is doing is to get the attention of Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon), but what is still only speculative is why. You could make an argument for revenge, but that is a motive much too simplistic for the kinds of lengths Carroll is going to. It can't be the only reason. There was a time the math actually had to be done to figure out of little Joey (Kyle Catlett) was actually Hardy’s, but he’s not, so that’s a moot point. And then there is the theory we started diving into: that Hardy is the one who got away—the one Carroll thought he could mold and bring over to his dark side by tapping into the void in Hardy’s life. But there Carroll failed, and he’s not a man who takes failure well.
The central point that “it’s all for” Hardy was driven home a couple of times in “The Poet’s Fire,” in which we went back to the two-men-at-the-center story to see how Carroll first crossed Hardy’s radar. Whether he was watching him lecture or sitting, drinking Scotch in his own home, Hardy seemed taken with Carroll; there is no other term for it. He was under the guy’s spell, drawn in as if Carroll was a succubus, instinctively knowing what Hardy lacked in his life and slowing starting to dole it out to earn his trust. “He knows how to give them a little piece of what they’re missing,” right? Little phrases here and there, the finest liquor; it was a seduction that went unfinished as Hardy’s obsession with Carroll became not the kind of a student looking for a role model but instead a man seeing through the other man’s deception. The initial over-identification ended up disgusting Hardy, and he turned his back on, and then ultimately captured, Carroll, who had hoped for his finest masterpiece yet.
So Carroll has had time to plan a new masterpiece, and though it ultimately still involves Hardy, it’s more about his sense of guilt over getting so caught up in the first place that he couldn’t “see what was really there.” Carroll’s new masterpiece can't really be his son—who he plans to bring into his world by having Emma (Valorie Curry) and Jacob (Nico Tortorella) teach to kill. But while they may succeed at teaching the little boy the act (uh, sorry, but what little boy doesn’t love to kill bugs, even if suffocating a mouse is another story?), they can’t possibly create an emptiness where there isn’t one. Already they made one giant mistake: when they took Joey away from his mother and his home, they told him his mother wanted him to be kept safe. That implies that his mother loves him and is still thinking about him, putting him first, which she is, but which doesn’t help their cause. To start chipping away at a really well adjusted kid, the first step would be to create abandonment issues—to strip the kid of the comforts he knows in order to teach him he can only rely on the new people in his life to look out for him. Emma and Jacob have started going about it like it’s a game, though, and for any normal kid, that game is going to create a pit in his stomach when he realizes what he has done.
It’s hard to consider what Carroll wants here: does he want guilt to eat away at his own son? Or does he hope that there’s a little part of his nature already in his boy, which now this new nurture will just coax out, corrupting the innocent in a way he could never do with Hardy? Or does his son really not register to him at all—he’s just a pawn to get Hardy’s own guilt to flare up again? It would be a shame if the latter was all it is—it would be a shame if Carroll was so singularly focused on Hardy that he doesn’t even care about the potential elsewhere.
It’s such a complex story simply because it can’t be compared to anything that has come before it to know what to expect to come. In so many stereotypical thrillers where the serial killer taunts the cop tracking him, it’s key to chip away at a personal relationship in order to get under the guy’s skin. But Hardy doesn’t have that—he’s not even with Claire (Natalie Zea) anymore, so she won’t be holding him personally responsible for what’s going on. Only Hardy is going to do that to himself. It’s such an internal, solitary struggle, but Bacon is doing a phenomenal job of giving just the right amount of it. He can’t wear it completely on his face because he’s always around other officers, and that wouldn’t be fitting with the character, but he has to let the audience in enough to understand. He may have one of the hardest but most beautiful jobs on television right now.
Then you look at other characters in The Following who are not good actors. Agent Parker is not a good actress. Don’t get me wrong, Annie Parisse who plays her is. But Agent Parker, when she needs to go all good cop or bad cop on someone or simply not tip her hand with how personally she’s investing in the case has much more trouble staying stoic. Hardy is a quiet enough guy not to point a finger and scream guilty in her face, but she’s doing a pretty good job of giving herself away.
Agent Parker grows more suspect by the episode. Last week she specialized in cults, able to diagnose Carroll’s simply by standing in a haven for his disciples, staring at clippings and a weird art sketch of the man. Could it be that when she has to incorporate cold, hard facts into the case, she stumbles, only educated in theories? Or could it be that she got too caught up last week and now wants to backtrack so that she keeps just how deep her knowledge may be of Carroll a secret?
Last week she didn’t even want to call it a cult; this week she willingly used the term “acolytes,” which implies cult. This week she also certainly had no trouble expressing typical procedural-type frustration at not getting a break in the case, going so far as to pull amateur hour in her actual Carroll interrogation. It certainly seemed like she just couldn’t control herself, schoolgirl style, after she pointed out how “they hadn’t officially met,” which just seemed like a tip off to him to keep his mouth (mostly) shut. The second he turned his attention to Hardy behind the glass, her face fell, upset to have his eyes, let alone attention, pulled away. There is a great case to be made for Agent Parker having a bigger part in Carroll’s plan than we can know right now—or at least wanting to be. After all, every other key player was planted in place years before, designed to get close to Carroll’s targets. Hardy didn’t seem the type to have anyone close to him in Carroll’s time in prison, but now is a slightly different story—with an end that’s still a long way down the line.
The actual “bad guy of the week” in “The Poet’s Fire” just felt a little too quintessential procedural for my taste, and I don’t want to spend too much time dwelling on it because I don’t want to worry over whether or not the show will grow more obvious; I just want to sit back and enjoy the episodes unfolding in the moment. On his own, Rick (Michael Drayer) wasn’t nearly worthy enough to be one of Carroll’s. He was even simpler, even more erratic than Jordy (Steve Monroe), and Carroll seemed to placate and patronize him, not truly respect him enough to bring him in. So it was pretty damn clear from the jump that the wife was in on it—probably even the real draw—though there wasn’t adequate time to really see the origins. It felt so small scale, compared to everything else going on, but it worked in the sense that it was a distraction for Hardy. Besides, not every “follower” is going to have a chapter as brilliantly written as their leader—or else they wouldn’t need their leader, would they?
I did get a nostalgic ole kick out of the “you cut me too deep” that Kevin Williamson first perfected in Scream, though. It’s a nice, subtle reminder of just what kind of psychopaths we’re dealing with, and although I wasn’t surprised when she stabbed Reilly (Billy Brown) in the throat, I do wish he’d stop getting killed off my favorite shows!
What equally fascinated me in “The Poet’s Fire” aside from the hold Carroll had on Hardy back in the day was just how far off the rails Paul (Adan Canto) went so quickly. I said last week that I was pretty much convinced he was in love with Jacob and therefore jealous of Emma, and jealousy will make a psycho do crazy things. Was he picking up that girl in the convenience store just to prove he could, to try to convince himself he isn’t actually gay? Did he always intend to get violent with her because the itch he had to scratch was not one in sexual nature but one of aggression? And what exactly does he think he will accomplish by bringing her back to the house? Emma already made it clear just how expendable he is; he’s the bottom rung of their small group, and it seems his purpose has already been served, so Carroll won’t even miss him if Emma just kills him, too.
But the fact that Jacob stepped in and didn’t let that happen complicates things. I got the initial impression that Jacob was just using Paul’s infatuation to lead him around, not unlike how Carroll himself is doing with the lot of them. But if Jacob actually does have feelings for Paul that run deeper, then he’s not cut out to be in this business at all. Jacob and Paul both have moments of just pure, raw emotion in their eyes, and no matter how hard you may try, you can’t turn off your feelings if you genuinely have them. You may be able to channel them, but even that can be asking a lot. Emma, on the other hand, only exhibits the feeling of superiority—around everyone—and that makes anyone in her wake a bug she’d squash without a second thought. She doesn’t need going rogue as an excuse to cut them loose; in the end isn’t everyone just standing in the way of her being with Carroll, his one true believer, anyway?
Emotions just make everyone go rogue.