Though last week I (and Joe Carroll) declared that Claire (Natalie Zea) must die on FOX's The Following, as the only proper response to her drastic measure of stabbing her ex-husband, a little part of me thought it would be a fascinating twist if instead Carroll (James Purefoy) was inspired by her violent actions. He is, after all, a man of such violence and passion-- one who has amassed a compound full of like-minded followers and allowed them to toy with the idea, albeit briefly, of teaching his young son to be a killer, too. After struggling to get things to go right, let alone to find the right words to describe everything anyway, wouldn't his fire be lit by getting someone as righteous as Claire to commit such an impulsive, brutal act? I suspect that if Emma (Valorie Curry), for example, was on the other end of that knife-- if anyone but Carroll himself was, for that matter-- that would have been the case. But because it was Carroll who got stabbed, and by the woman he was narcissistic enough to believe he could get to love him again, instead he just unraveled. The penultimate episode of The Following's first season was entitled "The End is Near," designed to foreshadow the regime change as Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon) and the FBI strode confidently to the compound, convinced they had the upper hand, while Carroll drank himself into a kind of madness. What a role reversal from where we found these two in the pilot, right? If they're two sides to the same coin, someone flipped them upside down, and though it's a win for the good guys, as someone who has personally been on Team Carroll from the beginning, simply because of how complex and unique he is as a character, it was somewhat hard to watch.
If it looked like Carroll was cracking up in the opening sequence, first watching an old surveillance tape he had of Hardy from inside his apartment, and then apologizing with just enough feeling but still falling flat of full sincerity to Emma, then the circle prayer that followed seemed to spell Jonestown-esque escape. Carroll didn't have surveillance on Hardy now, but he was smart enough to know that the FBI was closing in. Would he have enough hubris to carry out one final, if not outright bloody still extremely deadly act? The words he had his followers chant, "In death, there is life; in death, there is love; in death, there is everything," by all accounts should have led the story down that path-- if the story were part of a movie or mini-series. But The Following is an open-ended series, meaning it has no end date yet; in fact, it has recently been granted another season. So Carroll couldn't quite kill off those who had failed him, himself included, just yet.
But where Carroll was once the cockiest m*****f***er on television, he was now a shell of his former self, disheveled, visibly emotional, and downright vulnerable. Hardy, on the other hand, had his swagger back fully. Despite watching his new boss if not quite friend get stabbed in the head, he was in charge of the situation emotionally, ready to finally take down Carroll once and for all. Watching the FBI scenes in "The End is Near" was the first time I realized just how intimate this story has been. I've always been focused on the relationship entanglements and deep, inner turmoil of the characters, but the story itself, but for a few sprinklings of media coverage here and there, has had a very intimate feel, as well. Because of the magnitude of Carroll's crimes, intellectually you know his story is plastered all over the national news (as Carroll said himself "the whole world is watching," and that didn't seem like an inflated sense of ego but the way it would work with such a sensationalized story), but you're in the story with him and Hardy, not watching it from afar as just another citizen, so you don't experience the massive media storm or widespread panic. The chaos of the narrative has been relatively controlled. But much the way Carroll tried to control the narrative only to see his plans thwarted by screw-ups and underestimatings, the sense of calm provided here seemed misleading. Everyone knows the true storm comes in the season finale anyway, right?
On lesser shows and in years past, absolutely, but The Following started its final chapter early, by ramping up the action and plot in the penultimate episode while still delivering all those psychologically complex character goodies. The fact that the FBI stormed the compound at nine minutes into the episode proved they weren't pulling any punches because it meant the followers had dismantled and scattered accordingly to begin creating the distractions that would surely provide shock value, but if Hardy was paying attention, a path to Carroll's true intentions, too. I have to admit I'm glad the first follower to sacrifice himself simply did so by hanging in the compound, left behind to taunt Hardy. A part of me worried for a minute that he might have to create more of a public showing of his sacrifice. While normally I would applaud the risks and the political commentary that come along with a homegrown character committing some kind of mass murder, with recent events being what they are, it wouldn't have felt right to celebrate such storytelling. And honestly, such a showy offering wouldn't have really fit because it would have created a much more chaotic picture.
As it was, the stunt outside the FBI's offices, when the girl-next-door blondie stabbed the news reporter, worked on the same level. All along this show has been timely in portraying those who follow Carroll to acts of violence as regular citizens-- brothers, sisters, cops, armed forces personnel, neighbors, etc-- but they have always been meticulous and calculated in their efforts to target specifically and not just fire into a crowd, so to speak. They consider themselves more evolved than that. They have a message, and there's no time to stop and pick up on the message, if people are scrambling to even realize it's there.
Additionally, the wildcards in Carroll's scenario now were his still bleeding wound, his ex-wife who wasn't outwardly struggling but clearly still plotting in her mind, Jacob (Nico Tortorella) who didn't trust Carroll wasn't going to leave him behind, and Hardy himself. Because all of this time Carroll has been feeding on Hardy's guilt and using it to needle at him. He taunted him similarly with his note in "The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe," left behind at the compound. The note acted as a bookmark to the short story "The Mask of the Red Death," which is about coming to terms with mortality and the futility of trying to stop something as inevitable as death. In the story, about a hooded figure of nothingness kills everyone with whom it comes into contact. It's depicted as a plague, and of course the FBI took that literally, to assume the followers were planning something big at the place in town where everyone sought refuge (in Poe's story, it was a castle, but in Havenport, it's an evacuation center). I have to hand it to them: they went in without face sheets to try to compare to the people who were seeking a safe place, so they wandered and ultimately caught a lucky break by the fact that the followers want their messages to come across. So one guy caught Hardy's eye on purpose, right before the lights went out, the alarms sounded, and random people started getting stabbed, inciting a panicky run for the exits that had the FBI shooting almost blindly but never wildly into the crowd.
But the thing is, Poe's works have become the classics they have because of the deeper allegories and meanings. Yes, there was a literal plague in "The Mask of the Red Death," but it also can be a metaphor for any destructive figure. While on the surface, many would assume Carroll is the stand-in for that figure simply because he literally kills, if we look back over the course of the first season, it is Hardy who represents the allegory more thoroughly. Starting in the pilot with Carroll's last victim Hardy didn't end up saving and the woman who walked into the precinct, disrobed, and stabbed herself in the eye, leading up to his new boss, in a way even Jacob, and most recently Parker (Annie Parisse), those Hardy came into contact with wouldn't make it. And now Carroll was taunting Hardy with Claire's inevitable death-- not because of what she did to him alone but because of her involvement with Hardy, her choosing Hardy over Carroll.
For the record, I would have enjoyed the revelation more if the blonde with the crazy eyes didn't come right out and tell Hardy how much the message in that story was meant for him-- right after quoting "Annabel Lee" (a poem about ultimate love and devotion) to boot. It gave the audience answers that are more special when deduced organically on a viewer's own. I was bummed the audience was underestimated here, and yet I got it: if the characters were still underestimating each other after knowing each other for years, who were we to claim to know everything after only a few weeks?
Claire was certainly a big offender, not taking the time to consider that Carroll would have already thought things through enough to deliver his messages and to know his water escape wasn't actually the bad idea she was pleading, but Emma and Jacob were right up there, too. She assumed he'd still be okay to go along with the plan like always, and he assumed she wouldn't. When he was sitting in the car in the garage, he looked like he was contemplating committing suicide, but he didn't want to give Carroll the satisfaction because he doesn't want to die for him; he didn't want Carroll to be the most important thing about his life. Still, his discussion with Hardy last week seemed to change him, and he seemed to accept his fate would be to die somehow. There was no real way to make it out of this alive; he had to know that. Even if convinced Emma to run with him-- or even if he ran without her-- how far he could get with his picture all over the news and roadblocks set up on the edges of town. It was a suicide mission but without him having to admit that's what it was. His recent, false bravado had faded away, even his anger had faded away, and there was the somewhat lost, somewhat scared puppy dog Jacob we knew from the beginning-- a kid who just wanted to belong and unfortunately realized he had nowhere to do so anymore. I really feel like letting Emma in on his plan was only part declaration of love for her and mostly his subconscious' way of completing the mission without it having to be his "choice." How far could he get with Emma knowing his plan was to be a deserter? Well, not even out of the car because she kissed him, and stabbed him and unlike Claire, she made her blow fatal. He had to know that was what would happen. He knew how ruthless she could be; he knew how devoted to Carroll she was; he knew her. I'm not even sorry it happened because it was so perfect for the story and staying true to those characters, and it provided such a poignant moment as he seemed to find an odd peace, and she struggled with the fact that she really did care about him but cared about Carroll more and whether that would be her undoing eventually, too, she wasn't ready for it to be yet.
But in a twist designed to show just how far Carroll had fallen, he was the biggest offender, actually untying Claire so she could club him with a wine bottle and stab him again. True to her character, she was most concerned with escape, so she didn't slice his throat or stab him in the heart to ensure a kill, just poked at his wound some more and ran. It was enough to do damage to his body and his ego, but it still wasn't enough for him to retaliate. He's unraveling, sure, but she may be the only thing holding him together at all right now because having her keeps his connection to Hardy.