When last we spoke, at the end of The Following’s first season, we witnessed serial killer and cult leader Joe Carroll’s “death” by fire. Agent Parker got buried alive, along with her half-finished backstory, and Ryan Hardy shot one of Carroll’s followers to death in frustration. Emma killed Jacob who should have really seen that one coming. And Ryan Hardy pulled off his first successful rescue, of Claire, his love. So, good things, bad things. Then, this episode opens right where the last one left off, and we see Claire get stabbed repeatedly as Ryan is unable to save her. Like its protagonist, The Following seems to have used its hiatus to ponder what goals it hopes to achieve in the coming month. And just like Hardy, who has become a sober criminology professor by day in order to conceal his real identity as a “hell-bent on revenge vigilante” by night, The Following seems to have dual agendas at play.
The first is to scoff in the face of what up to now has been considered violent on network television. With the exception of American Horror Story, The Following isn’t like other crime shows you just flip on when you feel like watching something dark. You have to actually prepare yourself for what might happen. The subway stabbing scene in this episode is one of the most viscerally disturbing scenes I’ve ever seen on film or television. Three members of a Joe Carroll off-shoot cult board a New York City subway car wearing rubber Joe Carroll masks and proceed to stab everyone in one car. It’s horrible and terrifying. The day after I watched, I took the subway and just the sight of the train’s seats felts threatening. The show is genuinely suspenseful, which is something some other, arguably more sophisticated shows have trouble pulling off. A lot of that suspense, though, comes from knowing that the show isn’t afraid to get gory. And not the campy, Kevin Williamson back in his Scream days kind of gory either. It feels more like the show that Kevin Williamson’s evil twin would make. Two siblings grow up watching the same horror films. One makes a cheeky homage to those films that manages to comment on the violence in horror films while at the same packing in plenty of its own; the other creates a show that claims that you haven’t truly lived until you’ve stuck a knife in another human being. There doesn’t seem to be any ironic distance at all when it comes to its violence, which is interesting considering there seems to be loads of jokey self-awareness when it comes to its core concept and characters.
This plays out the most, of course, in the character of Ryan Hardy. After Claire’s death, we flash-forward to months later when he’s apparently pulled his life together. It’s a Ryan Hardy we’ve never seen before. The ice cube trays in his fridge are filled with water, not vodka. Likewise goes for the pipes in his shower and the humidifier in his bedroom. All alcohol free! He’s gone completely sober and enrolled in AA and everything. He has a sponsor and a lady friend who turns out, for now, really just to be a friend who’s also a lady. His niece — we’ll call her Poochie — thinks he should make a move, but he’s not ready for that. Besides, he doesn’t have the time! He’s too busy still being obsessed with Joe Carroll!
If The Following weren’t in on its own joke, how else are we to make sense of the scene where Hardy has a suspect, Carlos, pinned beneath him, flat on his back, unarmed with a gun pointed at his temple, and still manages to let Carlos get away? One minute Carlos is unsuccessfully reaching for the weapon he has hidden beneath a pillow and Hardy’s all “Is this what you were looking for?” and then the next Carlos is conking Hardy on the head with, like, a bowling pin or anvil or something and running off. Why would the show even bother writing the foiled hidden weapon attempt part if not to assure us that it’s okay, nothing’s changed. It’s like a parent assuring their child that don’t worry, the kids at school will still be the same after summer break. Their voices may be deeper, their chest hair more plentiful, their earlobes more pierced but they’re still the same people inside. In the case of The Following, it seems like the show’s way of telling us that while the murders may be more romanticized and gruesome than we’re used to, Ryan Hardy will still be every bit as terrible at his job. He will still insist on taking matters into his own inept hands while still refusing to call for back-up. He will still believe in the effectiveness of pinning mug shots and Edgar Allen Poe quotes onto a corkboard and connecting them all together with string. And the personalities of the followers will make as little sense as ever. Case in point Carlos, a perfectly normal-seeming dude who just happens to like stabbing innocent strangers hanging out with necrophiliacs (necrophiliac twins, no less, doing some serious “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” action) in the name of a nonsense cult leader.
The only survivor of the subway massacre is named Lily. She’s played by the actress Connie Nielsen, whose name I saw in the opening credits and thought, Brigitte Nielson’s in this season? That fits. (Instead we have Emma walking around in a sort of Brigitte Nielsen costume. Seriously, what look is Emma going for?) Lily has a message from her assailants to deliver to the police, “Ryan Hardy can’t stop us.” When she tells that to the boss detective and young Mike, who’s back from his artist residency in the woods, they both turn around and stare sheepishly at Ryan, as if to say, “Well, yes, we already knew that.” In fact, it’s possible that this new cult is a bit misunderstood. Yes, they just senselessly murdered several more people. Yes, they strangled a girl to death and then made her lunch. They’re obviously deranged and dangerous and horrible. But when it comes to just this one detail, “Ryan Hardy can’t stop us,” I think the cult may be trying to help. Because it’s true. Ryan Hardy can’t stop them. Not just them. He can’t stop anyone. If he was knew the exact make, model, and GPS location of a murderer’s car and was given complete control of the switchboard that controlled every traffic light in the city and was allowed to call in that tech lady from last season to turn every green light red, he still wouldn’t manage to make that car stop and the victim would end up dead. Perhaps if the police force were to emphasize different words in the sentence, “Ryan Hardy can’t stop us.” “Ryan Hardy can’t stop us.” “Ryan Hardy can’t stop us.” There we go, that’s the one.
Joe Carroll is alive. Because of course he is. His escape plan was genius in its simplicity. He set a house that was on a lake on fire and then just popped into the water through an escape hatch in the floor. And then I guess he sort of swam a few feet to shore and then got out of the water, dried off, read a throwaway summer paperback, hosed off his feet so they wouldn’t track sand into the car, and drove off with newly important Carlos until they realized there were police everywhere and so he got out again. Somehow he ended up as a bearded car mechanic living in a whorehouse, with a young woman who seems as nice and sane as can be, the kind of girl who looks like she enjoys dancing and comfort food and Modern Family, not knife slashing and meals made for dead people and Edgar Allan Poe quotes used out of context. Which is why I’m assuming she’s just got to be one of Joe’s cult member killers in training.