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Claire Matthews has a tough life—and, truly, the hardest job in The Following. Ryan postures as Good Guy; Joe Carroll is the anticharismatic antihero. Mike and Max are there to be handsome backup, all while making moon-eyes at each other; everyone else is either a potential murderer or a potential victim. But Claire has to do something very important for the central theme of this show. She has to be confidently and consistently stupid. Natalie Zea is not stupid, and she doesn’t make Claire look stupid. But in order for The Following to work, Claire has to have the agency, originality, and smarts of a pile of bricks. And using these brick-like skills, she ensnares The Following into retreading the same old storylines: Joe and Ryan, so different, yet so alike! Classic Poe!

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But, despite strong brick-like work on Claire’s part, this season finale—like this season, and this show—just doesn’t work. Because in order for Claire’s whole damsel-in-distress thing to work, we, the audience, have to believe that Joe is a person who is capable of loving Claire.

Here is the total amount of evidence offered this season to suggest that Joe, murderous, narcissistic, serial-killing cult leader, cares even slightly about Claire’s feelings: an aside, to the cult leader whom he will momentarily dispatch, that he regrets what happened with Claire more than anything. Compelling evidence, The Following!

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The problem is that this show never really committed to what Joe Carroll was supposed to be. In the first season, he was megalomaniacal; in this season, he’s oddly measured and wry. This finale plays more like a bizarre buddy-cop comedy—in which Ryan and Joe play bad-cop/worse-cop against a pair of crazy serial killers who believe in death; never mind that Joe is also a crazy serial killer who believes in death.

I grant this to The Following—when James Purefoy and Kevin Bacon are given free rein to dick around while being on the same side, they’re oddly engaging. Free of the detached way the show depicts violence—and free, too, of the increasingly dark and muted color palette that defines the show—the two men have a chance to just be cool together. It makes for perfectly adequate television. In one scene, Ryan and Joe open up envelopes on the steps up to a mansion. They’re both wearing dark or black clothes and heavy boots and/or leather jackets. Perhaps they don’t face certain death inside the mansion, but it’s still a fool’s errand: a response to a ransom note sent by crazy people. In this brief moment, Joe and Ryan are on the same side. And it works, better than anything else in this show has ever worked.

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More than once while watching this finale I was reminded of Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., which has had a late-breaking strong push because of a few key decisions: The show made a good guy into a bad guy, and the results have been unexpectedly spectacular. Reverse the polarity, a Star Trek fan would say—and I find myself agreeing. If only The Following had allowed Joe to reverse his polarity this season—to accompany Ryan on his investigations, to give lectures on the dangers of serial murder cults. Instead, The Following is too enamored of its own darlings: cults, killings, and senseless violence. Senseless not just because it was easily preventable—senseless because the motivation behind it no longer has any meaning. I imagine people in real murder cults find The Following to be very silly indeed.

At the end of the day, The Following is an extraordinary lesson in how to not run a television show. Or, to be more exact, on how to be a flash in the pan. The idea behind the show had exactly enough juice to get it through about half a season of murderous intrigue; then, as the show began to follow all of its insinuations to their logical ends, it found itself in darker, stranger territory than it ever intended. But rather than embracing its brave new world, it feinted and retreated, again and again. As I asserted last week, The Following is afraid of itself—it’s afraid of the dark shadows it stirs up, and so it deliberately refuses to engage with them. This is a show hell-bent on being banal.

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It does not surprise me that the ratings are falling. Even morbid curiosity has its limits (and 2 Broke Girls over on CBS sometimes features Lindsay Lohan). As both David Sims and I have worked to establish, The Following is not a show that can be seriously watched and analyzed. But it’s also not really a show that can be left on in the background while the kids are doing their homework, either. (At least, I hope not.) This is just an aggressively dumb show, and though there isn’t anything wrong with that, per se, it baffles me that there are creative minds behind this show who are still so eager to make it happen.

There are, interestingly, many, many fanblogs out there for The Following. I perused Tumblr for a bit and found several: General interest for the show; a “confessions” blog; a shipper blog for Max and Mike (their ship name is Maxton). I’m a little surprised, but not that surprised. Fandom is a weird phenomenon. Sometimes, it follows shows that are stuffed full of things to wonder about—your Game Of Thrones or your Mad Men. And then sometimes, it follows shows that are so slim that one random little kiss feeds the imagination of its audience. Jessica Stroup and Shawn Ashmore have good chemistry in the show—and as I’ve said before, Max is my favorite character on The Following, and probably all that saved it in my mind from an outright fail this season.

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But with Joe, Max, Mike, Claire, and even its hero/antihero, Ryan Hardy: Any interiority these characters professed to have existed purely in the generous readings of its viewers. The show didn’t give these characters enough to have depth, which meant that their motivations never coalesced into anything clear. The conclusion of this season is a battle of wills between Ryan and Joe, an explicitly stated struggle for Ryan’s soul. It lacks all narrative urgency or interest, because these characters mean so little to us by now. And it seems to me that the more relevant struggle here is the struggle for the show to prove why it thinks it should exist. Is it so Max and Mike can kiss? Is it so Claire can have a life? Or is it so Ryan can have another nightmare alone in his apartment, as Sam Underwood cackles in the background? I don’t know. It would behoove the third season of the show to find out.

Episode grade: D
Season grade: D-

Stray observations:

  • I am a professional ‘shipper, and that first kiss between Max and Mike is, like, a 4.5 out of 10. Not great, but not too shabby, either. Especially for The Following.
  • So Carrie’s not dead? I’m actually really confused by this.
  • The twin drags his corpse-brother through the woods. Trudging and trudging. He’s made the call, but now he has to get to the meeting point, and between here and there, there are so many miles. He reaches a fork in the path, and a Robert Frost poem flits through his head. Then he thinks, “I should have killed Robert Frost.”
  • Luke, or Mark (who knows what his name is, he’s just “the surviving twin”) drags Luke, or Mark (the dead one) into the white truck that is conveniently waiting for them. He checks, and yes, she’s inside the car, driving. Luke/Mark straps Luke/Mark into the backseat and then hoists himself up next to him. Corpses are better company than most people, but then again, most people don’t start to rot after two days.
  • She looks back for a moment, exhaling a cloud of cigarette smoke that commingles with the steam from his breath. Precious cargo: a corpse and his boy. Luke/Mark looks almost peaceful in the stillness. And his brother is staring at her hopefully, wishing she would say something to break the silence.
  • Then he says: “Thanks for coming. I didn’t know who else to call.”
  • Claire Matthews rolls down the window and tosses out her cigarette butt. Then she shrugs back her honey-brown hair with blonde highlights into the hood of her parka, retreating into its shadowy warmth. Her neck still hurt from earlier in the evening, when Luke and Mark had strung her up to be hanged.
  • But it had been worth it, just for the look on Ryan Hardy’s face. Mild, confused concern really did suit him.
  • Claire shifted the car into drive and hit the accelerator, barreling down the snowy path with a speed that probably wasn’t entirely safe. Oh well, who cares? Because tonight, she was going to be Lindsay Lohan. She was going to be Katy Perry. No, she said, winking at herself in the rearview mirror—she was going to be Oprah.
  • She pushed back her carefully highlighted, picturesquely tousled hair and drove her corpse twin and live twin into a uncertain future, in a story that didn’t matter, in a world that didn’t care.

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