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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Following: “The Betrayal”

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That was a surprisingly strong episode of The Following. I’m not sure if it’s because I resolved to give the show more of a chance this week, or if it’s because the crazy is dialed down significantly in “The Betrayal,” but either way, it’s an episode that is for once playing with some of the provocative concepts the show has introduced, instead of just letting them sit there to fester and putrefy.

The biggest one of these is finally engaging with what Joe Carroll finds threatening above all else: someone else’s narcissism. I don’t care so much for Bible-thumping preachers in general, but in the particular, Tom Cavanagh’s Kingston Taylor is a hilariously broad caricature of the type—and girl, it is so satisfying to see someone get under Joe’s skin. Where the FBI has failed, some good ol’fashioned religion succeeds. That stresses me out a bit—what is The Following’s religious message?—but if someone’s making the other JC frustrated and cranky, it can only be a good thing.

There’s a lot of talk about religion in tonight’s episode—though most of it is talking around real religious debate. Instead of discussing why God would allow bad things to happen, Claire and Ryan discuss what it means to be atheist, which is a different kind of anxiety about faith. I wasn’t raised in the Midwest, but I have heard from friends who were that there’s more doubt and concern around people who have no faith at all than people who are from a marginal or minority religion.

Last week, Ryan told Mike that God owed them “something.” This week, Ryan tells Claire he’s an atheist, like Joe. I’d be more interested in the show’s morality if it didn’t seem like Ryan and Joe both call themselves atheists primarily to tap into that anxiety of the unknown, godless type. But it’s interesting that Ryan vacillates between the two. The Following is deliberately amoral, in some ways, so it’s been revealing, hearing the show get into its moral system.

It kind of confirms what I wrote a few weeks ago, in “Teacher’s Pet”: There’s an unexamined fear of difference at the root of The Following. And as long as the show relies on that, it will never be great, or anything more than passable: less because of the “fear of difference,” and more because of the “unexamined.” Make a show about whatever you want, but please, if you want other people to watch it, you have to do them the credit of thinking through what you create. Just this feint towards examination in “The Betrayal” is refreshing—imagine what the whole show could be like?

I do think that the new and improve Claire Matthews has something to do with it. Divested of Joey (who was always little more than a plot device) and newly invested with the desire to kill, she’s an interesting wildcard brought into the mix. The writers are giving her some actual material to work with—compare Claire’s lines to Lily’s, or to Mandy’s, and it’s clear that the writers want Claire to be more complex, just as they want those other characters to be one-dimensional.


Claire, though, brings up something else funny: The weirdest thing The Following has ever tried to do is be a romance. Emma’s relationship with Joe is mostly sick and twisted, which suits the show, and though Ryan and Carrie are a thing, it feels largely a marriage of convenience. Claire and Ryan, though, are supposed to love each other, as Mike and Max are destined to. I am the worst ‘shipper I know, but even I want to tell everyone in this show—this is not the time, or the place. Keep it in your pants until the bad guys are dead!

But the two primary reasons, for me, that this episode didn’t drag as much as earlier weeks are that one, stabbings were kept to a minimum (or I closed my eyes enough to avoid them) and two, the good guys are finally winning a little. Joe is really ruffled both by Kingston Taylor and by Lily’s manipulations, and for once, he ends the episode down a bit. His people kidnap Taylor’s son, but Lily kills Mandy (and then eats dinner with her corpse propped up in a chair, as her twins devour cake).


Lily is hardly a character—more a waking nightmare—but even in her flatness, she’s more charismatic than Joe Carroll. James Purefoy is always striking a note between relatable and psychopathic in his performance, but The Following isn’t graceful enough to make something like that work. Lily’s batshit insanity is a lot less relatable but a lot more fun—sure, bake a cake for the kids, and then kill one of them, why not?

I wonder what it would be like to be Mandy. A person who flits from one group of serial killers to the other, first taking refuge with murder twins and then with a murder cult. Why would she run from one to the other? And how could she possibly imagine that she would survive being loyal to Joe? Why was she even loyal to him? What frustrates me most about The Following—despite this somewhat stronger episode—is that the story that should really matter, that should really get attention, is Mandy’s story of disenfranchisement and confused loyalty. Instead, we get four teenagers in a room, knifing everyone who gets in their way.


Stray observations:

  • Mandy is played by Tiffany Boone, who incidentally is also in Beautiful Creatures.
  • It’s weird when The Following puts us, the viewers, in the position of triumphantly fist-pumping the brutal murder of some random frat boy, even when that frat boy calls a total stranger a “fatty.” Again with the confused morality!
  • I accidentally got the wrong episode title last week. This week is “The Betrayal.” Last week was actually called “Freedom.”
  • So! Ryan and the FBI finally catch a break. Ryan’s in the cult. Who’s the Poe now, bitch?