In the world of The Following, where everyone is a monster, the only character I have any affection for is Max, Ryan Hardy’s niece who works for the NYPD. All the other actors, including the usually talented Kevin Bacon and James Purefoy, are phoning it in so hard that I’d be surprised if they’ve even reading the scripts—they don’t even seem to know what’s happening in each scene. In this episode Bacon is called upon to emote fear for his last remaining family member. He pastes a look upon his face as he stares at computer monitors and then at surveillance videos and then at the furnishings of a serial killer’s cabin. He wears the same face as he interrogates a scared woman and locks a door to bully a child into revealing truths about his father.
He has grown numb to horror, Ryan Hardy has. Or, he was always numb to horror. And who can blame him? This is a world where everything that happens is the worst possible thing—where nowhere and nothing is safe. Hardy is supposed to be our hero in this world—the romantic portrayal of a man weathered by the indignities of life, who has just his own code and a gun to get him through this weary struggle until he can lay down his burdens and die, leaving the problems of the earth to some other troubled soul. He’s supposed to be the Man in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, I think—a man with just one small mission and a will to survive, up against unbelievable odds.
It’s usually a compelling figure. It evokes the lone cowboy making a stand in any number of Westerns, or Ernest Hemingway’s heroes who didn’t believe in anyone or anything but still tried to live by a code. Even Jimmy McNulty in The Wire is an example of this kind of maverick cop. There is a quiet dignity in enduring life and being an example of what you want the cruel world to be, instead—a place of order and justice and virtue, or something else good, like cheese.
Hardy has turned instead into a hero with all the appeal of a block of concrete. It’s not purely Kevin Bacon’s fault. Hardy is written to be numb and benumbed, a guy who delves into a world of horror and becomes a victim in the worst way possible. The reason I liked the first few episodes of The Following this season is that Ryan Hardy sort of turned a corner, and became his own person again. Now that Joe is back, Hardy, and everyone he cares about, is a target. He should, if dignity were a major player here, just kill himself. It would mean that Max wasn’t a target, for example.
But Ryan Hardy is the most boring hero in the entire universe. He’s just going to keep doing the dumb shit that has gotten him into this mess. At no point will Ryan Hardy stop and think to himself, hey, I wonder if my methods are flawed? Maybe the same thing I’ve done for every killer—track down surveillance information and find where they live while the real masterminds slip even further out of my grasp—won’t work this time? There’s a brief pause, as Hardy considers this moment of introspection. A dog barks in the distance. A butterfly floats by. A lawnmower—presumably that of the serial killers that live next door—whirrs loudly as it makes a turn.
Where Hardy is useless good guy trapped in a repeating pattern of uselessness, James Purefoy has perfected Joe Carroll’s sick, smug grin—and deploys it in every scene imaginable, from interrogation to murder to sex with one of his many weird paramours. Creepy cult that makes them strip naked? Smug and knowing. Involved, invasive lie detector test? Smirk. Boob in face? Obviously, he grinned. Time to describe what it feels like to kill any number of helpless women? Smiles with delight. I hate not just Joe Carroll but this show for paying James Purefoy to be such a sick, evil bastard.
Which returns me to Max, who seems to be the only character with any amount of real lifeblood running through her veins. She has a nice schtick—not all that original, but it works—as the tough lady cop in New York, with a pretty face and a big heart and a gun. She’s very real about everything, and often sounds like the voice of the audience. This is stupid, she conveys to Ryan Hardy. You’re a freaking moron. Stop making this worse. And later, to her captor: You’re disgusting and I hate you. Thanks, Max, for articulating how we are all feeling.
Naturally, as both Debra and Claire have been killed, to be replaced with other women who look a lot like them, there is a very high chance that Max will not survive the season. (Women who aren’t serial killers do not survive this show. That is rule number one.) Tonight in “The Sacrifice” that’s foreshadowed as Connie Nielsen’s character has Max kidnapped by a notoriously vicious serial killer named The Huntsman (not the same Huntsman that helped Snow White, I think) who makes his victims run and then shoots them with a bow and arrow, like prey! Then he skins them. And if they have tattoos, he saves them on blocks of wood in his cabin! Fun guy. His character is almost entirely lifted from Abigail’s father in Hannibal’s first season, also, so I think The Following ran out of ideas and started borrowing from other dramas. He even has a kid he corrupts, just like Abigail; except this time, it’s a boy, because The Following hates women. The boy is not only an accomplice; he’s decidedly evil as well (which doesn’t quite seem fair, as he’s like eight). He and his father stage a scene of abuse to get Max to intervene (on the boy’s behalf!); then when she does, they drug her and put her in the trunk. The boy says, “Smile, Miss Hardy.” And then later, when Ryan’s interrogating him, he refers to his father’s victims as “whores.”
Yeah. We’re discussing a show where an 8-year-old boy refers to the young women his father mutilates and murders as whores. If you wanted nuance about how evil might creep into people, go back to Hannibal. For more misogynistic shock-horror, read on! (The Following lets you choose your own adventure, provided one option is always stop watching.) To be fair to the monster-child and his murderer-dad, all of The Huntsman’s previous victims were prostitutes. But Max, he’s doing as a favor to Lily. How sweet! It’s like her Christmas present!
Meanwhile: Emma’s dead! No, she’s not really dead. This show trades in cheap thrills and anonymous horror; it’s too chickenshit to really kill off one of its precious serial killers. But it does tie her to a structure and slit her wrists so that some crazy priest-type cult guys can drink her blood, so that’s fine. Emma deserves what she gets, and I’m not feeling too stressed out about her new place in the world. The titular sacrifice sounds like it’s going to be Max, but then turns into Emma. That’s a good old-fashioned Hollywood bait-and-switch. Tell your friends.
- Welcome all, to the post-David Sims weekly reviews of The Following. I know I can’t really fill his place in your hearts, but I’ll try to make these fun as we descend into madness for the next two months.
- Oh yeah, Mike’s dad is killed on-camera. I guess that’s important. It’s very The Following to crush your sense of positivity with more murder.
- This week in misogyny: “Whores” used twice; “bitch” used twice; unnecessary psychosexual boob-talk comes up once; and Joe describes the feeling of killing women as “sexual” once. Mike makes gushy noises about how they “lost” Debra. Unnamed woman who looks like Debra gives Ryan Hardy her trust (RED FLAG). And: Emma and that other girl who are fawning over Joe? They hate each other, because the patriarchy (Joe) makes women think they must compete with each other. Girls, team up and kill the patriarchy (Joe). Poe would have loved it!
- Sometimes when I sit next to people on planes or otherwise make small talk, it comes up that I write about television, and usually I ask them what they like watching. More than once, from both a man and a woman, I have heard the response that they really enjoy The Following. One woman, a business executive, told me in what was otherwise a fascinating conversation about how she identified with the Khaleesi in Game Of Thrones that she found The Following so interesting and scary! You could never tell what was going to happen next! And a few months ago, a publicist for a film told me The Following was a show he was excited to see returning to TV, because he liked that it was so creepy and over-the-top. Sound the alarms; we need to shut it all down, immediately. That’s right. I mean America. Shut it down, right now.
- “I don’t respond to normal situations… appropriately.” Oh yeah, Mike? You think?
- In case it wasn’t entirely clear: This show is disgusting and evil. See you next week!