(For the next several days, some of our writers will be swapping duties on some of our most popular shows. Some of them will like what they see, but for different reasons. Some of them will have vastly different opinions from the regular reviewers. And some of them won’t be all that different. It’s Second Opinions Week at TV Club.)
Perhaps the biggest lesson we’re learning from The Following is that it doesn’t take 15 hours to tell a serial killer story. Things that would take five minutes of screen time in a film are stretched here to episode-long length, robbing them of a good bit of tension and exposing just how flimsy of a foundation the entire endeavor rests upon. The victim of this unnecessary stretching this week is the search for Joey, a story inherently laced with action-packed drama that the show somehow instead manages to stretch out into 42 minutes of by-the-numbers banality.
The issue with the Joey story in this episode is that it isn’t a story unto itself; it’s simply a way to shift the pieces around so the show can get to the “shocking” moment of Ryan having a gun held to his head at the end. All the stuff in between— Joey calling his mom, the cops finally getting a lead on where the farmhouse is, Joey running away and being seen by the neighbors—it’s just a slow shuffle, a static dance filled with beats we’ve seen before, in better, other places. Sure, there were some decent bits, especially in Joey resisting the dumb television kid cliché and showing some real resourcefulness by finding the phone and breaking out of his room. But the rest was bland to the extreme.
The great thing about television is a lot of boring plot can be saved by interesting character work, but this episode was far more concerned with plot mechanics than building up the threesome. This was perhaps the biggest disappointment of all to me, as despite my best efforts I found myself actually giving a shit about them last week. The character-building on the show has generally been very poor, especially considering all the great actors the series has to feed material to, but last week showed a bit of a spark where the threesome was concerned, a glimmer of hope that the show was interested in Emma, Jacob, and Paul as more than empty killing machines.
Alas, this hope was mostly dashed when instead of the strange clothed threesome shower bringing them together, the night of sex that followed completely tore them apart again, with Jacob the one to pull away this time. This is a perfectly valid character choice (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but the issue here is that Jacob is barely a character to begin with, so simply shifting the angst in the threesome from Paul to Jacob does nothing to illuminate the story in any way. The idea of three isolated, lost people being thrown together by a charismatic madman and forced to build their own family unit? I might be the only one, but that is highly interesting to me. To have the show go in that direction one week and then immediately course correct the next is frustrating, to say the least.
But the biggest issue with the threesome is that Jacob and Paul have absolutely no context as characters. Emma’s back-story is completely fleshed out, but Jacob and Paul have no depth or explanation as to why they are interested in Carroll’s cause to begin with. It’s obvious by now that The Following has no desire to explore why anyone would set themselves on this path of death and doom, so any further development of these characters seems unlikely. This is a shame because forcing the audience to sympathize with a group of killers right before they do horrible things is an interesting path to examine, and a new way to frame the narrative. Instead of causing the audience internal conflict over identifying with killers, they simply exist in some strange Joe Carroll vacuum, to titillate and momentarily entertain us until he moves on to his next trick.
Jacob and Paul’s lack of depth is really the least of the show’s worries, however. No character is more than a collection of descriptive elements, and this shallowness is completely affecting what the show feels is the great love story between Ryan and Claire. It wants us to care so deeply about this lost love, this two-month relationship Ryan sabotaged because He’s Afraid Of Good Things, but even with the flashbacks last week, the decent chemistry between Kevin Bacon and Natalie Zea, and the declaration that they needed “to talk” this week, everything about them is dead on arrival because individually they are nothing, mere notions instead of people. Unless the show pulls a 24 and gets tragic with their ending, the coupling is inevitable, so I’m not sure why we need all this angst in the interim.
Really, this whole episode was just a setup, a way to shift the status quo from the farmhouse to something else altogether in the future. This forward momentum is a good thing—especially now that Claire seems to be involved in the action instead of just sitting around her house waiting for the phone to ring. But even if each episode takes place in a new location with an entirely new set of Carroll acolyte villains, it still won’t change the fact that this is a story better told in two hours, on the big screen, with popcorn in hand. Fifteen episodes of grim serial killer lore are just too much, and yet, for some reason, I find that I can't quite look away.
- "That’s Poe.” WE KNOW THAT’S POE. Really, we get it.
- I did appreciate the story immediately sparking action from Roderick, like some sort of Manchurian Poeidate.
- All the Megan stuff is just icky, the worst representation of the violence on the show.
- The “surprise” of the lawyer’s lost fingers was perfect, awful cheese. If the show was more of this over-the-top bombast and less of people with guns running around chasing each other, it might be more interesting.