This review contains spoilers.
With the second season of The Following, the show took its strongest elements and emphasized them. Gone is the literary Poe, exchanged for a megalomaniac religious commentary from an atheist serial killer. Gone is the Joe Carroll that’s supposed to be fascinating and captivating; in his place is a ruthless, world-champion manipulator of stupid people. Rewriting the show on the fly between seasons, The Following managed to hang onto several crucial elements: a George R.R. Martin-style ability to kill off every character, a soap opera willingness to bring any character back to life no matter how many times they got stabbed (paging Valorie Curry), and a surprisingly solid cast of actors from the lead on down.
The Following isn’t a show with a lot of rules. The FBI is still pretty incompetent (but smarter than the first season), while Joe’s cult is very powerful (even his new cult has a cellar full of crazy killers, which is slightly less helpful than cops and FBI agents, but is still kind of helpful). Aside from that, everything seems to be up for grabs. However, there’s one element the show has made perfectly clear: Ryan Hardy and Joe Carroll work best when they’re together. By loading the back half of the season with plenty of set-ups for the two of them to be talking to one another, The Following‘s creative team has pushed Kevin Bacon and James Purefoy back into the limelight, and that only serves as a boon for the program. Any kind of hammy speech or noisy fight or sarcastic quip is made that much more effective.
When those two get the material, they’re really effective, and Bacon and Purefoy’s performances only get better when they face off with one another. I have my problems with Kevin Williamson, but his script this week was pretty spectacular. It minimized most of the usual traps The Following stumbles into by focusing on the “dinner party” with Mark, Luke, Ryan, Joe, and Claire. Knowing how Mark and Luke eat, it’s tense enough, but when you have Kevin Bacon chewing on a toothsome scene that allows him to actually emote beyond snarky humor, it’s clear why he’s a big star. James Purefoy might not have gotten the big emotional moment at dinner, but his role was even more crucial. Joe goaded Mark and Luke and also guided the conversation with Ryan, forcing Ryan to react to him and thus distract the kids with a tale of Ryan’s dead dad. When Purefoy gets to be snarky and cutting while manipulating those around him, he seems to have a lot of fun and he’s definitely enjoying himself this week.
Of course, it’s not perfect, because it’s still The Following, but the episode was definitely entertaining. After all, Ryan disarms a bomb, breaks a video camera, hits a woman, breaks/bloodies Joe’s nose and gives him a towel as a disguise, and generally runs rampant over everyone in his path. The HRT squad’s decision to break into the church and save the hostages/execute the cultists is another failed Joe plot to add to his list of failed jobs, but it ended up looking really good. Marcos Siega shot that sequence almost like a video game, using a green filter to resemble night vision goggles. The aforementioned dinner scene is also well constructed, as well. It’s tense, even for people who aren’t particularly interested in whether or not Claire lives, and it’s a fun way to mix up character dynamics by keeping the show’s two most prolific killers as hostages to a couple of random guys.
Much has been made of Ryan Hardy and Joe Carroll’s similarity to one another, particularly by Joe himself. I guess Joe is so narcissistic he sees traits of himself in everyone, but there’s a lot to back up the Ryan/Joe corollary, especially considering Ryan’s historical urge to shoot first and never ask questions of anyone about anything. It’s effective because it’s true, but it’s also effective because it’s funny. There’s a little vein of comedy running through the center of this show, you’ll just never see it jump out as the main attraction. The humor shows up, creates a few laughs (Max and Mike’s whole conversation in the car before chasing after Ryan), and manages to distract you so the show’s black heart and fading goodwill among the cast and crew members isn’t exposed.
Here’s hoping the show can balance the audience’s desire for stabbings and black comedy without losing its way. If The Following started winking at its own goofiness, I think the show’s charm would be diminished. Still, a third season bad guy teaming up with the surviving Lily cultist Mark that isn’t a reincarnation of Emma (or that might be Emma, or that might be Mandy, or that might be someone entirely new) ought to work, because it moves the show back onto its initial position; Ryan Hardy trying to stop a killer with the help of a killer. Call it a complete circle, at least until Joe escapes.
It’s not that I think The Following is a good show; it’s definitely not. I found the second season of The Following surprisingly entertaining, so much so that I am willing to look past the warts and wrap my arms around the sprawling, confused mess. I like that the show’s a dumb, nihilistic mess that appeals to the lizard brain, and the more Ryan snark or Joe monologues I get, the happier I am with Kevin Williamson’s TV project.
Read Ron’s review of the previous episode, Silence, here.
US Correspondent Ron Hogan would love it if he could make a few phone calls and have someone swing by a war zone full of FBI agents to help me escape with the corpse of my brother or submit a late episode review. Find more by Ron daily at Shaktronics and PopFi.
Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here.