The Following so far is like watching a baby horse being born: It's gross, gory, kind of a train wreck, lacks grace, and, when it tries to stand up, it's shaky at best.
It's early, obviously, and we have to reserve a lot of judgement until the show has a few more episodes under its belt but this is pretty much what I expected when I heard that Kevin Williamson had a show that didn't involve eloquent, banter-prone teenagers but did involve Kevin Bacon. Williamson is very good at creating a story world operated under adolescent perspective and rulesets. His grown-ups, however, have never really been interesting. In fact, they've generally been children, too. Remember Mitch and the ice cream cone on the Creek? Oh boy.
The major problem with The Following right now is believability, and not so much because the things happening aren't logical, but because they aren't reasonable. The difference between the two is having to explain things after a person has already consumed them versus an audience being captivated by what's happening in front of them. There are too many instances where the characters are operating with only vague motivations, and you wonder how the chessboard is set up. Except that you only know it's a chessboard because they tell you.
Tim nailed it last week in his review of The Following's series premiere when he talked about the difficulty of creating story arcs with characters who don't seem to have a real plan other than to do what they want. We know that Carroll's reason for creating this game is to orchestrate a masterpiece from behind bars and to include his adversary as a hero. He wants puppets. But there's no real goal other than doing what he wants to do and creating puzzles that are based, presumably, on guts. He's already in jail and he already completed his masterpiece by killing Maggie Grace in the first episode (sad face). So now his goal is to enable a cult and create a bigger masterpiece? The vagaries of the criminally insane and sociopathic make it hard to maintain interest. He just does things to do things. He has no boundaries, no limits other than those of his trained assassins, and inscrutable logic that can change on a whim 'cause he's cray. It's like villainizing nature.
The apparent structure that's placed on this "plan" is guidance from the works of Edgar Allen Poe, who's a strange-looking man to idolize. Generally, you don't want your cult icons to look as nebbish as Poe does, with his Victorian garb and tiny mustache, but here people are, wearing masks to carry out Carroll's dirty work. The bigger problem is that they use such a superficial and narrow version of Gothic Romanticism as the flag under which they carry out crimes of murder. For people who want to create a religion based on Poe and led by a Poe academic, their understanding of the man and his works seems to be limited to notes taken by an underclassman in a 101 lecture.
The rallying cry of "Nevermore" is annoying, and I'd hoped it wouldn't live past the pilot. But it was everywhere in Episode 2, up in the attic, beside the pictures of all the deceased. It's like if there was a cult based on Roger Ebert and they wrote "thumbs down" next to all the dead people. And, mind you, Poe was a literary critic.
What "Chapter Two" did well was create a sense that the cult has its own agency and that the chessboard, while vaguely assembled, allows for Hardy to move into positions that threaten Carroll's game. Even though Carroll is a messianic figure capable of bending people to the will of his charisma, it doesn't necessarily mean that his soldiers in the field will be able to deny their own humanity when operating under his absent command. Jordy as the new trainee and Team Good-Looking as the keepers of little Joey the hostage (on, what, is that a ranch? A plantation?) had their own dramas to sort out and issues to deal with that were, in my opinion, superior to the overall mission and leads.
Jordy is my favorite example of that, as bumbling and eager as he is. The writers might as well have named him Lennie, as he's an impressionable oaf who takes orders and is very literal about carrying out instructions. I liked that he had complete transparency when he prepared to kill the sorority girl. He was sure of himself, had followed a plan to the letter, and was confident that his instructions could be carried out effectively. That his massacre was so sloppy and amateurish only added nuance to the character and provided a level of difficulty. No ordinary human can do what Carroll does, and that was demonstrated by how much Jordy, an ordinary human, screwed up even in his success.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the best opportunity for post-adolescent shenanigans was at play as the pawns in Carroll's game struggled to negotiate the changes in the rules after they'd lived in certain roles for so long—a challenge that'd be difficult for anyone but maddening for people as impressionable as these three seem to be. The potential in that house is almost good enough for a spin-off, if the show wants to bench Bacon for being terrible.
What this episode didn't do was make me care about anyone else, particularly on the police side of things. The Following seems predicated on the fact that law enforcement is deeply stupid and horrendously ineffectual. Despite the fact that Carroll's minions were able to spirit away both Sarah and Joey in unconventional ways, through a hole in the closet and a trusted employee, respectively, are you telling me that no one thought to check the basement? THAT'S WHERE KILLERS LIVE. Leatherface doesn't hang out in a bedroom with bay windows. Learn from your mistakes and think like your villain!
Of course, with law enforcement being so stunningly awful, the door was left open for Bacon's hamming to connote his superiority. Dead people in the innards of a building? "Classic Poe." Yeah, we know. "What are those?" They're obviously blueprints from the lair you just investigated. They were all over the walls and just about labeled (the only thing missing was a big, bloody "Nevermore" caption under Sarah's place). It must be from Hardy's years of expertise that he was able to piece together that puzzle. "Hey, let's put a civilian who's at the hearbeat of this case alone in the same room with her ex-husband serial killer and see what happens!" Who would do that?
Although, to be fair, I wouldn't mind if Claire Matthews bit it. She's necessary to the plot of the show as the only source of any kind of sympathy Carroll or Hardy might have, but I feel nothing for her. The chemistry between her and Hardy represents a dearth that only exists between polite, attractive strangers and as a character, even as a many-time victim, she almost repels emotional investment. The strongest moment between them was the kiss, which I almost liked, except that it seemed awkward in a different way than the awkwardness they were trying for. It felt like two actors kissing which, from what I hear, is not how you want to feel about two characters emoting.
I'm not done with The Following, though I'm a little disheartened. It's Kevin Williamson trying to be Andrew Kevin Walker (Kevin trifecta!), and maybe the show needs more of an opportunity to hook us. Pilots are hard and second episodes can be just as tough. Here's hoping three and four can make up some ground.
– Is anyone else feeling the love for the Green Bay Packers with some of these names? Jordy like Jordy Nelson? Claire Matthews sounds like Clay Matthews? No? Just me and my bitter disappointment for the season? Okay.
– "Rick" in the Poe mask lighting a dude on fire felt less like a romantic death than it did a Fight Club Project Mayhem task. Compare that to Emma killing her mother—what it lacked in flash it had in poetic justice. Also, again, it's hard to take anyone seriously when they're wearing the mask of someone who looks like they'd sound like Hans Moleman.
– With the Marilyn Manson cover of "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)" last week, the Deftones' "Change (in the House of Flies)" and Sepultura's cover of Massive Attack's "Angel" this week, it's like whoever is doing the soundtrack for this show is hanging out with my 15-year-old self. Hope s/he's wearing Jncos or else I'll look like an idiot.
– Another point for this episode: Replacing the lead agent from last week and replacing her with Parker. It makes sense that Hardy breaking Carroll's fingers on her watch would mean she should probably be off the case. Also, Parker, a cult expert, might be in on the Poe thrill-kill cult. Somewhat interesting.
– "This is my chapter and I can write it any way I want to." The most telling line of how this cult is organized, more so than any of the investigators' hypotheses.