Kevin Smith used to do a bit during his Q & A tours about how he generally makes fun of himself before other people can make fun of him, regardless of whether or not they were planning to make fun of him. He steals the criticism thunder of others, leaving them with the response, "Well, at least he knows."
I felt that "at least they know" feeling more than a couple times during "Mad Love." Whether it was Hardy telling Carroll that it's amateur hour, Carroll telling Hardy that he never liked the mask thing, or Maggie admitting that the revenge metaphor should've included Claire and not Brand New Character Jenny, it felt like Episode 4 was self-aware in an attempt to steal all our thunder.
It's almost like The Following knows that this is the point where we decide whether to keep watching or delete the series recording from our DVRs.
Four episodes deep, let's get into this compliment sandwich.
Something good, something good, something good—ah, the sexual politics of the growing polyamorous subcult. I've never been compelled by Carroll or his chess game with Hardy since it seems like the two aren't really playing so much as Carroll's pawns are self-destructing. But, now that Jordy's gone, ostensibly somewhere petting the rabbits, and Maggie is out of the picture, the focus is primarily on these three (well, five counting Joey and poor Megan).
Now that Joe's plan is in motion, Emma, Paul, and Jacob are acting without his immediate guidance. There's no more showing up at the prison to get that hit of Carroll crack to keep them going, no phone calls, nothing to keep them disciplined. So it's interesting to see how they maintain their commitment and what can cause the group to splinter.
During "The Poet's Fire," the group got a dose of that when Paul decided it was time for him to prove his hetero manhood by kidnapping an unfortunately trusting girl and bringing her home for lack of a better plan. This week it was time for Jacob to be a weak link on account that he's not at all like the others, in that he can't bring himself to kill. What made the story interesting was that, instead of breaking apart at the whiff of betrayal and the fair question of whether Jacob really wants to be part of a murder cult, the gang kept us interested with a family-like setting of acceptance.
An audience member could come away with mixed emotions regarding how they plan to "help" Jacob. They didn't kill Megan and they didn't even punish Jacob for letting her go. They just recaptured her in the hopes, I assume, of officially initiating him into their group. You know, to make an honest man out of him. Instead of feeling deceived, they embraced him. Anyone who's ever felt like a black sheep might've experienced a combination of warm fuzzies for a family accepting the odd man out and nausea that the odd man out is odd because he hasn't killed anyone. The show is testing our empathy, which is something I can appreciate.
I can also appreciate good-looking people taking showers together, even if it's a little weird that they're all wearing their clothes while doing so. But we're pretty sure that in a couple weeks, now that Emma and Paul have bonded over almost-murder, this is going to be a nudist free love commune with a hostage, right?
Something that can be improved: Most of the Hardy plot stinks like smelly dog farts.
This is a point of contention with some of the audience, but I have yet to feel any kind of connection between Hardy and Claire, which seems essential to (a) Carroll's entire premise for the murder cult and (b) building sympathy for Hardy not being a story-less cliche. The problem with Hardy's character is that the show is trying really hard to make you believe he's had a hard-knock life. The prototype is a hard-boiled detective, a jaded man who's been traumatized in the past and who's now fighting for redemption (it's what film noir was based on), but it seems like everything plus the kitchen sink has happened to Ryan to get him to this point.
A great many of those things were stacked up in this episode with the introduction of Brand New Character Jenny the Sister. Jenny, who I thought was Claire until the restaurant scene, talked about their family being cursed with death. It was a nice turn of phrase, but the backstory was too much. Mother dying of blood cancer when you're an awkward teenager: That's tough. Pops was killed as a beat copper doing his job: That's enough to create a chip on someone's shoulder (particularly someone who went into law enforcement). We also learned that Hardy surrendered a great love (I guess). So by the time we got to his brother dying in 9/11, it was overkill. We started treading in Nicholas Sparks waters, teeming with piled-on misery. It was a cheap attempt at grief porn.
As much as I don't necessarily love Kevin Bacon's portrayal of Ryan Hardy so far, I'm starting to be convinced that he's doing the best he can with a mess of a character. Where Carroll's motivations for being a serial killer are vague and his game is barely a game, Hardy is too detailed, too storied, to be relatable in any way—unless you, too are a star-cross'd orphan cyborg. And not being able to connect with the lead character is kind of a problem.
Something good, something good. The show moves. This isn't The Killing, where grass grows faster than the plot. It's Episode 4 and they already have an address to close in on. Even if the leads are false, they're leads and there's bound to be action. That's a good thing.
Of course, there are adverse consequences to a show feeling like it needs to move. One of the better examples happened during "Mad Love" where Maggie met her end way too easily. She had Hardy and Jenny by the short hairs but Weston (I know Hardy called him Mike at the end of the episode but he's no friend of mine) came in serendipitously to take her out. This was supposedly a calculated killer and all she got was the opportunity to raise the knife over her head like a soccer mom against an imagined intruder and a single bullet to take her down? At least Rick got two shots.
The Following has problems and not the least of them is chemistry and making sure we connect to the characters. I'm dubious about the future of Carroll's plan since the game has been pretty lame so far, even though puzzles have been promised. There's some possibility of goodness to come but it's not here yet and I can't blame you for being discouraged. I certainly am.
– I don't want to pin everything on Williamson because I know a television show is a collaborative effort. But I do like Carroll undermining the pretense of an investigation by dispelling genre techniques. Joe telling Ryan to get to the point with finding out more information on Maggie was a classic post-genre move, the kind that Williamson's Scream franchise is known to use. In fact, their whole conversation seemed to be about incorporating the laughable flaws of the show. Well-played.
– Weston's Hardy obsession and overwhelming desire to be on Hardy's good side, it's seeming more and more likely that he's one of Carroll's moles inside the FBI (a possibility made more interesting by the fact that Maggie killed someone who Weston might've considered a friend). Also, I think I would like the role to be played by the actual Michael Weston (Private Dancer on Scrubs, Lucas on House). Or Michael Westen (Burn Notice), who would solve everything in three weeks, with one of those weeks involving a celebratory cruise.
– Megan. I don't understand. Once you get out, you don't look for another hiding place, especially if they're chasing you. You run forever. You run until you can't run anymore and then you remember there are animals chasing you and you keep going. You don't hide on their property.
– Things crazy people do: shower with their clothes on.
– Seriously, couldn't they have gotten a couple of actresses for Jenny and Claire who don't look the same? How about not-a-blonde? Short hair? A different face? Something. I already don't like Claire as it is. I don't need two of them.