After plunging to new depths last week with "Guilt," it's difficult not to fall into the trap of only seeing The Following's imbecilic plot points and ignoring everything else. It's difficult because, in the darkness of the show's storytelling, the writers make it hard to see anything good that's happening and, like Parker tripping over the dead SWAT bodies, they seem to have all the stupid stuff just lying around.
That being said, "Whips and Regret" leveled off to a normal level of ridiculousness, relative to last week's clown show. Yes, there was a BDSM club with an owner hellbent on turning every part of the initial interview into some soft of flogging innuendo. Sure, there was that really stupid two-thirds-o-a-Mexican-standoff. And, of course, Parker was back to being completely useless after her "let's move the mouse around a little" breakthrough last week. But it wasn't all terrible, comparatively speaking.
For instance, the writers made with their weekly knowing wink early in the episode. There seems to always be something that nods to the stupidity of the previous week or a meta-genre reference that lets us know that they know we know. Last week it was the tires being slashed on Ryan's gas-guzzler, as Parker should've done earlier in the season. This week it was Carroll bringing up that Ryan's inconsistent "drinking problem" is a character-development cliche. Because it is.
But taking Ryan back to the apartment, to where we saw him before all this started, wasn't a bad thing. Losing Joey (because Ryan's coworkers are fools) and Claire (because Claire is a damn fool) while slipping helplessly deeper into Carroll's intricate scheme hasn't been easy on a guy already burdened by a self-imposed death curse and Lindsay Lohan's elite skill of "hiding" vodka (which—why is he doing that anyway? Everyone seems to be in on him being a drunky). It would make sense for Hardy to need to regroup after so many successive failures, and falling inside the bottle is about par for the course. Parker's pep talk was a tad sappy, but she said as much, which steals my thunder for criticizing. At least she knows.
Another thing we can appreciate to come out of this episode is the obvious schism that may lead to the fall of the House of Murder. Even though most things seem to be going Carroll's way at the moment, the FBI seems to be stumbling toward the compound, and that's on Roderick. It could be easy to make Carroll the end-all of leadership in the community, particularly since he supposedly so dang charming, but complicating it with Roderick's ambition and his being constantly demeaned by Carroll's superiority means we have a situation where the house will eat itself.
Can Roderick be blamed for things that happen due to unexpected circumstances? While his plan is in a holding pattern due to Carroll not giving the word, can't we assume that some of these follies could be prevented if the missions were being conducted in a flurry of "the plan," or at least escalating so there aren't a bunch idle murderers in the house? You get the feeling that Roderick is right about needing to move forward and that Carroll is putting his self-interest before the grander scheme. It's not surprising. That's just the way it is. And I hope Roderick leads an uprising.
But with that said, even with this week's narrative improvements, there were plenty of pitfalls.
The detectives on Law and Order: SVU always seem to run into proprietors of shady and/or fringe establishments who insist on being the stereotype of that place. How many times have you seen Benson and Stabler show up in a swingers club or a sex dungeon only to be asked to play or have the manager flirt with one or both of them? I know that cooperation is a boring thing to portray (and, generally, it's elided when a store owner does comply) but can't these people turn it off for a few minutes while dealing with some real-world issues?
There was a hint of that with Haley Mercury, owner of Whips and Regrets, from the "oh honey" face she gave Parker after Parker had the gall, the mainstream-prude-puritan nerve, to suggest that Haley and Vince had dated to the rundown of the codeword/safeword. I give credit that she wasn't always like those cheesy club owners on Law and Order, that, at some points, she was respectful and professional, but that only made the eyerolling moments that much more stark.
More eyerolling occurred when Claire sat down to dinner with Joe. I can't fault Natalie Zea for any of it, but the demands to see her son just fell flat and read silly to me. You can rationalize that any mother would be obsessed with getting her child back from a convicted madman, but—and maybe this is my general distaste for Claire—she sounded ridiculous making demands and then trying to seduce him and then trying to storm out of the room. Almost as stupid as Carroll trying to go in for the kiss when she was on her way out. No means no, Joe. But nice try? No, it wasn't even a nice try.
Then, in an odd turn, Carroll turned the boy over to his mother despite saying just a few minutes earlier that the kiddo was the only trump card he had. The play seems to be that, as long as he threatens his wife, she can't see his softer side. So by surrendering Joey to Claire, he was demonstrating that he has a heart beating under that monomaniacal need to kill (though he hasn't really killed anyone since being out of jail except Sad Charlie). Meanwhile, Hardy's essentially been on a spree.
The reason I bring this up is that, yes, it can seem like this is a play for sympathy from the audience, and a story-motivated ploy to win Claire over. But to me, and I would have to suspect a suspicious and careful character like Carroll would come to this conclusion, it felt like, as soon as Joey and Claire were reunited, mother and son would bond over the history of violence committed by Father and, by their forces combined, escape the Murder House. Then I realized that, even though Joey might just have the wit to do it, Claire is basically the wet blanket of good ideas so they're going to be there forever.
But none of that awkward dinner compared to the Big Stupid of the night.
When you're someone who's charged to uphold the law, something you can't really do is sacrifice, for all intents and purposes, an innocent civilian just because there's a good chance she'll get kidnapped and taken back to some murderer's lair. You can't just offer people up as bait and not at least tell them about it first. And yet, this was Hardy when faced with such a situation:
Hardy: Let's let this play out.
Parker: He just shoved her against a car and she's screaming "red."
Hardy: Still fine. She's fine.
Parker: And now he's pulled a gun. She's saying "red" in sign language.
Hardy: He won't shoot her.
Parker: Now he's pantsed her and he's making her do a chicken dance. She's clucking "red."
Hardy: She's a tough kid. She'll make it.
Parker: Now she's stuffed in the back seat and being driven away to a secret location full of, in the best case scenario, a small army of bloodthirsty psychopaths.
Hardy: Fingers crossed.
Parker: Well, obviously, you're the boss. Who am I to say boo?
And scene. Basically, they just facilitated the traumatization of an innocent young woman. We're just going to let that happen. And why isn't Parker standing up to Ryan by saying that's against protocol/human decency and letting the guys with guns take him down? Is she so ineffectual a leader that she can't even stand firm against a guy with a bum ticker? Granted, he's pretty willing to shoot anything that moves a little funny. But still.
Then, while listening to the world's strongest wire (because not even the close-range walkies worked down in the bowels of the armory later), Ryan continued to wait. They couldn't see her. They weren't close enough to help her if she was in trouble. But they sat in the car. I'm not sure what Ryan was waiting for here. He knew they were't near Carroll (Carroll isn't going to live in a bunker). But it didn't matter because she as discovered for cooperating with the FBI and then got worked over before being handed to the authorities as an obstacle impeding them from stopping his getaway. As if the FBI would be able to stop one man.
After that it was a nearly indiscernible pile of failures as agents and SWAT wandered the dark halls of the armory by themselves, allowed more bodies to pile up, but got the big win of uncovering the cult's "training" facility. It was a big enough success that Roderick got a smack to the face.
I'm trying not to be too negative while managing my expectations. But the show keeps baiting us. "Whips and Regret" (which I'm really hoping isn't a misguided literary reference to whips and bridles from Purgatorio) wasn't as puerile as last week's circus. Just more of what we've come to expect from The Following: slivers of well-intentioned plot surrounded by crutches, hyperbole, and one man with an itchy trigger finger.
— It's a seriously itchy trigger finger. Let's do a quick body count. Hardy dropped the five red shirts at Fake Fight Club, Rick went down after a couple blasts. Hank was a quick decision and a surprisingly easy kill. And then, presumably, there was Marsden, the officer protecting Emma. I don't think that Ryan killed anyone at Ty's house, so these two new bodies make 10. Carroll, in his career, is accused of killing 14, which put him in the slammer. Roderick admitted to killing two of those girls, so that takes Carroll down to 12. Then he also killed Sarah Fuller (finishing the job) and poor, stupid Charlie in an act of seppuku. Based on the information we have so far, Carroll is up to 14. The score is 10-14. Help me with my math if I'm off. Update: I forgot about Warren, Carroll's lawyer. Carroll's score is 15. Thanks, Rebu2007!
— There are people being whipped and regretted that early in the morning? How do they support their bondage habits?
— Is part of killer training becoming a low talker? When Jacob was talking with Claire in the bedroom, I thought he was going to ask her to wear a pirate shirt.
— Why does Molly have such a hard-on to kill Ryan herself? Just to impress Carroll? Because Molly is actually Jenny's twin sister and is out to get revenge on everyone she holds dear through bullying and subterfuge and OMG IT'S GROWN UP PRETTY LITTLE LIARS.
— Obligatory Lost reference: Meal with a frightening killer. Killer picks the dress. Woman in question is a prisoner. Ben and Kate having breakfast? Come on, son.