So, Joe Carroll is really good at the game he’s playing.
I am not typically hung up on issues of plausibility in television, but this seems to me to be a particularly convoluted episode of “The Following” — if also one that became again truly scary, from time to time. Joe’s reach, and the power of his cult, apparently knows no bounds. In “Let Me Go” they manage to coerce the prison warden of a maximum security prison into releasing Joe, who shifts from uniformed prisoner to suited murderer in the span of a few moments. He makes short work of his lawyer Olivia, killing her in her own car after she transports him to safety, before running into a mall, rendezvousing with two of his compatriots, and escaping off the roof in a helicopter.
It’s all… a bit much. Joe’s meteoric success is a little too easy. Since day one he has not experienced a single major setback to his plan, a single misstep that might provide an opportunity for infiltration by Ryan and the rest of the FBI. The biggest problem is that Claire wasn’t successfully kidnapped by her follower Charlie last week, but that oversight has not prevented Joe from being reunited with his son and meeting his droves of cult followers. It seems to be only a matter of time before she joins them as well.
Joe’s monolithic mass of followers is scary, no doubt. One casually slices open a security guard with a switchblade, making it look easy as pie. Another put a teenage girl in a cage for days, to coerce her father into doing what they want. This is awful stuff. But they would be scarier if I could understand their motivations a bit more. If they just wanted to kill everyone, I’d get that. If they just wanted to make Joe happy, I’d get that, too. But right now they have a remarkably inconsistent set of rules. Their mission is merely to restore Joe’s family, but they can brutally murder young women along the way? Why is Joe’s family more important than anyone else’s livelihood — even their own? I get that it’s a cult, but I am not yet convinced. Some necessary piece of emotional import is lacking.
The only cult member I truly believe anymore is Emma. And she’s proving herself to be a multifaceted character, as her subplot with Joe, Charlie, and a strapping fellow named Bo reveals. Emma understands that wanton misbehavior is not their purpose — rather, there is the specific goal of fulfilling the murders that Joe wants to be carried out, but no more than that. Bo is a kind of peripheral member of the cult — a guy who is less interested in the mystical wonders of Edgar Allen Poe and more interested in random acts of brutality. So when Joey worms his way into a section of the warehouse he shouldn’t and encounters a girl locked in a cage, even Emma is freaked out. Joey eventually tries to free her, but Bo goes ballistic, threatening the child (!) and assaulting Emma when she intervenes to protect Joey. I liked that Emma moves in to keep Joey from harm — and I liked that even she doesn’t see the value in imprisoning a terrified girl — but the contrast falls apart when Charlie drags the girl back to her cage. Sure, he’s a “sane” cult member — he’s a true believer, not a lunkhead like Bo — but he’s still keeping a woman in a cage.
Joey’s learning some upsetting truths about the world a little too young. First, that “good” and “bad” are highly mutable categories, dependent largely on the person defining them, and not on any universal standard. And second, that there are many gradations of both good and evil. Emma’s a murderer, but she protects him. Charlie’s keeping a woman in a cage, but he promises to keep her safe. This fits in with “The Following”‘s general bent towards upending our safe binaries, forcing us to see death as welcome, and evil as ethical. But at the same time, the fantasy is a bit too surreal. How can there be a cult who believes in murdering people? We haven’t gotten any justification for how these people could really and truly believe that all murder — and specifically, the murder of young innocent women — is just, you know, fine.
Along the same lines, Olivia’s murder particularly confused me. Olivia was a coerced ally — an unwilling participant in Joe’s plans, but docile enough. She gets Joe out of prison! She provides him a suit! She’s terrified of him, yes, but she’s listening to him, and doing everything he tells her. And then he kills her as soon as she’s outlived her purpose, strangling her while she’s on the phone with Ryan. It’s horrible — I mean, as far as “The Following” goes, it’s par for the course, but I’d grown to like Olivia. She, like any of us, is just a witness to his violence, and he punishes her for it. I am still trying to fathom why.
And this is where the crucial disconnect of the show comes into play. Serial killers don’t have motives — or if they do, they’re not motives that are rational or logical by any means. They’re sociopathic. So of course, Joe kills Olivia. He doesn’t value human life, and Olivia is in the profile of all of his victims. But cult members, and presumably cult leaders, they have motives. They’re held together by a narrative. This unwieldy fusion of cult and murder feels like it’s about to fall apart in every episode precisely because of this disconnect between cold-bloodedness and basic humanity. The show needs to resolve this disconnect, if only because resolving it will make the show even more of a horror-suspense-thriller. Fear is in the mind, after all. Splashy gore is terrifying, but in the end, it’s the head-game that’ll do us in.
Odds and ends:
*** I was hoping for some Jacob and Paul action, but they seem to have disappeared.
*** Man, Claire is so mad at Ryan for, you know, being just another guy who is unable to catch the most prominent murdering mastermind of their time! I guess this is the requisite bump in the road before their inevitable romantic reunion.
*** Parker is still my favorite. This week, it’s because she pulls a gun on a U.S. Marshal to get him to follow orders. That’s my girl. Who’s your favorite character?
*** This was a slower episode. How did that work for you? What did you think?