A crazy woman writing her own chapter of Joe Carroll’s murderous story, several senseless murders, and one love affair gone horribly awry: Just another Monday night with “The Following.” As this show goes on I’m increasingly convinced that that 16-episode season is just way too long for a show that is running on some of the same plot devices in order to maintain suspense.
The primary tension in “Love Hurts” is the love triangle introduced in the premise: Ryan and Joe both love the same woman, Claire Matthews. The manifestation of the triangle is a bit different — there’s always the expendable crazy cult follower of the week! — but the central conflict is the same, and the iterations on that same contradiction are increasingly silly. If I were to sum up the entirety of The Following so far in one or two sentences, it would be something like this: An FBI agent and a serial killer are intimately connected and intent on destroying each other, even though their dichotomy throws their individual identities into relief.
The problem is not that this is a bad premise — it’s that this is the same two sentence premise for the show ever since the pilot. I could say something about a cult gathering in a house somewhere, and a kidnapping, but those plot elements seem to be filler, a way to rack up bodies that just leads up to the inevitable showdown between Joe and Ryan, face-to-face, perhaps over a tied-up and gagged Claire Matthews.
Too much of the violence on this show is painfully meaningless, and that seems to be in part because the writers have adopted the indifference to blood that their serial killers display. When you have to get through 16 episodes on a stingy premise, dodging to left field for an episode to feature a particularly unhinged young woman named Amanda who decides to start killing every other woman named Claire Matthews is just another way to pass the time.
What I did appreciate about tonight’s plotline featuring Amanda is that for once it felt like someone in the writers’ room had a handle on what might motivate a murderer. Amanda (who you might recognize as Aileen from “Homeland”) is absolutely certifiable. A double murderess in her own right, she comes to Joe because she’s looking for meaning/shelter/advice/another crazy murderer like herself. She’s not murdering people because she’s a bored housewife, as the opening of “Love Hurts” attempts to argue — that explanation is not only insufficient to explain the cold-blooded, ritualistic murder happening in The Following, it’s also rather uninformed about housewives. No, Amanda is a murderer because she’s mentally disturbed and she had access to a gun. Joe’s hocus-pocus speech to his followers — and Ryan’s explanations to the FBI for why his message attracts those followers — all felt pretty flimsy to me. Amanda, meanwhile, with her excellent crazy eyes and babbling, convinced me that murder was her thing, as soon she walked on screen.
That stands in contrast to the other major plot point of “Love Hurts” is the not-very triumphant return of Jacob and Paul, two cult members with feelings, who end up resorting to desperate measures after being abandoned by Emma. Their story is intercut with a flashback scene, in which the two of them go to kill a woman — Emma wants Paul to prove his loyalty to them. Jacob, as we know from previous episodes, can’t do it — he’s never killed anyone, and not about to start now. Paul laughs at him a bit, tenderly, before ruthlessly gutting the woman in the trunk. Later Paul promises not to tell Emma. Jacob’s repayment for Paul’s favor, so many years ago, is to smother Paul with a pillow now, because Paul wants his death to “mean something.” I remain unconvinced as to Paul’s motives for killing anyone he’s killed, or his motives for his own assisted suicide, but the scene is pretty touching, if only because poor innocent Jacob now really can never turn back from the insane world he’s been dropped into.
That being said, this subplot with the two men reminds me that “The Following” has a major gender problem. (I was writing this off in earlier episodes as the subconscious fear we seem to have for the women in our society, but Amanda’s central role in this episode complicates that.) Over and over again in this show we’re shown images of the horrible murders of young women — right from the first episode to at least three in “Love Hurts.” The only acceptable victims for the cult are young, pretty women — even young pretty women who are in the cult seem convinced that every woman in America is merely a sacrificial maiden for the cult of Edgar Allen Poe. All of the literature and faux-philosophy doesn’t quite cover up the fact that Joe has spent his life victimizing and manipulating women to get his kicks. Claire, his wife, is the ultimate example, of course, of a woman whose life and livelihood he is toying with, merely to satisfy his idea of family, but let’s not forget that we have seen Joe casually torture tens of women and encourage the victimization of hundreds more.
“The Following”‘s way of commenting on this twisted tendency is to play up the violence of each murder — giving us, the audience, maximum impact as to the violence of each situation — but not to offer any thematic context except for a lot of mumbo-jumbo about Poe. The show is uninterested in the motives of its killers — honestly, questions of gender, power, and motive are too complicated for our writers. Instead they’d rather screen despicable actions behind a shadowy, ill-conceived cult, offering no commentary, no insight, no context of any kind. It’s the worst kind of fetishization of women — because it not only reinforces the already prevalent idea that women are in danger in our world, just for being alive and breathing, but it also pushes the question to the subtext, taking as a given what is in fact a horrific tragedy. Emma and Amanda are women convinced that other women like them are game for slaughter — internalizing the self-hatred that perhaps all women are supposed to feel.
I return to the woman in the trunk, bound and gagged and waiting to be killed while Paul and Jacob discuss their feelings. Paul and Jacob get to have their emotional climax and a significant death — Paul gets his meaning, and even we the audience feel when he dies, bloodlessly, under a pillow, because it was a tragic expression of love, even if Paul was a murderer. But the woman in the trunk gets nothing of the sort. She does not get the story; she does not get a meaningful death, she does not get anyone caring about her for more than a minute, for more than the physical revulsion of seeing her gore splatter across the screen. She is merely a prop, there to augment the men’s story. I feel that way, increasingly, about all of the nameless young women in the show, used merely as props in Joe and Ryan’s endless war against each other. A very few have agency; the most will die, brutally, without much fanfare. This steady assault of blood and torture and violence against women, without cause, hurts to watch week after week. The show appears to delight in splashing them across our televisions without questioning why women are treated this way. And meanwhile the major heroes and villains are men, save for a few women who seem to buy into killing females as much as anyone else.
The only opposition here is Agent Parker — my favorite character right from the start — who stands a chance at being a woman who adds something new to the story. Who manages to question the idea of victimizing women while being a woman. But since we learned about her past a few episodes ago, she’s been in the background. I’d love for her to step in and take more of a lead.
Odds and Ends:
*** For what it’s worth, it’s also an interesting commentary on gender politics that apparently the worst thing a woman can do is betray a man (see: Claire betraying Joe, Emma betraying Jacob.)
*** Why did Amanda kill that first woman with a spear gun? Like, couldn’t she have used anything else?
*** I wonder at the writers’ inability to find a slightly less obvious title than “Love Hurts.”
*** “That’s not Claire Matthews!” “It’s a freaking metaphor, Ryan!”
*** Roderick and Emma in a power struggle? Could be fun.
*** Both the cult’s college-mixer style soiree and the rave at an amusement park are hilarious takes on what “The Following” thinks it means to go to a party.
What did you think? How do you feel about how the women are portrayed?