Readers, I have a confession to make. I have been wrong about “The Following” this whole time. Completely wrong. Absolutely wrong. A critic’s worst nightmare, the totally inaccurate judgment call. Up until now, I’ve assumed that when an episode has more content, it means that it’s better — the fast pace tends to elide “The Following”‘s major dialogue issues, and the bloody, violent action, as reprehensible as it is, moves the warmed-over, half-dead plot a few staggering steps forward.
But as it turns out, I’ve been completely incorrect. “The End Is Near” is chock-a-block full of action, and it’s just awful, a churning mess of bad writing, overwrought scoring, and unnecessary, gut-wrenching gore. I’ve been trying to give “The Following” some leeway — and there are moments in even this episode that point to interesting drama — but in the last few episodes leading up to the finale, it’s resorted to cheap horror and artificially high stakes to get through it’s forty-odd minutes of allotted airtime.
Before I get to dissecting the episode itself, I’d like to get a little curmudgeonly, though: call me old-fashioned, but I think it’s outright inappropriate to air something with such overt public violence merely a week after one the Boston Marathon bombing, literally just days after a manhunt had the entire country glued to their televisions. There’s too much in “The End Is Near” that speaks to broad-base terror and violence in public spaces. There’s a whole sequence towards the end of the episode that feels eerily similar to the police lockdown in Watertown — police go door-to-door, looking for violent criminals with a history of targeting civilians, unsure of what they are about to walk into, of what they might find behind any common door. Maybe I’m oversensitive — I apologize if so. But “The End Is Near” was hard for me to watch and engage with, right as I was learning that a friend of a friend needs money to fund her recovery after needing a partial amputation of one leg.
But that’s the thing about “The Following” — it glories in violence and in titillation, but manages to make those acts so disaffected and mundane that they lose their significance and even their shock value. A woman getting axed through the head, so that blood pours down her face, in a grotesque simulation of “the masque” from “The Masque of the Red Death”? It gets a split-second of attention before the cult and the FBI move on to the next unimaginable horror.
The important point here being that horror — the most effective and terrifying horror and suspense, the kind I can’t even watch because it’s so bone-chilling — isn’t about throwing endless new scenarios at the audience. It’s about staying with that unimaginable horror, and letting the horror of it grind into the audience’s psyche, so that they truly know how awful it would be to be — axed in the head, or kidnapped, or taken hostage, or buried alive, or any other thing that happens in “The End Is Near.”
I have trouble imagining “The Following” as the product of anyone’s creative mind, of their mission to relate some vision or story to a waiting audience. What is there to relate, that is new, or interesting, or important? If I sound sad — it’s because I am. The last few episodes have made me by turns angry, amused, or bored, but this one somehow merely saddened me. Surprisingly, Jacob in the episode managed to express what I felt — he begs Emma to leave the cult with him, saying, what has all of this been for? Joe’s stupid book? The idea that death is more beautiful than life, which is itself a poor understanding of Edgar Allan Poe’s work? Jacob asks the question I think I have been asking all season. What drives this cult to do what it does? Joe is not that charismatic — and in this episode, he’s even more unhinged than usual. The rewards are so slim, it’s hard to find what all these people are fighting for. Jacob dies at the end of this episode with his questions unanswered — so I guess maybe the answer is that there is no point at all, which is always encouraging, yes?
The story in “The End Is Near” is that the cult has finally decided to leave the house at Havenport, but as they do, they are determined to unleash a wave of violence that will claim most of their own lives. The senseless death extends to the civilians in the neighborhood, too, who are by turns taken hostage or killed to prove a (vague) point about Joe’s power. As Ryan and Agents Parker and Weston close in on Joe, he gets increasingly more erratic — bleeding out, drinking scotch, threatening everyone around him, and losing his judgment entirely. Claire spends the episode getting the upper hand against him, but eventually the only person who saves Joe from total destruction is Emma, who runs after Claire and drags her kicking and screaming back to Joe — and then kills Jacob when he tries to defect, even as she says she loves him. If I had to choose a part of “The End Is Near” that is kind of interesting, it’s the subplot with Emma and Jacob. Their narrative plays with love and forgiveness in some interesting ways. But like, not that many, and it’s sort of over before it begins, because Emma’s insane, and Jacob’s also pretty nuts himself at this point.
We conclude with Claire and Joe on a boat (yes, really) and Agent Parker tossed into a grave while still alive (for no clear reason except that it adds some plot). The end is just her screaming in the darkness, which is awful to listen to. At least we can take some comfort in the fact that the end is in fact near, as the episode’s title process.
Odds and ends:
*** Joe’s book-writing process continues to be more and more hilarious/pathetic/depressing. I have given up on James Purefoy entirely at this point. And everything we learn about the book’s final chapter is just increasingly preposterous. Ryan is already dead? Claire’s death gives him a chance to be reborn? What on earth?
*** Ryan gets a few classy action shots in this episode. I’m always down with Kevin Bacon Kicking Butt.
*** Claire’s proving herself to be rather resourceful, and I like that in a character, but needless to say she’s heading straight towards the final showdown where Ryan and Joe fight for her life. So she will be rescued in the end, obviously.
*** Joe has a crazy pasta sauce scene!? CLASSIC POE, RIGHT?
*** My watching partner sums up the show thusly: “Feelings are hard. Let’s go kill people!”
I can’t even believe there’s going to be a season two — but there’s going to be a season two. What do you think is going to happen?