Last week’s cliffhanger starts this week’s “The Following,” in which Ryan unwittingly makes himself the centerpiece of a hostage situation. It’s a tense episode that demonstrates a bit of a tonal shift for the show-one that moves a little bit away from Ryan’s internal dramas and instead focuses on him as a hero. That’s great, because it lets some of the other characters’ narratives take up space for a change. Here’s the good, bad, and meh:
What I loved about this episode of “The Following” is how the story is anchored in the character development of three of the series’ central women: Emma, Claire, and Agent Parker. Emma and Parker in particular share a particularly tortured bond–each is trying to play the other over the phone during the prolonged standoff in the mansion in Duchess County. As I’ve said before, Emma is truly the serial-killing heavyweight of the trio taking care of Joey. She’s the one with truly cold blood; the one willing to stab ruthlessly with kitchen knives; the one excited to teach Joey the true rules of right and wrong. In “The Fall,” she loses her temper and tasers Ryan, right in the pacemaker–the only one of the kidnappers to inflict violence in the whole standoff. And she’s the only one that escapes the standoff to continue her mission, delivering Joey to the next waystation.
Emma is bloodthirsty, but she’s also more emotionally complex than either Paul or Jacob–capable, clearly, of devotion and intimacy, as well as of great violence. And she’s the one giving all the orders in the farmhouse. So when the FBI starts talking to the kidnappers, it’s no surprise that Parker reaches out to Emma. Unlike the others, she doesn’t see a serial killer when she sees Emma–she sees a woman profoundly twisted by a seductive cult. She identifies Emma’s issues with her mother and tries to use both those and her art as entry points for a deeper conversation.
Added to that is her own past. We unexpectedly get a lot of Parker’s backstory in this episode–which is great, because in my mind she’s one of the strongest characters–and discover something truly horrible, which is that she raped by a cult leader when she was a teenager, because her parents gave her to the leader as a kind of offering. The two scenes that demonstrate this horror are in fact the most terrifying in the episode, especially considering that Parker is later shown trying to reconnect to her parents, and they are entirely unable to see her as anything less than a disappointment. (Over-the-top? Yes. Engaging? Absolutely.)
What I like best about this dynamic is that it’s never quite clear who’s playing whom. They’re both fully aware of what the other woman is trying to do–Emma knows that Parker wants her to get emotional, and Parker knows that Emma’s stalling–but at the same time neither can refrain from at least pretending to play the game. Their conversations are taut, and the chilling resolutions to both characters’ stories in “The Fall” seem poised to reveal more. Emma’s abandoned both of her lovers to fend for themselves somewhere in rural Virginia, and Parker finds herself contemplating her horrible past–a past that clearly could easily come back to haunt her.
Paul and Jacob have an almost heartbreaking arc in this episode as well–after Emma abandons them, they’re forced to rely on each other, and it’s honestly really upsetting. It becomes clear, as soon as Emma leaves, that these are two idiot kids who have no idea why they’re involved with Joe or Emma or this whole operation. It’s too late for them to fully escape the consequences, but considering they manage to escape in the last minutes of the episode, they have a redemption arc waiting in front of them, should they be inclined to pursue it.
“The Fall” is also a good episode for Claire, Joe’s beleaguered ex-wife. She’s abducted (obviously) by the man who picked her up outside the restaurant and promised to takes her to Joey. He turns out to be an ex-military psychopath who has been stalking her, at Joe’s behest, for two years–her “follower,” as it were. (Lightbulb!) I liked seeing Claire’s grit at confronting her captor, both when she tries to escape and then when she casually tries to seduce him. She’s been a bit too much damsel-in-distress in the last few episodes, and my favorite thing about “The Following” is showcasing those women victims who fight back.
I’m interested in the “The Following” transitioning from a show about serial killers to a show about a wacky, secret, serial-killing cult, but I worry that the many different representations of the weird and horrific might be too much to handle for such a slim show (the season is going to close out with 12 episodes total). Cults are weird and creepy enough–adding kitchen-knife serial killing, surveillance, stalkers, and kidnapping to the mix just seems like an awful lot of work. At some point, the show will lose the element of suspense or surprise if they’ve already thrown everything they can at the wall.
Plus, I feel like the secret-sleeper-agent plot device is running out of steam, fast. It’s one thing to accept that Joe installed one of his followers as Joey’s nanny–another to imagine that he would have been able to plant and mobilize law enforcement agents in various parts of the state to do his bidding.
It occurred to me tonight that this show would be much easier to handle if the producers would lay off a little on the heavy-handed sound cues and slow-motion filming. It’s one thing to be reminded that Ryan has a heart condition, and another to have heartbeats playing incessantly in the background every time he stumbles while running. Similarly, the last few moments of this episode are way, way too over-the-top, and that was mostly because of cliched direction. The background song, the repeated shot of Ryan and Claire embracing, and the slow-motion as all the characters arrived at their tidy conclusions for the week feel far too forced, as if the writers know there is no actual ending to the episode, so they are inventing one with camerawork and lighting. All it does is underscore that this is a show that is not trying very hard.
Odds and ends:
*** So, can Mike still be a sleeper agent for Joe if someone else in the cult just shot him? My guess is, sure, why not?
*** “Paul, this is so not the time!”
*** Any guesses on what’s going to happen to Paul and Jacob? Maybe they’ll run away and start a new life together.
*** This was a kind of different episode–what did you think?