I’ve had my issues with many episodes of “The Following” over the past few months, but “Whips and Regret” might be the first to make me outright angry. I’d like to laugh tonight’s episode along with the rest of the show’s flaws-irregular pacing, terrible plotting, and haphazard character development are easy to pick apart. But tonight’s episode reinforced for me how absolutely offensive “The Following” can be as it tries to inject life into what is a largely listless television show.
Look: I get the idea of throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks. In “Whips and Regret,” there’s a lot of that which feels about the same as anything else the show has thought of-trainee cult members kept in cages in an abandoned armory in New York, for example. I’m not particularly concerned about this happening, but it’s like, a thing that could happen, I guess, although I am still in the dark as to why this matters, except to provide some thrilling footage of a few crazy people in cages killing cops in the dark.
But there’s a great deal in “Whips and Regrets” which is blatantly just shaming any element of society that doesn’t look like the mainstream, punishing the weird merely for being different. The episode’s title comes from a BDSM club which is apparently broadcasting bandwidth for Joe’s cult, and literally every detail around both this club and the woman who runs the joint are so distastefully dumb, played up merely for shock value and outrage, that they are assaultive. I swear, you could dissect the dialogue in some of these scenes as an analysis of shaming the Other through subtext and implication; I’m not going to go quite that far, but let me run down the sequence of events that leads to some of the silliest moments in television history.
Early on in “Whips and Regrets,” Parker and Ryan reconnect in his apartment, with Parker trying to pull Ryan out of his stupor of self-loathing, admitting that she needs his help on the case. It’s cute, but I wondered where Parker’s superiors at the FBI were in this decision, as well as Parker’s better judgment. Ryan is persuaded to continue his merry alcoholic path of destruction through the world, and the two show up at the club, eyeing eyeing the “creepy” whips and chains with distaste. They run into the club’s proprietor, Hayley Neptune, a pierced and tattooed black woman with red highlights and eyeliner. Yes, that’s right, she looks different from all the rest of you, and that means she’s probably evil! Hayley sees them and bolts; Parker and Ryan chase her, only to discover a sex dungeon of sorts in the backroom, where men and women appear to be screaming, trying to escape their cells. They find Hayley on a mysterious computer in a small office, and detain her. She claims to know nothing about the cult, and they believe her, despite the fact that she ran away immediately to the cult’s computer as soon as she saw the agents. That’s… good detective work, guys.
Then follows a delightful conversation in which it becomes rapidly obvious that no one present really knows what the words “bondage,” “fetish,” or “kink” mean. This would be fine if one of the characters present wasn’t technically an expert; as it is, the scene is preposterously bad. Hayley volunteers the identity of the man responsible for setting up the cult’s network; a friend named Vince McKinley. Hayley’s willing to give him up if she can get a deal (for what? What are they charging her for? Having red hair?) but advocates for him at the same time-“He lives on the fringes. He’s had a hard life,” she tells them. That mixture of concern and loathing must be what sadomasochism is all about! Also, fringes! Fringes are also weird. Parker asks sympathetically how long they date. To which Hayley makes a face. “Dated? That’s cute. We didn’t date, we flogged each other.”
We didn’t date, we flogged each other.
There are not appropriate words to fully unpack the inanity of this statement. Let me start with the obvious: flogging and dating aren’t mutually exclusive! Second: You’d think the woman who is into bondage-who, as she says flippantly later in the episode, has two bondage parties to go to tonight-might have some sense of the truth of this. But no, that would be just too much nuance, wouldn’t it!
The obsession with the kink lifestyle seems to be an opportunity to play with the idea of moral depravity-that’s a loaded phrase, but I can’t think of one better to illustrate the mood that “The Following” is going for. The show’s entire premise is playing with the idea of morality-badly. It wants to create some moral nuance around the idea of death, riffing off of Poe’s work as a glorification of death (it isn’t, but okay). But whenever it explores those gray areas, the show is very eager to cordon off some behaviors as acceptable-wholesome, even!-and others as questionable. The lurking horror of the show is supposed to be that those questionable behaviors are happening right under our noses, threatening our golden haired little Joey and his long-suffering, martyred mother Claire. It’s terribly cliche, and worse, it’s just not very productive or healthy. I thought we’d gotten past the idea of vilifying what we don’t understand in order to feel safe and secure, but apparently that’s not the case.
Perhaps this would bother me less if it weren’t for the fact that Ryan goes on to throw Hayley under the bus mere moments later. Hayley goes on to do one of the most fatal acts anyone can do in “The Following”-she trusts Ryan with her safety, saying that she’ll use a safeword to indicate when she’s feeling uncomfortable. Vince, when he finally does show up, is a hilarious caricature of a messed-up guy, pounding on the doors in the dungeon and yelling for its occupants to have more sex. He bullies Hayley into the car, telling her that he’s trying to keep her safe. Ryan and Parker hear her say the word “red,” more than once, but in the crucial moment Ryan makes the executive decision to let Hayley be kidnapped, so they can follow Vince. Of course, this ends badly. Hayley ends up almost killed, as does Parker, when the mission goes tacky at a dark and empty armory. Ryan ends up saving Parker in the final moment, but that’s the only thing that goes right for the FBI. Vince leaves with the munitions, the intelligence, and a grudge against Ryan Hardy. And yet still, at the end, Parker thanks Ryan for being there, because apparently she can’t get on without him! Yes, because Ryan’s really the hero of this story.
So here I am, faced with on one hand a serial killer who admits to being monomaniacal, who is running a cult and torturing his ex-wife and teaching his son to kill people, and on the other hand an FBI agent who is almost laughably bad at his job, a man who has endangered nearly everyone who has crossed his path and is apparently easily manipulated by all the rest. I know that’s a bit uncharitable, but you’ll forgive me if nothing feels particularly redemptive about “The Following” this week. At this point I’m convinced FOX is just trolling me, but let’s see how the season plays out.
Odds and Ends:
*** Despite all my complaining, I do like Hayley’s character, and I hope she comes back.
*** The Claire/Joe subplot has a few moments of interesting character development, but not a lot. Joe’s repulsive, Claire’s feisty, and Joe might be watching videos of Ryan having sex to learn how to adequately pleasure his wife. Or, he’s just into Ryan having sex. Who knows.
*** No criminal act in this show feels rooted in any real motivation. Still. I feel like we might be ignoring some interesting real crimes, in favoring these absurdly dark ones.
*** Vince, to Roderick: “What, man, were you abused as a kid?” Weird, but also hilarious.
What did you think? Why are you still watching?