Press tour: ‘The Following’ is just as violent in season 2

Joe Carroll lives. We know that much ahead of the season 2 premiere of “The Following” this Sunday on FOX.

James Purefoy, who plays the show’s Edgar Alan Poe-obsessed supervillain, joined the panel at the 2014 Winter TCA press tour to discuss what’s next on network TV’s most nihilistic drama.

“I did tell everybody that I thought I was dead,” Purefoy admitted with a smirk about last season’s cliffhanger finale. “But I always knew I was going to live.”

Not every character (or actor) will be so lucky. As creator and showrunner Kevin Williamson teases, “The first episode we answer Claire’s fate in the first minute of the show. We come right back in right where we left off. Then we go one year later and Ryan’s new chapter begins.” Natalie Zea, who played Joe’s ex-wife and Ryan’s one-time love Claire, was not on the panel and is not a part of the cast moving forward, so draw your own conclusions.

Whether you loved or hated (or loved to hate) the first season of “The Following,” Williamson promises a different kind of experience in season 2. He describes it as more of an “internal journey” for the characters, especially Kevin Bacon’s ex-FBI agent Ryan Hardy.

“One of the interesting things about this second season is seemingly I have lost my obsession for Joe,” Bacon explains, referring to his character in the first person. “I’ve stepped to a different place in my life and [Joe] is no longer burning inside my heart in the way he was in season 1. But like everything on ‘The Following,’ things are not always what they seem.”

Bacon points to a subway attack perpetrated by a new group of followers sporting Joe Carroll masks in the season premiere as a sequence that serves as a metaphor for the season overall: “You find out a lot of us have these masks we’re living. The truth is, [Joe] is incredibly important for [Ryan]. Sadly, the most important thing in [his] life.”

When asked about one of the most controversial elements of season 1 — the show’s graphic violence — Williamson seems conflicted about whether viewers can expect more or less restraint in season 2. “I think we’re shooting episode 11 now, and through the story we’re choosing to tell, I would say it’s less violent than last year,” he says, before throwing the question to the cast for their take. “Am I the only one who feels that way?”

After a dramatic pause, Bacon pipes up: “Uh… yeah.”

Sam Underwood, a new addition to the cast recently seen on “Dexter” (as troubled teen Luke) and “Homeland” (as troubled teen Leo), adds that the season is very “emotionally violent.”

Williamson explains: “I don’t run away, I don’t shy from violence. I never ever want it to be gore for the sake of gore.” He maintains the violence on “The Following” is firmly story based. “It’s to make you truly be afraid for the characters in this situation,” he says, before finally giving in: “In the first episode… OK, there’s a little bit.”

One area the show is scaling back? The much maligned FBI detective work. Williamson admits the show’s shaky handling of that material, and vocal criticisms from fans and critics, motivated Ryan’s decision to leave the agency behind.

“A lot of it was fair,” Williamson says of the criticism. “Looking back on season 1, any time you have a serialized show where your main character is sitting with the FBI task force and trying to catch the bad guy, and you have a six act structure [it’s tough].”

“That’s some justified criticism. I’ll take it and swallow it. One of the things we did to fix that — and the writers room took it very seriously — we took [Ryan] out of the FBI. It’s the type of show that can change every season. One of the things you’ll see by pushing forward a year is we’ve taken Ryan Hardy to a brand new world. We’re not searching for Joey Matthews every week. Ryan’s not sitting in the FBI any more. It’s more of a character thriller, more of a relationship thriller. It still has a scary fast paced dynamic but it’s not a FBI quest.”

Also missing? Carroll’s fanboy obsession with a certain beloved writer. “Gone with the Edgar Alan Poe, gone with all that,” Williamson says. “[Carroll’s plan in season 1] didn’t work. He needs to find something that works.”

A few more highlights from the press tour panel:

– Purefoy may have known he was returning, but co-star Valorie Curry says she’s always nervous about what’s next for her character, follower Emma Hill. “I never count on surviving, I live in paranoia. [For season 2] I was given the indication I’d be around, but I didn’t know in what capacity and, as always, I didn’t know how long I’d last.” One big change for Emma this season: her hair. Gone is the pixie cut and in (at least for the premiere) is a wild pink mohawk, which upped Curry’s time in the makeup trailer from 20 minutes to three hours.

– Another character returning from season 1 is Ryan’s former partner, Mike Weston, and Williamson says Ryan has “adopted” Mike as a friend. But the actor who plays him, Shawn Ashmore, wasn’t present for the panel. Williamson said he’s busy filming, but, again, draw your own conclusions.

– Several new actors are joining “The Following” for season 2, including Connie Nielsen who most recently starred opposite Kelsey Grammer on Starz’s “Boss.” When asked if she missed “Boss,” Nielsen said she’s having too much fun on “The Following” to care. “I never got to really miss doing ‘Boss’ because I got to start work on this show. I absolutely loved working on ‘Boss’ and I’m happy to say I’m so excited and having a lot of fun doing this character.”

– The actors were asked if working on the show messed with their head (and sleep) and the answers varied: Bacon says, “Yeah I have nightmares”; Purefoy says it’s hard to shake off “any character that celebrates death”; not for Nielsen, who says “I absolutely sleep fine”; Underwood jokes, “I will never take Ambien again after reading a script which I did once and my night’s sleep was completely ruined by some very dark hallucinations”; new cast member Jessica Stroup (“90210”) notes, “There’s one episode in particular, I think it’s episode 7, it was something unlike anything else I had to prepare for. To accept the mind frame that some man could be so twisted to want to do this thing … it freaks me out”; and fellow newcomer Tiffany Boone (“Beautiful Creatures”) agrees, “The show freaks you out and makes you think that the worst things can happen in the place you feel most safe.”

– For Bacon, the hardest part of making the show isn’t filming all the dark material, it’s being forced to talk about it. “There’s this pressure to talk about it. That’s not really what any of us signed up for initially,” Bacon says. “Being on that kind of a promotional treadmill sometimes can be the piece that’s the most exhausting.” But he’s willing to put up with it for the good of the show. “For me personally, I feel a lot of responsibility for the show. For it to be good and people to embrace it and for it to remain viable and be on the air.”

– Just because Joe Carroll made it to season 2, doesn’t mean he’s part of the show’s overall endgame. Williamson dismissed a question about whether the show is building to a series finale showdown between Ryan and Joe: “I wouldn’t assume any of that stuff.” He says this season the writers looked at the arcs for both characters and then set out to make “15 mini movies.” With twists and turns a part of the show’s fabric at this point, Williamson warns that Joe could go at any moment.

– Since there’s still plenty of debate about whether or not there’s any greater meaning to the show’s gruesome storytelling, Williamson was asked for his take on what “The Following” fundamentally about. To greatly paraphrase his very long response: “It’s about Ryan Hardy. It’s about his journey, his struggle, to find some reason in life and hope to live. What is it about for me? It’s my midlife crisis vomited out every week. Ryan Hardy is trying to wrestle with a second coming in life.”