Image credit: Sarah Shatz/Fox
Be careful little eyes what you see... Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon) gazes into the abyss in search for the secrets of Joe Carroll's evil in The Following.
Hardy examined Carroll’s cell. There was a bookshelf stocked with Poe, Faulkner, Hawthorne, Shelley, Melville and more. “Still a Romantic,” muttered Hardy. Indeed, Carroll’s life story – an erudite Englishman who came to America to become a writer (The Gothic Sea, a critical and commercial flop until he became an infamous mass murderer) and teach Romantic literature (the hunky-dreamy prof was particularly popular with female students) – struck me as a metaphor for the entire subgenre known as Dark Romanticism, which one could argue began that gloomy summer at Lake Geneva in 1816, when the English Romantics Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley, Lord Byron and John William Polidori gave birth to the mad men and alluring vampires that spawned the monsters and sexy beasts which haunt contemporary fiction in a variety of forms. Carroll encompasses the American tradition, too, as Poe, Hawthorne and Melville are often lumped in this category, too. Burning Question: How much did you enjoy the lit stuff? While the references appealed to my inner liberal arts teacher and my passion for Wikipedia-assisted pop archaeology, I didn't find the Poe of it all quite as fascinating as the show did. (But that may be part of the point, too: By episode's end, even Carroll talked as if he was cutting bait on trying to be smarty-pants pretentious, confessing that no one got it, and that it hindered his desire for a large audience. More on this in a bit.)
But the book in Carroll’s cell that most alarmed Hardy was the one he wrote about Carroll, entitled The Poetry of A Killer. As a rule, convicted murderers aren’t allowed to possess material about their crimes or their victims. Hardy was peeved: “Who let him have this?!” Carroll had left a note for Hardy. Dear Ryan: Enjoyed your book. Have you ever considered a sequel? Best, Joe. The implication was clear. A new game was afoot. And this psychotic Moriarty was going to make his Sherlock Holmes play it, whether he wanted to or not.
The action shifted to the FBI’s “Catch Carroll” command center, where we met another member of the team: Agent Mike Weston, the show’s adorably geeky/comic relief archetype. He was a Joe Carroll know it all (he wrote his FBI Academy thesis about him) and a Ryan Hardy fanboy. So Weston didn't feel too stung when Hardy took control of his briefing to clarify some key points. Carroll considered Edgar Allen Poe his “hero,” and that he shared Poe’s belief in the “insanity of art,” that “it had to be felt.” Hence, Carroll didn't just eviscerate his 14 victims, all of them female college students. “He was making art.” And the eyeball thing? Nods to Poe’s, “The Tell Tale Heart” and “The Black Cat” – short stories told by unreliable narrators who become guilt-wracked killers -- and the author’s fixation with eyes as a symbols of identity, “our windows to the soul.” (From “The Tell Tale Heart”: “I think it was his eye! yes, it was this! He had the eye of a vulture --a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees --very gradually --I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever.” From “The Black Cat”: “I took from my waistcoat pocket a pen-knife, opened it, grasped the poor beast by the throat, and deliberately cut one of its eyes from the socket ! I blush, I burn, I shudder, while I pen the damnable atrocity.”)
Hardy began to earn his keep when he learned from the team that Carroll – who was a month away from execution – was acting as his own lawyer and filing his own appeals and using the database at a local law library in order to do that work. Theory: Carroll was using the computer to do other kinds of research, and possibly communicate with to accomplices.
As the agents mobilized to investigate Carroll’s Web history and computer cookies, Hardy noticed a group of women waiting in the reception area of the command center. They were Carroll's “groupies” – he attracted a lot of them – and the FBI had brought them in for questioning. One woman in particular caught Hardy’s attraction, a ghostly pale mouse clutching a pink purse. Her phone buzzed. She checked the message and seemed to gulp nervously. In almost ritualistic fashion, she removed her shoes, stood up, took a position in the middle of the room. She pulled a scary-long ice pick out of her purse. She disrobed. Carroll had calligraphied her skin with Poe quotes, most of them from his narrative poem, The Raven. (“Once upon a midnight dreary…” “Nevermore”)
“Lord help my poor soul,” said Ice Pick Lady, citing Poe’s famously puzzling last words. “Lord help my poor soul.” Hardy pleaded with her -- Careful, sweetie! You might poke your eye out with
your unhealthy fixation with horror pop that thing! -- but this Team Carroll loyalist was too far gone. She completed her awful performance art by plunging the rod into one of her peepers. She quickly died; the Ice Pick Lady quoteth no more.
It was enough to move Hardy to take a pull from his secret Vodka stash. “Mint?” asked Weston, who could smell the booze on Hardy. Way to go with the co-dependency there, fanboy. Readers: Does anyone else suspect that this Ryan Hardy Wannabe might be one of Carroll’s many minions?
Computer forensics led to a major discovery: Carroll had another Follower. His name was Jordan Raines, who had worked at the prison for four years and helped Carroll escape. Team Hardy raided the Raines home. They found a fridge festooned with flyers advertising missing dogs. Turned out Raines was the poochnapper. He had been killing the canines and removing their eyes. Carroll was teaching him how to be Carroll. (One of the episode’s most jolting BOO! moments: The socket bored, almost-dead German Shepherd giving one last jerk before giving up his ghost.)
“I can handle dead people,” barked an upset Weston. “You kill a dog, I go crazy!”
How was Carroll convincing all these people to sell out their mind, body and soul to him? Was this extraordinarily gifted teacher truly that charismatic, that inspiring? Were his followers really that needy, damaged and weak? Might there be more at work here? Mind control technology? Hypnosis? Blackmail? Money? A reality show?
Those questions took a back seat as Hardy’s team tried to figure out who else Carroll may have contacted. Perhaps those who once knew him? And so the investigators paid a visit to Carroll’s former wife, Claire Matthews, who was also a literature professor. She was raising a boy, Joey, Joe Carroll's unfortunately named son. But we quickly learned that Claire had had a romantic relationship with Agent Ryan Hardy (the FBI wasn’t wild about that), and we eventually learned that Carroll had figured that out: One week before his escape, he sent her a letter calling her out on it. Hardy and Claire had not seen each other in several years. He apologized for his silence. “I belong in your past,” said Hardy. “I work better in people’s past. I always have been.” It was here that I began to feel that Hardy was starting to grow out of his cliches and become a character I could care out. The Kevin Bacon of it all certainly helps.
NEXT: Scrawled the fake (?) gay guys, "Nevermore."