The Following, debuting its first season in January of 2013, had an interesting premise and a lot of potential but suffered from poor execution and over-the-top writing. The premise: Joe Carroll (James Purefoy) is a serial killer and author who garners a cult following which finds inspiration in the works of Edgar Allen Poe. This following helps him to escape prison and begin writing his next novel, whose central character is FBI agent Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon), the man who put Carroll behind bars.
The premise is intriguing, especially with the added element of Edgar Allen Poe’s macabre work from which to draw imagery inspiration. However, the execution left something to be desired. Though the characters weren’t quite one-dimensional: Ryan Hardy was destroyed by the Joe Carroll case; shot in the chest and requiring a pace maker, he became an alcoholic to escape the demons that still haunted him, and believed that death followed him wherever he went. Joe Carroll wanted to write his next novel (his first one was a flop) centered on destroying Ryan Hardy’s life. Add to that mix that Ryan was in love with Joe’s ex-wife Claire, and that Joe had a young son, who he was intent on being reunited with, and I was still intrigued. Also compelling was the fact that the central characters come to learn that people in their lives that they’ve known and trusted for years were actually followers of Joe, who were placed there so that they could strike at the opportune moment.
The problem with all of that, however, is how melodramatic and ridiculous the show ended up being. After Carroll escaped prison and met with his followers at a giant estate that became their headquarters and hideout, he managed to kidnap his ex-wife and son, and yet still allude the FBI for an entire season despite the fact that he stayed in one place for most of said season. The FBI was seemingly incapable of accomplishing anything. The characters of the cult were annoying, dispensable, and always doomed to fail—which made them boring and predictable.
Joe Carroll himself was the biggest problem of all. He was supposed to be brilliant and charismatic, but he strutted around his mansion screaming about metaphors and reciting his own terrible prose that it was hard to believe that he could ever inspire dozens of people to not only follow him, but to become murderers.
Ryan Hardy was a tortured person who was forever one step behind Joe Carroll, and forced to feel bad for himself as people around him died. The story was predictable, the ending foolish and laughable (Joe Carroll appeared to “die” by blowing up in a lighthouse, but his face as he screamed, “No! Noooo!” behind a wall of flames was so absurd that it had to be staged). The season ended with Ryan believing Joe was dead, and reconnecting with his love, Claire, only to have one of Joe’s followers pop out of nowhere and stab the both of them.
And now we get to season two. Which is such a markedly different show that I am shocked and pleasantly surprised. When season two opens, it’s been a year since Ryan and Claire were stabbed, and you learn immediately that Claire did not survive. But Ryan turned his life around—he quit the FBI, he goes jogging, he’s sober—and works as a criminology professor in New York. But at night, he becomes a secret vigilante, hunting down the remnants of Joe Carroll’s followers (called “Carrollers”) outside of the law.
Removing Ryan from the FBI was one of the best decisions this show could make. Ryan Hardy became so boring and tortured acting as the good guy. Playing by a specific set of rules, where else could his character go except to remain tragic and stuck repeating the same damn plot points? But Ryan Hardy as vigilante? So much better. He seeks revenge, and he will kill. Oh, and he believes Joe is alive.
And of course Joe is alive. He’s living in a trailer park in the middle of nowhere with a prostitute who wrote to him in prison, and her daughter. He’s in hiding, with a glorious beard and an attempt at an American accent. He claims he has reformed, and hasn’t killed anyone since he staged his own death. And it seems it’s true—he is truly struggling with his identity.
But when a cult of copycats, wearing Joe Carroll masks, storm a New York subway and murder a car of people shouting, “Resurrection!” and “Ryan Hardy can’t stop us,” it unfolds a chain of events far more interesting than anything that happened in season one.
Suddenly, there is a new cult, trying to draw Joe out of hiding, and it works. And Ryan Hardy continues to work outside the law (except with the help of his law-enforcement niece, which conveniently allows him to continue to have access to tracing phone calls and the like) helping to erase the ridiculousness of the first season with the FBI appearing to be completely incompetent.
The new cult is the best part of this season (and the show, I believe). Led by an art dealer named Lily, the cult is a hodgepodge of international orphans that Lily picked up over the years and formed a family (they all call her Mother) of twisted psychos. It’s clear that Lily wants Joe to complete that family.
What set this season apart for me right from the start was how it actually works as a suspenseful and creepy show now. Credit has to go predominantly to the brilliantly talented Sam Underwood (who is really good at playing psychos), who plays a set of sick and twisted twins—Luke and Mark. Luke slicks his hair back and Mark wears his on his forehead but you don’t need that small physical distinction to tell them apart because Underwood is a master. Luke is more assertive, more cruel and violent, but more charismatic (the kind of charisma that I think James Purefoy is lacking as Joe Carroll). Mark is bashful, shy, almost sweet, and struggles with emotion.
Together, they murder for their mother and then “have fun” with the body. It is implied that Luke enjoys having sex with corpses, but Mark likes to talk to them as though they were alive. Luke and Mark are chilling and strange.
And yet I find myself most drawn to this family of psychopaths this season. Ryan Hardy’s storyline takes a backseat to the intrigue of this new strange cult, and I find myself actually hoping that they don’t get caught, so I can see how they handle situations next. The characters are wholly more interesting than anything we saw from season one, and the show made a smart decision to kill off almost all of the original members of Joe Carroll’s cult, leaving only Emma (who they’ve somehow made less annoying, though I don’t know how). Gone, too, are the Edgar Allen Poe references and inspirations, which were becoming tedious and contrived.
Even Joe Carroll is a better character this season. He doubts himself, questions his identity, and feels failure—as a writer, as a leader, as a father. When we see Joe murder this season, we believe that he is a serial killer who takes pleasure in the sick things he does. There was some disconnect with that in season one but, removed from his cult, there is more of a realness to him that makes him more believable.
I truly had no idea how The Following could pull off a second season without just repeating the same storylines from the first season. But it’s like watching a completely different show. They removed the elements that weren’t working, took the characters out of settings that were doing nothing for them, and introduced a slew of truly intriguing and scary characters. The acting is better and the writing is better. Whereas the first season was utterly predictable, I believe this season has the potential to shock me—and I hope there will be twists. I truly struggled to get through the entirety of the first season. The second season has done the unthinkable: Made me excited to tune in every Monday. Should I say it? I’m going to say it: I’m a follower.