It’s not like Bacon’s turn as Ryan Hardy wasn’t bound to draw comparisons to Keifer Sutherland’s ethical-gray-area, super-awake antihero. I mean just on gravelly voice alone they could both at least compete for a trophy at the Jack Donaghy ”Talking Like This Contest” invitational. And while the thing I most admire about this show is that Ryan is quick to pull the trigger on any fool in his way, I wasn’t so sure that he was quick to torture.
In fact, there were a lot of times in “Let Me Go” where law enforcement seemed more like a band of vigilantes rather than well-trained and organized professionals. Parker pulled a gun on a dude who was just driving the truck. Isn’t that the unspoken bond of those charged with carrying weapons for their jobs? That they don’t just pull them on each other to get their way? Otherwise I feel like cops would be pulling guns on each other for the last jelly donut. Stereotypes!
Anyway, it seems like someone watched Zero Dark Thirty during one of their breaks from the writer’s room because the episode was bookended by scenes of torture and how it could affect a case. You might argue that the Ryan’s recklessness is what provided Carroll the means to get out of prison, but I would counter that (a) what provided Carroll the means to escape was holding the warden’s daughter hostage and (b) our country’s view of torture and what constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment” for a criminal who’s killed fifteen people and trained an unassuming army of brainwashed idiots to feel free to get stabby didn’t hurt. Is it cruel and unusual to jab your finger into the bullet hole of someone who knows the next step of a sweeping plan of widespread murder and intrigue? Maybe not if you’re backed up by law enforcement agencies who aren’t the worst at their jobs.
So when did this turn into an episode of 24? About the time Ryan couldn’t trust anyone on his team to do anything. Now, I know that not everyone can graduate at the top of their class. Someone has to have a doctor who graduated somewhere near the middle. But it seems like, at every turn, Carroll gets away with this “grand scheme,” the one he’s been planning for years based on what everyone would do in certain situations, because the FBI stupids their way through everything.
And to be fair to the FBI, in this episode they didn’t seem as dopey as usual, but I assume that’s because they were operating in the shadow of last week’s colossal failure. Any operation that didn’t end in a 3:1 law enforcement casualty rate and letting every bad guy escape after having the upperest of upper hands must look like a success worthy of cake. But they still let their nitwit flag fly.
The show made it dicey to call everyone out-and-out nitwits, though. I was more or less impressed by how reasonable (if not logical) the empty truck scam was. The progression and follow-through of that storyline made sense and created drastic-enough stakes that, yes, it was believable that the warden of a penitentiary would open the channels to allow such a thing to happen with a daughter on the line. What’s most important is that neither the warden nor the prisoner Dana were cult members. In fact, after last week’s deus ex machina, there were no surprise cult member crutches to be found. Had we learned that any of these people were turned in order to facilitate Carroll’s release, The Following would seem like a show that has absolutely no respect for its audience. But it wasn’t that way and I was relieved.
But then there were so many other things that undercut that minor success. The fact that Parker is still around after what should’ve been a career-ending failure (three men shot, two dead, only half of the hostages released, and every single bad guy getting away) is completely ridiculous. I get that they can’t shift her around since we’re supposed to be invested after her flashback-in-a-flashback nonsense last week (don’t go to sleep on a plane watching this show—you’ll get incepted) and she’s a major character (either as the only person who believes in Ryan or who could be Roderick) but it’s hard to believe that she didn’t suffer any consequences after that botched operation. Add to that her losing track of Carroll’s mouthpiece throughout this thing (really? No one’s going to keep tabs on the lawyer?) and then losing track of a helicopter (oh, come on!) and you have a pretty below-average performance by law enforcement. What’s less than a gold star? Silver seems too bright. Copper? Rusted aluminum? They get a rusted star for effort.
But all told, what bothers me the most about this show is something Carroll hit hard this week. The backlash to a lot of criticism about The Following, in multiple forums (the comments on these reviews included), is that critics are thinking too hard about the show. If people would just accept it for “what it is” and try not to nitpick the details, they would find that The Following is exciting and enjoyable. At the risk of sounding conversationally anal-retentive, my issue with that is twofold.
The overall issue is that anything that has to be prefaced with “accept it for what it is” means that it’s not doing its job at establishing what it is. Poor execution of this concept can be blamed on marketing, but I lay fault mostly at the foot of the series itself. There are plenty of shows on television that have impossible, even ridiculous, premises. Pretty Little Liars, for example. involves a group of small-town teenagers apparently being bullied by an endlessly funded growing syndicate of bitchy thugs, and yet its execution of premise doesn’t bother me. Dallas is back on the air doing the same routine it did twenty-five years ago—only cheesier and soapier—and its execution of premise doesn’t bother me. It’s because The Following is forever ridiculous but takes itself so seriously that it’s so painful to watch. Not painful to everyone, since the ratings are strong and it just got renewed for a second season, but it’s not something I’ve been able to reconcile.
But what’s most maddening about asking an audience member to not think about this show in order to enjoy it is that the show begs us to believe that its characters are pensive and scheming. According to Carroll’s own frequent admissions, everything that’s happened during the series is the product of nine years of plotting. So far, however, most of the plot advancements have been due to lots of bumbling on the FBI’s part. They don’t investigate, or they improperly surround a house, or they lose track of a helicopter. While, for the sake of argument, I can be willing to concede that the trained assassins who spirited Paul and Jacob out of the house and provided Emma a lane for escape were part of a go-to emergency plan in Carroll’s grand scheme, most everything else that’s happened has not been a part of Carroll’s advancement so much as it’s been the FBI eating itself.
If the main villain claims that everything in the storyworld is orchestrated, how are we not invited to follow the throughlines of those plans? How can you have a scheme and pray the audience doesn’t try to figure it out? How do you establish a world of consequences and near-reality, only for everything that happens in it to occur according to dumb luck and happenstance? It’s troublesome and violates our contract as audience members to suspend our disbelief.
I’m always open-minded and willing to learn and I’m not saying this show isn’t always without a ray of promise. But we’re seven episodes in and it’s hard to keep having the promise float further and further down a tunnel of poor chemistry, deus ex machina, and a shaky premise. If there’s a turn ahead where the intrigue really begins, I’m ready for it.