The gruesome The Following premiered last night on Fox after a lot of anticipation and scrutiny. In the months leading up to last night’s pilot, questions have been raised about how much violence is too much for television. The show is certainly intense, and a “viewer discretion advised” warning plays before it returns from each commercial break, but the show does not glorify violence and instead focuses on the reasons behind such terror and how to stop it.
Kevin Bacon’s turn to television starts off with a bang. He is a semi-retired FBI agent who solved a grueling case and single-handedly captured mass murderer Joe Carroll a decade prior. During the capture, he was stabbed in the heart and now wears a pacemaker, which is why he is no longer an active field agent. Bacon’s Ryan Hardy has since written a book on the serial killer, but has turned to vodka as a way to numb the pain he’s been masking over the past 10 years. The character is set up to be sort of an anti-hero, but there needs to be more internal tension for this to work out as much as the show seemingly wants the characteristic to work.
The pilot’s plot gets kickstarted when Carroll escapes from prison and sends the FBI into a frenzy, calling Hardy back. There he’s teamed with FBI agents Mike Watson (Shawn Ashmore, X-Men) and Jennifer Mason (Jeananne Goossen) who are in charge of the task team attempting to track down Carroll. Of course Watson is a huge fan of Hardy, and the two are set up to enjoy a complex relationship over the course of the season. The show wouldn’t be anything special if searching for Carroll was all it had to offer. Luckily, there are more layers of complexity introduced in the first hour of the series.
Carroll himself is one of those layers. He was a professor obsessed with Edgar Allen Poe and the poet’s ideology that death is beautiful. In 2003, he seduced 14 female students before killing them. It was a theory Hardy came up with that nobody believed until it was too late. Carroll’s complexity in the premiere is only the tip of the iceberg for his character. It turns out that for years he has been growing a cult via the Internet thanks to the help of a prison guard. He finds groupies willing to die for him and fans wanting to kill for him—in other words, he has developed a following.
It seems like the plot of a decent movie thriller, but because it’s television, the characters can be fleshed out and more time can be spent with them. Carrol’s ex-wife Claire Matthews (Natalie Zea) is happily living with her son and a nanny away from harm. The sudden escape of her deranged husband sends her world into a tailspin, and she’ll only trust Hardy. Why? Because the two had an affair after Hardy captured her husband. This will be important later, but it sits as a dormant plot twist for most of the episode.
The pilot also introduces Sarah Fuller (Maggie Grace), the last victim of Carroll and the only to survive, thanks to Hardy. She finds solace in her gay next-door-neighbors but is now under 24-hour surveillance after the FBI figures Carroll is out to finish his last masterpiece. She was a bright spot in the pilot, but unfortunately her role doesn’t last long.
In a twist, we learn that Carroll’s cult doesn’t just involve a groupie willing to stab herself through her eye into her brain and a psychopathic prison guard, but also those “gay” neighbors. It turns out Carroll had the two pretend to be gay for three years as they got close to Sarah only to abduct her once the murderer escaped from prison.
Hardy frantically searches for Carroll and Sarah only to discover Carroll waiting in an abandoned lighthouse (symbolic of his obsession with Poe) and Sarah dead. This leads to a climatic fight and Carroll’s subsequent imprisonment. Perhaps a lot of people were shocked to see his arrest come in the first episode, but the show isn’t called The Manhunt; it’s about his cult being willing to kill for him.
In an eerie twist, Carroll’s ex-wife discovers her son missing and realizes that her nanny abducted him. Carroll knew about Hardy sleeping with Claire and this is all part of the game. The Following set up the dominoes early in the pilot, but it was the final scene that sent them tumbling down.
While the premiere was jarring, Kevin Williamson’s (writer of Scream) series is only getting started. Over the next 14 weeks we’re sure to witness a thrilling ride following some truly original characters.