Do you own a dog? Actually, I can do this one even if you don’t own a dog. Have you ever met a dog? If so, then you’ll know that particular look that a dog gets when you surprise it as it’s in the middle of doing something it knows it shouldn’t be doing, even as it can’t resist its essential doggy nature and simply must do that very bad thing. Picture that look in your mind, and you will know the look that Kevin Bacon wears throughout much of this episode of The Following (and most of the other ones I’ve seen). It’s like he’s startled to realize people are watching this, millions of people who can see him dignifying this dreck with his mere presence. At the end of this episode when Mike killed Lily (whose names I only know because I looked them up), the look was particularly pronounced. “I know I should be off doing something—anything!—else,” Kevin Bacon’s expression said. “But I can’t help myself. I love Joe Carroll.”
“The Reaping” is the first episode of The Following that I’ve watched since the second season premiere, when I decided that life was too short, and no matter how many people watched the show, it just wasn’t one I had any desire to keep up with. (Fortunately, viewers have been tuning out in droves, so it’s no longer the zeitgeist defining hit it seemed like it might be for a while.) All of that time away did little to inoculate me against how nihilistic and terrible this show is, but it did sort of make me appreciate just how stripped down the dialogue is. There are exchanges in this episode that feel like they’ve stepped right out of a Samuel Beckett play, where the characters feel as if they are contemplating the essential emptiness of existence via wryly witty commentaries on the wasteland they’re stranded in.
“If I die, you die,” Joe says to Ryan, by way of explaining why neither of them has killed the other yet, even though Ryan very clearly wants to kill this mass murderer. And this sort of sounds like that existentialist dialogue, of the sort that theatre actors might spit at each other, while the audience chuckled ruefully and mused over, old men in the cheap seats stroking their beards and contemplating the futility of existence. In a smarter show, I might think this line was self-conscious or calling attention to the limitations of television pulp as a storytelling medium or even examining the frustrated duality at this show’s center. On The Following, I mostly think everybody involved really believes that if Joe dies, Ryan will die, and that will be totally fuckin’ awesome, man!
What I also discovered in dropping in on The Following after 11 episodes away is that it is now about how Joe is trying to prove that God doesn’t exist by making Ed from Ed’s son kill somebody. I don’t entirely understand how this is supposed to work, to the degree that I half expected Joe to scrawl on a chalkboard “1. Get preacher’s son to kill someone. 2. ??? 3. Profit!” but alas. We’re meant to take this at face value, to see the moment when the kid slides a knife into the gut of some other poor Joe Carroll follower as somehow equivalent to Shakespearean tragedy or something. Maybe it was for those of you who’d watched the other 11 episodes this season, but to me, it just played as cheap. There was Tom Cavanaugh affecting an incredibly odd (and spotty) Southern accent. There was James Purefoy grinning like he was the cheekiest, naughtiest boy of them all, heading up a meeting that was one part religious revival and three parts feverish recreation of the Bohemian Grove Wikipedia page. And there was this kid being all, “I won’t kill! I will kill! I won’t! I will!” And then guilty dog Kevin Bacon, realizing he’d just peed on the carpet of his career.
The central tension of The Following is meant to be between “kill someone” and “don’t kill someone,” but the dial it spins always lands on “kill” because that’s the kind of show this is. (It really thinks that the way we should all contemplate death is by watching generic pretty people stab each other.) It’s as if Hamlet stepped to centerstage and said, “To be or not to be, that is the question,” only to be interrupted by Purefoy racing in from offstage, wielding a flaming machete, and shout-singing the word “NOT!” to the tune of the “Hallelujah Chorus.” The default speed of The Following is “Kill,” and that makes all interactions on the show increasingly numbing and pointless. No wonder the ratings are falling: Nothing on the show can ever change, and the status quo is a depressing slog.
For instance, tonight’s other major plot involves whether Claire will somehow let Joe know she’s still alive on television, in order to lure him out. This is obviously a dumb idea, because Claire faked her death to protect herself and her son from the madman she used to be married to. I mean, I guess if I really thought that luring Joe out by using Claire as bait would have an effect, then I might for a second think this was kind of an okay plot, but it feels like the show has done this several dozen times now, with little to no effect. And yet there’s Claire, telling Sprague Grayden that she just needs to get a message out there, then our intrepid reporter interrupting her own broadcast to deliver this weird mash note to Joe that he might hear it, think of Claire, and do… something. Everybody on The Following is trying to get somebody else to do something, and that something is always “knives.”
All of which brings us back to that final scene, with Bacon looking especially guilty and Mike pumping a bunch of bullets into Lily’s chest for killing his dad (that happened?!). Ryan keeps pleading with Mike not to do it because it’s not the sort of thing Mike does. It’s the sort of thing Ryan does, but not Mike. The exact quote is “This isn’t you. This is me. Don’t be me. Please.” I might be impressed by how that seems vaguely almost like a Zen koan or something, but I also know that it’s essentially meaningless. The characters on The Following aren’t people; they’re collections of declarative sentences, organized around the central principle of “Will kill” or “Won’t kill,” and once they cross that line, they become something nobody who works on the show has really thought about beyond “violence is super adult and cool.” You’re right to look so guilty, Kevin Bacon. You’ve been a very bad acclaimed actor. Very bad!
- The Following, on grief: “How are you?” “I told you. It sucks.” “This coffee sucks. Give me more.”
- The Following, on masculinity: “My love you’re so sensitive, but I really must insist that you man up.” (Picture this said by Connie Nielsen for maximum effect. Also, this show employed Connie Nielsen, then had her character die at the hands of Shawn Ashmore. Kinda tells you everything right there.)
- The Following, on friendship, part 1: “There’s some weird thing between them.”
- The Following, on friendship, part 2: “You reflect a part of me that I only see when I’m in your presence. Does that sound familiar to you? You’re my best friend, Ryan.” (Kevin Williamson pushes back from his computer and hits print. He thrusts his arms victoriously into the air. “I’ve done it!” he shouts. “I’ve cracked the code!”)
- A few weeks ago, I asked Sonia if she thought it would be funny if I dropped in on an episode having not seen anything of this season but the premiere. I am never going to do that again.