Oh, "The Following." Why are you so dark and whiny?
 
After last week's review, it's hard to find more to critique about "The Following" when the show seems hell-bent on delivering more of the same. But I did find "Guilt" interesting for two different reasons: One, it's rather predictable, which gives us some insight into what the writers of "The Following" are hoping to achieve, and two, it aggressively enters the dream-like state that had been hinted at in the first few weeks, giving Jacob some intense hallucinations.
 
"The Following" does not want to be the show I thought it was setting out to be, though it tends to also confuse me by skewing hard into the direction of the surreal and mystical every few episodes just to keep us on our toes. But unfortunately, in this episode, the elements of horror lack the punch they need to, because there's simply no basis for it. In fact the whole episode has the feel of a pulp novel, with plot devices that are so hilariously obvious that "Guilt"'s front half lacks tension or suspense.
 
But what I finally realized this week is that "The Following" does not want to be particularly scary. It wants to be shocking, bloody, and violent, but I find it hard to feel fear in these moments. Instead "The Following" seems to revel in its own bloodthirsty fantasies, taking the opportunity of violent moments to play with aggression and nihilism rather than the unbounded, haunting fear of being pursued by a violent cult. I got into this quite a bit in last week's review -- for now I'll merely add that if the show wanted us to feel the fear of the cult, they would put us into the shoes of those victims who are taken down by them more often. The pilot did a powerful job showing us how horrible it was for the young medical student to be victimized by Joe Carroll -- twice -- and since then "The Following" has just gotten worse and worse about it.
 
Perhaps we're meant to be concerned for Ryan and Claire's welfare, but Ryan and Claire are terrible heroes, aren't they? Aside from Ryan's biting humor under pressure, Ryan has been near-unable to fend off Joe and his followers, and when Claire isn't yelling at Ryan for not doing enough or making out with him, she's throwing herself into Joe's hands. No -- Ryan and Claire aren't victims. They're part of Joe's endgame. It's hard to believe they're ever seriously in danger. Even at the end of this episode, when Claire threw herself into the car of the masked man terrorizing her, I didn't really fear for her. Claire's too important to the weird plan, and Ryan probably is, too. So is little Joey, for that matter, who has been seduced into his father's trust with crumbled graham crackers and broken dreams. 
 
All of these important characters mean that when a totally disposable "old friend" of Ryan's makes a sudden appearance, he's got RED SHIRT written all over him. The narrative branch at the quiet secluded house in the woods is lifted straight from the plot of any B-movie; as soon as you say "no one will find us here," they are guaranteed to find you. Throw in a few tortured confessions of love (and Ryan's "death curse") and that story ends with a sense of tragic romance that is almost entirely unearned. ["The Following" is many things, but it never quite manages to strike romantic.] But that's fine, because the discovery and capture of Claire, and the kiss in the basement between Ryan and Claire, are entirely expected by the viewer, and as a result, the show doesn't need to work too hard to make it all loosely come together.
 
It's sort of okay, being lazy with plot structure in the 10th episode of a 16-episode season, but it's not that great. Something else I pointed out last week is that the story is drawing out the pilot's initial conflict with some desperation, rarely introducing anything that truly complicates the story, but at the same time adding to the senseless violence. Well, with "Guilt" we can add "senseless psychological implications" to that list of extending narrative devices.
 
I'm fond of Jacob -- he's one of the more interesting characters in the show, mostly because he's changed on-screen as the season has gone on. He's always wearing some new sort of mask, whether that is murderer, cult follower, straight man, gay boyfriend, babysitter. Well, ever since he smothered Paul in his sleep, things have been a little weird for Jacob. The specter of his best friend and sometime lover follows him around and encourages him to kill his onetime girlfriend who may or may not have heartlessly betrayed him. Is this an accurate portrayal of mental illness? Probably not. But it does make for some exciting and ghoulish scenes where Jacob dreams about coming across a bloody Emma in the tub, and then hallucinates ripping Paul apart with a knife. Honestly, I'd rather this type of slasher horror than the drawn-out non-suspense of Ryan and Claire's plot, because it has this quality of dreamlike fear that is at least fun to pick apart. But again, much like the main plot's epic romance narrative, Jacob's hallucinations feel unearned and entirely out of left field. Joe's meddling in that plot makes it all even less believable. I'm not sure who Jacob and Emma are anymore, just as I am increasingly unclear about Joe's motivations.
 
Which leads me to conclude that "The Following" is content being a pretty basic and problematic show, eager to provoke but not to signify anything of importance. I'd love to see it challenge itself just a little more.
 
Odds and Ends:
 
*** I demand more Debra Parker!
 
*** Ryan's semi-legal status is a plot point I no longer care about, but it keeps coming back for some reason.
 
*** Joey, like most of us, is entirely done in by the mere idea of smores.
 
What did you think? Do you like where this season is heading?