This is such a traumatic show.
 
Tonight's episode features a sexual-assault-turned-kidnapping, a suicide by gauze, three murders, oh and the continued presence of a killer cult that seems to worship death. Awesome! Ginger, get the popcorn.
 
One of the most intriguing elements of "The Following" is its pacing. This is a show that feels like a movie thriller. Twists and turns happen so fast that you get the idea the writers absolutely do know where this sick game is ending. That's rare enough, on network television, that seeing it play out is engaging. It's thrilling and horrifying at every turn, and even if those thrills aren't the most cerebral, I find myself strangely enthralled by what I'm watching.
 
For example -- over the last two episodes, I've been uncomfortable with how the show's been treating its two "gay" characters, and the fact that I need to put "gay" in quotation marks pretty much explains everything. Yet in "The Poet's Fire" the relationship gets complex in a totally messed-up but also totally kind of awesome way. Yeah, this is gratuitous and designed to push our buttons, but it is still fascinating. (And wow I was not expecting to root for any of the serial killer couples but okay, I'm now rooting for one of the serial killer couples. I just want those two crazy serial killing kids to get it on and be happy.
 
The episode's major twist is also pretty compelling -- and built up with the right amount of suspense, I thought. A cult member's wife claims to be innocent but turns out to also be playing her own game with the investigators, and in the process she manages to kill an agent. Maggie is totally freaky and weird, and I imagine we're going to see a lot more of her.
 
This week we also learn an interesting piece of backstory, which is that Ryan and Joe were friendly, even friends, before Ryan realized that Joe himself was the serial killer. It's an interesting tidbit—one that adds to the already complicated relationship between the two men (which seems to also involve a shared lover and a shared child). I haven't totally bought this deadly pairing yet, though. I like the idea, and I can see it working—it's a sort of Valjean/Javert relationship, but with a cult -- but in order for that to happen there would need to be a lot more moral ambiguity about Joe, the cult, and what they're trying to accomplish. Every time I get a little excited about one of the cult characters, I remember -- stabbing. eyes out of. helpless women. blood everywhere. -- and then I usually snap out of it. There are enough horrible acts of unforgivable violence on the show that moral ambiguity is essentially tossed right out the window.
 
You get the impression that someone on "The Following's" writing staff is churning out stories that are literally the stuff of their nightmares, with new variations and riffs upon the same themes each time. "The Poet's Fire" has some absolutely terrifying moments, both ludicrously over-the-top and bone-chiling. I'm particularly thinking of the girl Paul pics up in the convenience store -- the girl that ends up with her head bashed into a the side of a car and tied up in the cult trio's basement, part of Paul's twisted attempt to try to assert his power over… something or someone, given that Emma has so viciously established her dominance. It's a moment where I felt my own safety threatened, because it's a random act of cruelty, one that feels like it brushes up against my own fears. And this episode's final moments, where Joey is being taught to kill small animals by his captors, are so twisted and beyond words creepy that it's the stuff of nightmares.
 
But some of these acts are just bizarre, though. I have some questions, for example, about why Joe would want to teach his son to be a serial killer, if that's what he's doing. The motivations are expressed, but unclear. Again, I know that the show is playing around with the idea of shock, and shocking-ness, but I'm not quite convinced by the cult's rituals and bloodthirstiness -- the group stabbing game was a little too much, on top of the weird shack of horrors the investigators covered up last week. Maybe I've read too many fantasy stories, but the web of enchantment and projected meaning doesn't quite hold together -- yet. Perhaps it will find a way to do so. 
 
Of all the cult members, the only one that so far seems entirely plausible is Emma. Somehow in my mind she's the most terrifying serial killer of them all -- though Maggie, it appears, might take a close second. Because unlike the rest of them, who seem to be following some set of rules (an entirely horrific and insane set of rules, but anyway) -- Emma's actually verging on madness. That swipe at Paul is one of the more insane things we've seen on the show -- there's nothing premeditated or meaningful about it. It's just violence. It's much easier to see how Joe manipulated her into what she has become, given what we've seen.
 
All in all this episode reminded me of "The Watcher," the 2000 film in which Keanu Reeves, of all people, played a serial killer. I watched it right when it came out -- when I was a bit younger and more impressionable -- and I was absolutely terrified by it. Not just because serial killers are random and horrific, but because the unnamed fear in the film was the fear for the single, mousy young woman, a young woman I could identify with.
 
"The Following" is capitalizing on that same nebulous fear -- the fear for the vulnerable in our society, especially women. It's a distorted mirror held up to our fears, and when the show stays there, in the murky, haunted, gothic space demarcated by Poe, it tends to be most effective. So far, I think its success is a little erratic scene-to-scene, but the characters need a little time to grow, so who knows.
 
 
Odds and ends:
 
*** Sad to see Reilly go. I liked him a lot.
 
*** I really like Debra Parker (Annie Parisse), and really don't care about Claire Matthews (Natalie Zea). I think it's supposed to be the other way around. Also, odds are one of them is a) plotting against Ryan or b) going to die by the end of the season.
 
*** Important question: If Iceman is one of the investigators, why can't he just solve this case with ICE?

What'd you think of Episode 3?