For the past several episodes, "The Following" has skirted the obvious fact that there's something sexual about Joe Carroll's murdering pattern. Whether or not he's sexually assaulting anyone (and we have not seen him do that), he specifically targets women -- young women. Almost all of the bodies so far have been women, and the men have been largely incidental manslaughters, killings on the way in or out of killing someone else.
 
"Welcome Home" gets aggressively overt with that theme -- to the point that the climactic murder of the episode reads like an enormously intimate act between lovers. I'm beginning to think that "The Following"'s at times obscure characterization makes more sense if you substitute sex for each knife-related murder. Certainly one of the flashbacks from this episode, in which Joe teaches his first follower Roderick how to torture and then kill a woman, has an overt vibe of sexual violence. Joe caresses her as he explains to Roderick that he likes to get in tune with his victim's breathing. The horror of the scene is magnified by the fact that Joe isn't angry; if anything, he's strangely loving.
 
I'm not convinced that any of this is being presented to the audience in a particularly skillful way, but I'm beginning to understand that Joe is probably a megalomaniac, drunk on his own power, and probably aroused by it, too. I can accept Joe as a sexy cult leader -- were it not for the fact that there's also Joe the estranged father, desperately trying to cobble his family together. At times it seems that "The Following" is demanding I sympathize with Joe, and I am having a lot of trouble doing that, at least in part because he's a mass-murdering sociopath, but also because he's not the best-written character.
 
But "Welcome Home" gives James Purefoy a chance to stretch his legs. He was being underused when he was in prison, so it's nice to see him swagger about the house, lording it over his weird cult followers. Joey is still afraid of him, which leads Joe to conclude that he needs Claire to come and be the boy's mother. Claire is locked away somewhere secret, so the cult decides to start picking off the FBI agents, one by one. And the cult is joined by the mysterious Roderick, who appears to be a murderer masquerading as a mild-mannered sheriff in rural Virginia. Roderick, it turns out, killed a few of the women that the FBI ended up pinning on Joe; as a result he's in Joe's debt, which is of course an uncomfortable place to be.
 
The FBI's total inability to do anything right with regards to Joe means that a new boss gets sent in to school them: This boss is Nick Donovan, played by Mike Colter (who you might recognize from "The Good Wife"). As handsome as Colter is, it's hard to see how Donovan adds value to the cast, which already feels bloated. Much like almost everyone else on the show, Donovan doesn't like Ryan very much. When he finds out that Ryan asked Mike to hack into his email (!) he sends Mike home, presumably to fire him.
 
This conveniently (very conveniently) puts Mike in the crosshairs of the cult. They abduct him and take him to an abandoned concrete warehouse and... well... knife-fight.
 
On one hand, Roderick, Charlie and Louise (who are the main cult players interrogating Mike) are weak characters, and the conflict extends for so long it's hard to maintain suspense. On the other hand, Mike Weston under pressure is a lot of fun to watch. Sure, he's the classic good-guy, but he has that same charm, the same grace under pressure, that we see Ryan exhibit time and time again. Towards the end of his abduction, he's standing on concrete, blood dripping from his mouth, wielding a knife after being beaten with fists and metal pipes, and he's still fighting. As a longtime Shawn Ashmore fan (don't ask), it's all I could have really asked for.
 
Charlie stabs Mike really brutally in the stomach, but Ryan shows up and shoots everyone, so Mike ends up clinging to life while the cult goes home, having failed in their mission to find out where Claire is. Charlie is so upset he asks Joe to kill him -- oh yeah. Kill him. Straight up ritually murder him for failing to give his life meaning. This scene, too, I'm torn about. I found it very badly written -- Charlie's entreaty for Joe to kill him because otherwise his life has no meaning seems way too on-the-nose, psychologically, for a cult follower to produce, and is furthermore beating its audience over the head with this continued explanation. On the other hand -- in terms of the creepy and weird and insane -- this perfectly fits the bill. Joe not only embraces but kisses Charlie on the cheek as he prepares to gut him; Louise and Roderick lay out plastic sheeting, as if they have done this many times before; even Emma looks horrified. And at the end Joe faintly smiles, overcome with emotion (for everyone looks a bit aroused) but also smiling, intoxicated with his own power.
 
I have had some trouble with where the show is going, but admittedly, in revealing our own insanity, it does at times a stark and horrifying job. Add the last scene with Roderick and Louise to the prevailing overtones of the blurred lines between sexual assault, desire and murder, and you've got a lot of messed-up stuff to get you through to next week.
 
Odds and Ends:
 
Ryan: "Nobody likes me." Mike: "Well, you're inconsistent and extreme. It's hard to get used to." Ryan: "... I was joking."
 
Great surprising moment of levity when the FBI is interrogating their captive from last week, who seems only capable of babbling in prophetic tones. Parker and Mike roll their eyes; Ryan says sarcastically, "Wow, that was creepy." Mike even goes so far as to say that the suspect is paraphrasing Ted Bundy poorly.
 
Oh yeah, Emma and Joe are sleeping together. Who didn't see that coming?
 

What did you think? Does the show freak you out?