Something's been off from the start with the sophomore season of FOX's The Following. Some of the problems were easy to identify; some required some after-thought. But the worst, most show-wrecking offense, is the way the show has systematically dismantled everything that made serial killer Joe Carroll (James Purefoy) such a great character in the first place.
[WARNING — SPOILERS FOLLOW]
The first season of The Following was a taut, well-executed event series. Coming from Kevin Williamson (The Vampires Diaries, Dawson's Creek), I wasn't expecting much; but I was pleasantly surprised. Kevin Bacon's main character, Ryan Hardy, was an interesting (if not a bit clichéd) creation, and his journey of redemption was well worth the trip. But the most captivating part of the show was its villain: the Poe-obsessed psychopath, Joe Carroll.
Carroll was a genius in every sense of the word: educated, sophisticated, damaged, and incredibly, devilishly clever. He was ahead of Hardy and the FBI at every turn. Nearly every seemingly random event throughout the season had been meticulously planned by Carroll while he had been stewing in prison, amassing the titular cult following. Even when Hardy finally caught up to him in the season finale, Carroll had a plan. Did anyone really believe Joe Carroll had died in that boathouse explosion?
Even after his "death," Carroll got the last laugh, by arranging to have his ex-wife — and Ryan Hardy's current lover — Claire Matthews (played by Justified's Natalie Zea) murdered in front of Hardy. Hardy himself barely escaped alive, and we were left wondering the fates of all three characters by the end of the finale.
Then, enter season two. We learn that Joe Carroll did indeed fake his death (through a ridiculously convoluted plot point), Claire died of her injuries, and Ryan Hardy left the FBI after the ordeal. Carroll is now hiding out in Arkansas with a terrible Southern accent and seemingly no plan and nowhere to go. On the surface, that seems like a good direction to go. What better way to shake things up than by having this criminal mastermind finally actually run out of plans? What will he do when his back is against the wall and all of his strategic maneuvers have been exhausted?
Unfortunately, it just didn't pan out very well.
Firstly, Joe is saddled with this new character, Mandy (Tiffany Boone), with whose mother he has lived with for the past year. Not only is she annoying and incompetent, but her storyline makes no sense. She had little to no motivation for killing her mother, and it's highly improbable that she would've followed Joe Carroll anywhere.
Then there's the long, drawn out focus on new characters Lily Gray (Connie Nielsen), her psychotic twin sons Luke and Mark (both played by Sam Underwood — who played nearly the exact same role on Dexter last year), and their annoying little gang of thugs. Not only is none of this activity very compelling, it takes a huge amount of time away from Joe Carroll, who should be the show's primary focus.
Cut to the chase, and before long Joe is now himself a member of a cult, lead by the completely unbelievable Micah (Jake Weber). But unlike Joe Carroll's murder-obsessed followers, Micah's cult (called "Corbin," because they couldn't possibly have come up with anything stupider) is a pseudo-religious outfit. Now, I realize Joe is winging it at this point, but it seems highly unlikely to me that the Joe Carroll of season one would allow himself to willingly follow anyone, even if it's for his greater survival.
As we expect, before long Joe murders Micah and takes over the cult himself. Hooray, right? Not so fast — rather than attempt to convince the members that "Corbin" was all bullshit, and try to convince them of his own methodology, Joe continues the charade and simply evolves their religious mumbo-jumbo to now include murder. It's utterly ridiculous and completely out of character. Joe Carroll is one of the most narcissistic, self-obsessed characters ever written; there's simply no way he would go along with this "Corbin" nonsense. Those cult members should be following HIM; that is the only way he would want it. But at this point, we aren't even sure if Joe is simply using the cult members or if he actually believes in this cultish garbage himself (which would be way, way worse).
Now, all of that alone would be enough to destroy the character that we came to fear and love in season one, but OH NO...the writers have one more wrinkle to throw in that undermines Joe Carroll altogether.
Out of nowhere comes this new character, Dr. Arthur Strauss (Gregg Henry), who is quickly captured and questioned by Ryan Hardy and the FBI. Apparently, Dr. Strauss is Joe Carroll's "mentor" and is the man who taught him how to kill. Now, let me ask you...does Joe Carroll seem like the kind of man who would have had a mentor? Does he seem like the kind of man who needed to be taught how to kill? I said it before and I'll say it again: Joe Carroll is a genius. A deranged, psychopathic genius, yes, but a genius nonetheless. No one had to "teach" him how to become a criminal mastermind. The character works so much better when portrayed as simply an intellectual professor, obsessed with the works of Edgar Allan Poe, who becomes so infatuated with the concept of death that he eventually begins to kill. Why the need for this mentor character?
It's difficult to even watch Joe Carroll as he's written now; we've seen him on his knees, pledging allegiance to other people, we've seen him lying and using people like a common crook, and we've seen him dressed-down by an older father figure who teaches him how to control his dark urges (ugh, I almost vomited just typing that).
In fairness, there have been a few bright spots this season. I'm a little bored by Ryan Hardy at this point, and I can't stand his new love interest/reporter, Carrie Cooke (Sprague Grayden). But I've loved the strong character arc for Shawn Ashmore's FBI Agent Mike Weston. Unlike Joe's story, everything about Mike has made sense and Ashmore has displayed an acting prowess this season that I didn't even know he possessed. And I'm intrigued by the revelation that Claire didn't actually die; she was placed in protective custody and even Ryan Hardy was kept from the truth. I'm curious to see how that plays out and how Hardy will feel about Mike lying to his face about Claire's death.
I'm going to keep watching; I'm too far invested, and there aren't many episodes left now. But at this point, I think the best option for the show would be to kill Joe Carroll for real, and bring in a new main villain for next season. I love James Purefoy and if you'd asked me last season, I'd never have believed I'd be wishing for him to exit, but the character is destroyed now. There's no salvaging him.
RIP Joe Carroll.
For more (albeit much shorter) rants and raves, follow me on Twitter @barryerice.