The Following: 101 “Pilot” Review
Reviewed by James Wynne
Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon) is the flawed hero to Joe Carroll’s (James Purefoy) sadistic, if somewhat artistic, serial killer. Ryan is ex-FBI and the only man capable of recapturing Joe Carroll, or understanding and interpreting his actions, following his violent escape from prison at the beginning of the episode. This prompts Ryan’s reinstatement at the Bureau in an advisory role. At the heart of Ryan’s character is an interesting contrast – his mental prowess is undermined by a severe physical weakness. This weakness is as a result of his attempt to stop Joe Carroll’s last attack before he was imprisoned. Ryan was successful, saving the would-be-victim, Sarah Fuller (Maggie Grace), from near death, but he did not escape unscathed himself. He was stabbed in the heart, which has since left him ailing with a pacemaker and no longer able to work as an agent at the FBI. This in itself creates an intimate point of connection between the two men (more on that further down), and means that the series avoids the oft-overused archetype for this sort of male lead – whose strength resides in both his mental and physical capabilities. As well as making Ryan a more sympathetic character overall (portraying him as the underdog in his adversarial conflict with Joe Carroll), it also throws in an extra dose of tension during scenes where he puts himself at risk, as he is forced to exert himself to a certain extent. Kevin Bacon does a great job of ensuring the character’s physical fragility is conveyed in these moments, as, when angered or agitated, his breathing and speech becomes laboured – his body failing to keep up with his mind. This is most apparent when he learns of Sarah’s disappearance and questions the competence of the FBI’s operations. It’s subtle, but noticeable; as the resolute tone of voice starts to weaken the more he persists with his questioning.
Joe Carroll, meanwhile, is the charismatic, intellectual psychopath, who envisions his murders as an artistic homage to Edgar Allen Poe’s works The Black Cat and The Tell-Tale Heart – which he romanticises and adopts as a kind of philosophical belief. It’s detailed several times that his removal of his victims’ eyes is in direct reference to Poe’s citation of the eyes as being ‘the windows to the soul’ – a means of identifying one’s self. It’s explained well and given enough depth of thought that it doesn’t come off as being done for the sole reason that he has to have something to make him unique (because all serial killers need a trademark, right?). Instead, it defines, and intensifies his characterisation as it should, and feels like a natural thing for him to be doing given all that we’ve learned about him. It’s also great to see him humanised to an extent – both in the physical and emotional sense – as it grounds his character in the same context as the ‘good guys’. He is not portrayed as being immune to pain, or indulgent in it, as in both instances where he is on the receiving end (thanks to Ryan’s impulsive attacks of outrage), traces of panic are more than evident in his reaction. His control and influence stems from his overwhelming charisma and ability to influence and manipulate the minds of others, but when lacking that as an option, as well as a physical advantage over his opponent(s) (he is almost always in possession of a weapon when gaining the upper hand), his vulnerabilities are exposed and can be exploited. It also seems that, quite apart from Ryan being the only man who has been able to catch him (twice, sort of) and the only one who understands the reasons and motives behind his actions, as well as interpreting the artictic intentions, there is a definite grudge surrounding Carroll’s ex-wife, Claire Matthews (Natalie Zea), whom it is stated has slept with Ryan and is the only woman Joe has ever, truly loved.
The main plot of this episode follows Joe’s escape from prison and subsequent [successful] attempt to finish his work – echoing Poe’s inability to do so – which happens to be his last intended victim, Sarah Fuller. It’s something that’s realised quite late in the episode (too late, as it turns out) and is built up to as a natural culmination of all the various elements at play. Ryan is more perceptive than his immediate cohorts, but even he takes his time figuring it all out and it never feels like the pace at which he does so defies realism or believability at all.
It’s following this revelation that Ryan is dealt a few more blows, in brutally quick succession. He learns that Sarah has been taken from underneath the FBI’s nose; that her abduction was perpetrated by her neighbours of three years who are, in actuality, devout followers of Joe Carroll and that, despite him stating she was safe in their last discussion, Joe Carroll has already seen to her himself (that was a terrible pun, I apologise).
It’s revealed that Joe Carroll’s escape, his abduction of Sarah and his next move are all being executed by these friends and/or followers (I agree with Ryan, it’s a cult). It’s a great way to develop upon the obvious charisma that James brings to the role, as well as being a natural progression from his former profession in literary teachings (yes, he taught about Edgar Allen Poe), through which he so obviously captivated his students utilising the same techniques. It was also interesting to see the sickening results of his homicidal teachings, as the man responsible for the relative ease of his prison escape has his house littered with previous test subjects – dogs. I understand that, for some, the visualisation of butchered animals might be uncomfortable (because butchered humans are alright?) and the episode even pokes fun at that fact – as Mike Weston (Shawn Ashmore) notes that he can cope with dead humans, but dead dogs make him go nuts – but I don’t feel it was out of place. This is a programme about a sadistic killer’s exploits, which is not a sensitive subject matter in the first place, and it is also well documented that a lot of potential killers start out with animals before moving on to ‘the real thing’. It was showing the length of time that has passed and the amount of practice these recruits have been allowed as a result, as well as their replication of Carroll’s eye-removing motif – hence illustrating the danger they present, which is almost equal to that of Carroll himself.
Best Scene: “I will be…your friend.”
Joe Carroll delivers a menacing monologue, in a frighteningly blasé tone, as he outlines the narrative of his and Ryan’s future, collaborative venture – quite against the latter’s will, of course. It’s an excellent scene, fraught with tension, and played out to the tune of Marilyn Manson’s Sweet Dreams.
I struggle to think of another pilot episode that succeeds and exceeds quite as comprehensively as this one does. It has a scintillating premise which will allow the series a natural longevity (assuming that the bulk of the series will revolve around the pursuit of Carroll’s numerous followers). It had drippings of occasional humour (“You want a mint?” “He enjoyed the book. He said so”). In its two leads, it has Joe Carroll, who is characterised as a sort of subdued version of Hannibal, and the tortured and frail soul that is Ryan Hardy. As is stated by Joe Carroll, during his proposition of a collaboration between the two of them, Ryan is the one that the readers (or, audience) can invest in. He is flawed and believable; intelligent, but not impervious to mistakes. While the rest of the cast feels a bit bland in comparison – barring Weston, who is enjoyable as the eager sort-of-protégé to Ryan – it’s not much of a concern at this point, as the onus is on the series’ brilliant leading duo.