Recap and review of The Following – Season 1 Episode 7 – Let Me Go:
Tonight’s episode of The Following feels like it set the real plot of the series in motion. And not a moment too soon, I suppose, as the series just got renewed for a second season. But here’s the thing: “Let Me Go” is the episode that definitively caused me to give up whatever lingering faith I had in the show. This really has nothing to do with the episode itself, as it’s a perfectly serviceable hour of drama. No, I’m more resigned about what it means for what it implies for the series going forward. The episode lays down the track for the season ahead, and from the looks of it, we’re getting a story that is going to be as rife with logistical inconsistencies as the last several episodes. I mean, they must be doing something right if people are watching, but the premise is only sustainable by dicking around the audience, and I can’t see such a viewing experience ever being rewarding, although I’m not entirely sure what I was expecting from a crime drama about a serial killer who bases his entire M.O. around the work of Edgar Allen Poe.
So we continue off of last week’s 11th hour revelation that Carroll (James Purefoy) was suing the prison for violating his 8th Amendment rights. As we kick off the episode, Carroll has secured a transfer to a different prison, and while it appears that this is due to the aforementioned rights violation from when Ryan (Kevin Bacon) broke Carroll’s fingers, it turns out to have been engineered by the prison warden, who is compelled to give Carroll what he wants since the followers have abducted his college-aged daughter. This begs the question of why Carroll even needs the warden’s daughter in order to secure a transfer, if he already has a legit case with the footage of Ryan breaking his fingers? For that matter, you’d think the news would be covering this case far more substantially than they are (which is to say, not at all), since this is a death row inmate who’s petitioning the courts and arguing that his rights have been violated. You couldn’t write a scoop like that (well, unless you write for The Following). Ryan discovers that the warden’s daughter has been kidnapped, and that Carroll isn’t actually in the armored car that is supposed to be transporting him to his new prison.
It’s ultimately revealed that Carroll escaped in the trunk of his lawyer, Olivia (Renee Elise Goldsberry), whom he then goes on to murder while Ryan can do nothing else but listen on the other end of the phone as the frightened lawyer has the life choked out of her. I’ll say this: the show finally found an effective way to make Carroll seem not only threatening (beyond simply what his followers can do on his behalf), but also frighteningly unhinged. When Purefoy allows the veneer of suave, British decorum to drop away, he plays quite the slimy, contemptible villain. And Kevin Bacon continues to do exemplary work portraying Ryan as a tortured do-gooder who is not only someone we want to root for, but someone who deserves to be rooted for, as he’s every bit as resourceful and determined as Carroll is twisted. Yet neither man’s performance can salvage the material, as the script is filled with overly-scripted contrivances, rendering the story itself completely arbitrary.
Take last week, for example: the writers needed an excuse to have Jacob/Paul/Emma escape with their lives, so hey, let’s write it so that Carroll has followers in the police force now! And it continues into this week: The writers need a way to get Carroll out of prison, so they script the cops to be as lousy at their jobs as Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer. Then they need Carroll and his followers to see that Ryan is closing in on them, so that they can get then get the drop on him in the stairwell in the climax. So the writers have Ryan and Mike (Shawn Ashmore), like complete morons, loudly announce their presence in the mall complex to where they’ve tracked Carroll, instead of simply approaching him once they spot him on the second floor above them. Of course Carroll is going to escape when you’re shouting “FBI! MOVE!” at the top of your voice to a bunch of startled pedestrians who then go out of their way to get in yours. And then Ryan and Mike split up, which might seem smart from a tactical standpoint, but is really only there so that Ryan can be cornered by Joe and his followers. It’s at this moment, with Ryan and Carroll face-to-face in the stairwell, that the show lost me.
Carroll, now decked out in a suave, expensive-looking suit, explains to Ryan that this is merely the first chapter in the “novel” he has planned. In essence, Carroll reveals that he’s plotted out every contingency, and that everything that’s happened up to this point is by his design. What this basically means, for the show, is that our protagonists won’t actually be allowed to succeed unless Carroll allows them to. He might allow Ryan and company to dispose of one of his followers, sure. But that’d be the only victory he’d allow this early in the story. And the followers, as evidenced, are completely expendable, given how many of them he’s got, and how willing they are to give their lives to his cause. So really, what this episode tells us is that Ryan isn’t going to be allowed to make any progress. Realistically, he can’t be allowed to, or else we wouldn’t have a show. I would love for the series to surprise me and go in a completely different direction for the latter half of season one, or maybe even bring in an entirely new killer for season two, but we’ve been given no indication that the show has any intention of portraying Carroll as anything less than omnipotent, and Ryan as anything less than determined, but always coming up short. I suppose part of good drama is delaying gratification for the audience, but we’re seven episodes in, and it doesn’t seem like Ryan has made any headway at all. If anything, he’s fallen behind considerably. It’s actually pretty troubling, when you think about it. This isn’t how a high-concept drama should be done, yet it’s still remarkably successful for a primetime, network drama in 2013. So they clearly must know what they’re doing, at some level. Although equating something’s quality with its popularity is a losing proposition.
One of the few bright spots of the episode is in the end, as Ryan rescues the warden’s daughter and discovers that he just missed Joey, who’d been there alongside Emma and another cohort of Carroll’s (“Sorry Mario, the princess is in another castle!”), while intercut with the image of Carroll being taken to the headquarters of his cult out in the middle of nowhere. There, he finally comes face-to-face with his son, and Joey (Kyle Catlett) realizes that this is his father, and voices this observation — at which point Carroll, fighting back tears and the overwhelming emotion of being kept away from his only son for years on end, says, “Yes. Yes I am.” It would be touching if it weren’t about an innocent boy being reunited with the immutably corrupt, murderous father he’s been sheltered from (and for damn good reason). But Purefoy’s restrained, poignant performance really brings it home, and makes the scene worthwhile, although poor Joey, having a poor man’s Edgar Allen Poe for a father. Joey, for his part, nearly gets himself killed before all this. In the B-plot of the episode, Emma (Valorie Curry) takes Joey to one of the other followers, who has an unhinged madman under his employ. This madman isn’t a follower of Carroll’s, he simply aided the follower in his abduction of the warden’s daughter. When Joey discovers the warden’s daughter trapped, he goes about setting her free, an act which gets himself and Emma in big trouble — at least before the follower comes along to set things straight with the madman. It’s all kind of pointless, and seems to serve little other purpose than to try and get us to sympathize with Emma by having her be protective of Joey. I can appreciate the attempt, but it’s still not enough to bridge that moral gap to where I can look at Emma as anything other than a complete monster (ditto that for Jacob and Paul, neither of whom we see this week, leaving us to wonder if Paul’s pulled through, and if Jacob really stuck with him throughout. It was actually pretty smart of the showrunners to save the continuation of that plot for a less crowded episode).
Ultimately, “Let Me Go” is an episode that questions the resolve of its viewers. Can you stomach the bleakness? The lack of forward plot movement? These are all questions that, given the ratings, many viewers will be able to answer with a resounding “yes.” Others still might not even see it as a problem, enjoying the show, its characters, and its stories as they do. And I don’t begrudge those viewers that choice one bit. But I fear I’ll never likely be one of them. The series will need to develop beyond its horror movie trappings, evolving instead into something more nuanced. As it stands right now, I don’t know if that will ever happen. Regardless, I’m in this for the long haul. With any luck, I won’t regret that decision when it’s all said and done.
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