When it comes to staying dedicated to terrible television, I am a savant. I will, despite all indications to it being terrible, watch a show for at least one season. Because of this special dedication, I have watched such gems as Men at Work on TBS, Under the Dome, The River, and, of course, The Following. For the uninitiated, The Following pretends to be a serious show about a serial killer so charismatic he ends up with a cult. Because he really likes Edgar Allan Poe and has a British accent, or something? I really have no idea. But Kevin Bacon is involved as our hero, and it was created by the dude who wrote most of the Scream movies, so I thought it might be, you know, not completely moronic. I was wrong.
Charisma is, of course, a rather indefinable attribute. How one portrays it in a tv show must, in turn, be pretty much impossible. The Following tackles this by simply having people fawn uncontrollably over Joe; this means, as the viewer, we get no real understanding of the relationship between Joe and his followers, simply because the entire relationship is based on a charisma that cannot actually be felt. So, the show devolves into a really strange experience for the viewer: a boring dude who apparently likes to kill coeds expounds high-school-sophomore-stoner-philosophy about Poe and death, and this stirs the inner soul of a bunch of serial killer wannabes. Or something. And, in turn, they flock to him and do his bidding like lemmings, but we are supposed to see them as a terrifying group of “Anyones”: these people are everywhere and could be right next to you, aghast! Anyone, everyone, is a psychopath!
It should not be so easy to mock the basis of this show; instead, it should actually frighten the viewer. It highlights a near baseline human fear: with the possibility of any one person being evil, no one can actually be trusted. Unfortunately, instead of terror, we get incompetence. In order to prove the genius of Joe Carroll and his followers, the show elects to showcase the sheer stupidity of the F.B.I. Having one organisation be stupid does not create a scale on which the other side immediately becomes intelligent; instead, it reinforces the overall lack of intelligence of everyone involved and, thus, highlights, again, the failure of the writers to create an understanding for the viewer about why this person, Joe, matters so much. This is not just a horror show; this is supposed to be a meta-commentary on how the world functions: we are all obliged to fear that which we don’t know. If the show could successfully comment on that fear and how such fear rationalise judgment and bigotry, that would be exciting.
If you really want to understand The Following, then, you only have to read Harry Potter. At the end of the fourth book, Harry reveals that Lord Voldemort has regained his powers. Most wizards do not want to believe this because, if true, it means they can no longer trust the world as they wish to. The idea of evil here is not just demonic and otherworldly, but one of minutia: the day-to-day trivialities take on larger meanings–is that person acting in such a way because s/he’s evil or cursed? do I know my neighbor as well as I think I do? who do I trust with even the most mundane tasks? The terrifying aspect of such evil is that it [possibly] lies within the very people we consider ‘normal.’ Joe Carroll (Lord Voldemort) and his followers (the Death-Eaters) battle Kevin Bacon [Ryan Hardy] (Harry Potter), who not only is the main protagonist, but to further the Potter parallels, is actually scarred by Joe when Hardy interrupts an attempted killing, barely surviving, and thus shoots to fame for being The One Who Stopped Joe Carroll; the scar/survival in turn marks Hardy as ‘important’ to Joe and his followers–the necessary component of Joe’s games and the person for whom all evil planning must revolve around and whose death must be performed by Joe. The Ministry of Magic and the F.B.I. remain incompetent in almost all facets of resolving the issue, culminating in the denial of return of Joe/Voldemort, only to be proven wrong. There are evil insiders at all levels of the F.B.I. and others who have been coerced into helping (i.e., Imperius Curse). Here in season 2 we even have our own Hermione in Hardy’s cop cousin who actually provides most of the intellectual muscle Hardy needs to continue his pursuit for proof of Joe still being alive and his remaining, now under-ground, Death-Eaters (clearly, the Emma character is Bellatrix Lestrange).
The divergence is in our understanding of the central evil character and why he has drawn such people in his grasp. For Voldemort, people clearly fear him; they wish to act upon evil impulses, but in a way that demonstrates they do so for the purpose of winning favour from him. He gathers those to him who can benefit his singular ideal: to be the best, the most powerful, and to avoid death. Joe Carroll on the other hand draws people to him through a perverted notion of love and gift-giving; his speeches about death describe it as a gift that the murderer bestows upon the lucky chosen. This idealisation of death renders it much harder for the viewer to grasp the relationship between Joe and his followers. Voldemort falls squarely into our general understanding of the evil, power hungry demon; Joe Carroll’s evil requires us to get past the bad philosophy and worship to a far murkier, ethereal understanding of evil–his followers wish to commit crimes because he has cultivated their inherent sense of evil, but they do not commit them to appease him; they do so to prove their love and gain his.
There are two ways of looking at this:
1) J.K. Rowling successfully portrays the common understanding of evil to her readers, and, as such, creates a real villain. There are no ambiguities; evil people are drawn to the power of the utmost evil, craving power of their own, and willingly giving up some in return for the freedom to be evil. This evil is then undermined completely by love–in that Harry is protected from Voldemort by his mother’s loving sacrifice, as well as the fact that the insider who enables the good guys to know as much information as they do and who sacrifices himself for the good of the cause, Snape, did so for a life-long unrequited love of Harry’s mother. This fits inside our prototypical vision of how evil acts, and while it doesn’t challenge our understanding of evil’s possibilities, it makes sense to us as outsiders participating in the story–Voldemort isn’t just bad, he’s oppressively bad, driven by a desire to basically no longer exist within the confines of humanity. He’s at once both Other and the personification of the Id gone wild, which means he somehow is someone/something we can’t see as human and an example of our base humanity without confines.
2) The Following, in an attempt to create a more, let’s say, holistic version of evil, grinds against this ‘normalcy.’ The evil here is one built out of a desire to feel a sense of belonging that goes beyond a simplistic Collection of Evil People–it is, paradoxically, about the emergence of emotional connections between individuals who sense they fail to belong in the real world; they are not drawn to Joe Carroll because they fear his power; they are there because he grants them the space to be themselves. By going against what we have come to understand as the prototypical version of evil, this should be intriguing, a notion of evil with something to say. Unfortunately, the show has nothing to say; it just wants the viewer to be scared by the ‘unknown,’ and, in the end, that’s why the show disappoints.
The real discussion, then, should focus on how we, as participants in these works of fictions, psychologically respond to something we often consider so easily defined: ‘evil is bad.’ But what we consider to be ‘bad’ often morphs according to context, giving layers to the meaning of evil–the contextual understanding of an action creates an opinion, one which we don’t necessarily recognise as malleable, i.e., if I were to steal your data, that would be considered a criminal act; when the government does the same thing, that’s considered [by some] to be an act to preserve our safety. The act itself is the same; it’s our understanding of why the act occurs that changes it–it is assumed I would steal your data for personal benefit, whereas the government does it for protection. The idea that safety is, in fact, a type of personal benefit doesn’t register because that type of benefit lacks the key component of greed, at least on the surface. It’s within this schism that the Voldemort/Carroll split occurs: Voldemort is the data hacker, performing deeds for his own personal gain; Carroll is supposedly not doing this just for himself but because he wants to create a ‘safe haven’ for the psychopath misfits he cares for; it doesn’t matter that it’s a long con, just like it doesn’t matter that government data collection at this point has almost nothing to do with terrorist prevention, because the veneer of safety creates, contextually, the reason for specific actions.
My guess is people don’t inherently like the idea of evil being malleable; they want it to be concrete, a highly specific thing to point at and declare with utmost certainty, ‘that is evil, that is wrong,’ i.e., the Devil. Yet, we do this all the time: mass murder, bad; dropping 2 nuclear bombs on cities, okay because it was during a war, despite it instantly killing tens of thousands of people. We constantly create justifications not just for our specific actions, but for what those actions mean. This is why Joe Carroll is a closer reflection to what evil in real life is, philosophically (not necessarily in action), because the idea of evil constantly changes and/or adapts to the current situation, but Voldemort is an easier, and, thus, stronger, character; Voldemort’s vision of evil always remains concrete; we can, without hesitation, point at him and declare him bad.
What this means then is not that evil can be contextualised or rationalised, but that evil is determined by other people and their decision to either accept or deny the rationalising for such an act. This is the basis of the American model of the justice system: a criminal act is argued and other people–a judge, a jury–determine the context of the act according to a set of laws; the act itself, oddly, is less important than its place within the context of laws and other people’s response to an explanation for the act. Both a defense lawyer and a prosecutor will attempt to rationalise whatever happened within the confines of the decision they wish to get. The interesting aspect of all of this is how the job of being a defense lawyer has created an entire stereotype of lawyer and is almost entirely the reasoning behind lawyer jokes, complaints, etc. Their defense of perceived evil people means evil extends to them, despite, objectively, people knowing they are performing a necessary component of our justice system. Evil becomes a coat anyone can wear, even those whose job we inherently understand as needing to exist.
And, so, it seems what we really need is a devil. A devil, within all possible configurations and capitalisations of the ‘d,’ represents an extraordinarily concrete vision: a creature against the good of humanity. The notion of ‘good,’ of course, is a fluid and dynamic thing, which makes a devil so ingenious: it can be anything or anyone who obstructs us from our particular brand of good. Too often, then, the construction of evil starts with a simple pretext: fear–the fear that what we know as good has changed, is changing, or will change (fear, clearly, is an all-encompassing urge with no regard for the boring logistics of ‘time’). It would make me happier, mostly because it would help justify why I keep watching the show, if I could label Joe Carroll a devil. I mean, I guess he is, but his brand of evil bores. Perhaps Voldemort’s obvious association with Hitler and the Death-Eaters/Nazis/Muggles/Jews/Pure-Blood lists, etc., creates a tension surrounding a fictional character that, while purposeful, makes it much easier to forgive a fairly stereotypical villain. Voldemort, once you remove the concept of magic, is simply a narcissist suffering from a rather crippling dichotomy of self-hatred and ego; he just so happens to exist with a little extra flair because, you know, wizarding and such–green flashes, talking to snakes, whatever. His drama is a fantastical fiction. Joe Carroll on the other hand is supposed to exist, to be a person whom we, the viewer, actually worry may roam our reality.
As I sit here I realise what bothers me the most is this: Voldemort’s followers don’t love him; hell, they don’t even like him. They fear him and desire to be judged as good enough in his eyes. Carroll’s following has nothing to do with fear. I think this should be an interesting concept, but the show just sucks. It fails to explain why these people are drawn to him. Perhaps I’ve watched too many CSI and Criminal Minds episodes and what have you, and so I have that awful faux knowledge of killer psychology and crime scenes that these shows have concocted and have, thus, turned all of us into (bad) aspiring detectives, but my understanding is serial killers are pretty isolated individuals, not in the sense that they all live in the woods like the Unabomber, but that they cannot connect emotionally with people in a real way; their ego and narcissism prevent real human contact. The notion that a serial killer cult forms because of ‘love,’ then, makes no goddamn sense, and it especially makes no sense when the guy whose supposed to be the leader mostly seems like a whiny drama queen who thinks stabbing people makes him a god. Maybe I’m overthinking this and should instead focus on poor script writing and bad acting. But there’s no need to destroy my whole premise in one sentence. Maybe this is all some elaborate con and Joe plans on killing all his followers in some Jonestown like self-massacre. My guess is that with the introduction of a secondary serial killer group–Lilly Gray and Family–we’re going to have some convoluted situation where Joe rescues Kevin Bacon from Lilly’s band of merry killers because, of course, Joe and Kevin are destined for each other like some sort of horrible recreation of the Devil tempting Jesus and nobody other than the Devil gets to mess with Jesus like that or something and then Complex Conundrums start for Mr. Bacon: Stage 1: confusion; Stage 2: anger; Stage 3: overt resignation to the Joe/Mr. Bacon psychopath parallels already hinted at by Joe’s ‘teacher.’ [If none of this makes any sense to you, you’re probably much better off]. Maybe what this all means is that I want my evil with a dash of oxymoron–to fit safely inside the confines I already understand. And, maybe, really, what this all means is the best combination of ‘safety’ evil and challenging evil is Hannibal Lecter on Hannibal, and I just keep expecting The Following to figure this out. Alas.