#28: Joe Carroll, The Lord Voldemort of bad serial television

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.

#25: a quick rant about Harry Potter

Despite being an adult, at least according to age, I enjoy reading Harry Potter. I also know there’s no real reason to act defensive about that because millions of adults have read Harry Potter. Not all of them can be total nerds. Or, perhaps, I’ve superceded their nerdom because G. and I elected to order all the Potters in hardcover in the original British editions. So, okay, we’re nerds. And as such, it makes me wonder if Draco Malfoy / Slytherins get a bad rap.

Consider: While the 4 houses all have their rivalries, Slytherin at no point has allies outside of itself. Such isolation has to make them defensive. Draco Malfoy expects to be in Slytherin because it’s his family’s legacy; however, how much of the legacy is derived from a stereotype that feel they must live up to? According to the books, all (ALL!) evil wizards and witches in the greater British area come out of Slytherin. I find this to be incredibly difficult to believe. It implies that only a specific type of person has the possibility to commit evil and overlooks the inherent intricacies of humans. Let’s say you are a Muggle-born first year, and just like Harry, you’ve never heard of / known about / had any inkling about the wizarding world, but unlike Harry you receive no information on the train to Hogwarts by others to indicate that Slytherin is the ‘evil’ house; the Sorting Hat elects to put you there because, when sat upon your head, it picked up a drive for power–a drive powered not by a desire to be ‘evil,’ but a desire to prove yourself in the wizarding world. This hypothetical person would then be cast as ‘evil’ by the rest of the houses, despite having absolutely no allegiance or standing inside of Slytherin, simply because of the stereotype of the house. This first year is then immediately put on the defensive, making him/her not only overwhelmed beginning his/her wizarding schooling, but also overwhelmed by the stance against him/her through no fault of his/her own. S/he merely showed up at the school, sat upon a chair, and waited for the hat to declare his/her fate, as it were. Slytherin, the snake house, consumes itself in a vicious circle of stereotypes and defensiveness.

While I understand the need for a (mostly) children’s book series to create ‘blocks’ of people in order to establish the Good v. Bad, I also think Rowling spends a lot of time working to the greater psychological understanding of her main characters. Even Draco in the last book gets some introspection–via other character’s looking at / hearing about him–as he grapples with his task of taking out Dumbledore. The struggle Malfoy goes through, both personally and physically, only highlights the cost of being in Slytherin: the expectation to perform evil because you are told that being in Slytherin means you have to live up to some kind of Higher Evil Purpose. Unlike Gryffindor, the House of Slytherin not only contends with other houses, it contends with the legacy of itself. Any teenagery acts–pranks, rebellion, combustible emotional outbursts, all things others do in the rest of the houses–are seen through a lens of horror; ‘THEY COULD BE DEATHEATERS, AHHHHHHHHHHHH,’ essentially. The most impressive character arc in the entire series is how Draco, after seven years of having to look at himself as a pre-destined monster, actually struggles with that destiny and eventually crumbles in front of it. We all want to glorify the resurrection of Harry because of his parents’ and other’s love, but Draco must deal with being an assumed evil wizard for seven straight years. How hard would it be to look at yourself with any real analysis when the rest of the school looks at you through that lens of assumed horror? He is throughout most of the series a caricature of his father, and, yet, by the end, he overcomes that. Of course he’s an annoying, snobbish git–he’s been handed a silver spoon, something that most people will always hold against him; the assumption is he doesn’t need upward mobility because he’s already reached the upper tier, the 1% if you will; yet what Draco most needs is the upward mobility of socialisation, a wide circle of friends who expose him to the world outside of the Slytherin stereotype, something that everyone else blocks him from achieving because of the stereotype. And, unlike any of the other main characters, he is not allowed to make mistakes; such mistakes become glaring announcements of his perceived evil.

Imagine living your teen years knowing you were supposed to become a specific type of person. In movies, the audience is often set up to feel empathy for the character who doesn’t want to become the lawyer, the doctor, the ‘serious profession’ that his parents want / demand him to become; in Dead Poet’s Society this point gets hammered home by the kid who wants to be an actor shooting himself in the head when his father pulls him from school, demanding the son pursue the serious profession the father wants for him. We are to feel sadness for the son and shame for the father. In this case, we hold it against Draco that he wants to become his parents; yet, in general, is that not realistic? Don’t most of us want to impress our parents? Of course we go through rebellious phases, but that doesn’t mean we abjectly desire to disappoint them. When Draco confronts this dilemma in the final book, he loses weight, he loses sleep, and he confides his fears to Moaning Myrtle. His social circle is so incomplete that he actually has to find comfort with a ghost in a girl’s bathroom. Imagine, again, that you have no one to actually talk to; imagine your psyche as you grapple with who you are at 17 and are convinced the world, on all sides, is against you–from Slytherin, the assumption that he is too weak to perform his assigned task and live up to his destiny; from everyone else, the assumption that he is a Dark Wizard looking to wreak havoc on all of them. The world for Draco is such a cold place, he finds comfort in a person killed by the very embodiment of his house, a basilisk. In not holding it against Draco that the Serpent of Slytherin killed her, Myrtle is the only person who shows him compassion. That has to be psychologically damaging to realise almost no one out there shows a willingness to just listen to him. And, lost in all this, is the immense pressure he’s under with his task to kill Dumbledore–not because, you know, Dumbledore, but because the fate of his life and his family is to be determined by his success or failure. It is an actual life or death situation for him. And nobody shows any care.

Okay, his mother does, but we have no insight into the family dynamic, in terms of how much weight his father and mother each have in leading Draco; the assumption, though, has to lean towards his father having the power because of how much Draco solely references him in previous books. Second, I realise Snape constantly asks Draco to let him help, but we also find out that Snape is a double agent whose true mission is to continue his guise until he can release Draco from his task by performing it himself, as determined by Dumbledore and him in prior meetings. Essentially, Dumbledore allows Snape to make Draco think that his task has been completed, further scarring Draco even as Draco has elected to not death-curse Dumbledore; Draco believes he alone is responsible for killing Dumbledore and that Snape did so just to ‘help’ him. Again, imagine the psychological cost of believing you’re responsible for the death of the ‘greatest wizard in the world,’ when you weren’t even sure by the end that you wanted to follow through on the task [Also, how do we know Dumbledore is the greatest wizard in the world? There is much to be said about the blatant exceptionalism expressed, something that I’m sure could align with the former British Empire notion of self / colonialism and current Unites States assumption of superiority. Hogwart’s basically stands at the center of the wizarding world according to this, with no indication of the (I guess, possible) globalisation of it. We get a Tri-Wizard tournament, but that only includes two other schools, both from European neighbours].

In the real world, there is a cultural and political battle over how to handle poverty / crime. While approaches to solving the dilemma differ, the goal remains the same [sorry, I have to insert here: would there be a way to make a documentary about this using Led Zeppelin music, as in The Goal Remains the Same / The Song Remains the Same?]: to create upward mobility–to move people into better schools, better jobs, better environments. The fight people have, however, has to do with stereotypes: that poor people are lazy; that some groups are somehow ‘more prone’ to crime; that people believe they are entitled to free handouts rather than working their way up the social spectrum. Such stereotyping ignores reality because the stereotypes are often self-fulfilling prophesies: the stereotype prevents a person from serious consideration when that person attempts to better himself. Schools lack funding, educational divides become gulfs, better jobs get harder and harder to obtain, environments continue to wither as the jobs and schools get worse–destiny, if you will, becomes a version of survival, not mobilisation. And, while Draco obviously has the benefit of being part of the 1%, and while he relentlessly takes pleasure in announcing it, his personal character has no social spectrum to move in. As he grapples with his supposed destiny, his only friend is a dead person. Imagine.