I’m no prude, okay? If what you’re presenting on film or television (or, of course, in print) has purpose to it, then I’ll consume and likely love what I’m reading or seeing. I love action movies with teeth-rattling explosions and Liam Neeson kicking ass on planes or in Eastern Europe or wherever there might be a congregation of bad guys in need of an honest-to-goodness whooping. I relish the subversive delights of a quality horror film (and, in the process of searching for one, I’ll also wade through the many, many, many terrible ones). I guess my point is that violence does not, per se, offend my delicate sensibilities as I don’t really have any.
So why then am I finding myself so put off by the second season of Fox’s serial killer thriller The Following?
In many ways, this show should be my proverbial jam. I dig this sub- genre, and my predisposed affection in and of itself carried me through an inaugural season of head-spinningly inconsistent quality. But something’s changed this year for the worse, and it has to do with the show’s increasingly cavalier depiction of violence. On the one hand, if you’re watching a series like The Following, you sort of know what you’re getting yourself into and more or less what to expect. After all, violence has been part of this show’s DNA since its debut; the opening minutes of the pilot episode find Joe Carroll having murdered five guards and escaping prison. And let’s not forget he’d been locked up in the first place for eviscerating fourteen college girls. So yeah, The Following established itself and its grisly tone early on.
The grisliness of the violence, however, is not my concern. The shift in the sophomore season’s public acts of violence is what gives me pause. Part of Joe Carroll’s villainy has been about dismantling the complacency of the masses; the dude’s sort of messed up in the head, what with this obsession with Poe an all, and he believes in saving the less enlightened, meaning you and I ostensibly. What makes him such a chilling villain (in the beginning at least) is that he could orchestrate acts of violence anywhere at anytime. In the pilot, a woman walks into a public building, disrobes, and gouges her eyes out. Joe Carroll’s minions set up violent tableaus of victims throughout New York City, posed in frequented spaces and venues for the sole purpose of rattling the general public. So, in some ways, the idea that any given time or place could become the stage for a violent act is not foreign to the show.
This thread continued into the second season. In the premiere episode, a group of assailants, donning Joe Carroll masks, overwhelm the No. 6 train and slaughter multiple passengers. Immediately, that didn’t sit well with me; in my mind, there’s a considerable difference between one woman walking into a building and gouging her own eyes out and a trio of people butchering unsuspecting commuters. Narratively speaking, it’s upping the stakes and the ante, so I get it. But that doesn’t mean I like it.
This disturbing trend has continued throughout the episodes that followed: a massacre in a book shop, where a masked group cut a bloody swath through the crowd, stabbing and slicing with abandon and–just last week–a shoot out in the hospital where doctors and patients were mowed down as simply matter of course. As I watched two men (dispatched by Lily Grey to obtain her convalescing son) produce automatic weapons from a tote bag, I cringed. I knew where this was headed, and I didn’t like it. Not one little bit.
Because at a certain point, despite something or other benefitting your show from a narrative standpoint, there has to be a sense of moral responsibility, doesn’t there? We’re living in a time where actual acts of horrifyingly random violence plague us: bombings at marathons, shootings at movie theaters, massacres on school grounds. This is a reality with which we must all live, and does The Following have the right to exploit it for the purposes of making a B-grade television show?
On the other hand, you might think it the purpose of the horror genre to hold up a mirror to our fears. Universally, I would agree with that statement. Quality works of horror, after all, have taken our societal anxieties and subverted them into a form of subtle commentary. That is, in my estimation at least, the true purpose of an excellent horror film: to provide us with an artificial and safe experience wherein we can process and purge some of these emotions. But the key word in this paragraph is subtle. There’s nothing subtle about what The Following does; it simply recreates random acts of public violence just to get under our skin.
What’s worse, its characters display an alarming indifference. After the bookstore murder, Ryan Hardy doesn’t even react when an on-duty officer reports five people were murdered. If Ryan, the protagonist of the series, has such a nonplussed demeanor about this violence, it speaks to the series’ perspective as well. This is where The Following could, if it wanted to explore this violence in a meditative way rather than exploit it, establish itself as a social commentary. But Ryan shrugs off the death count, suggesting the way the show itself dismisses the implications of what it’s depicting.
And what it’s depicting isn’t allowing us to confront our very real fears. The Following just wants to create a world where someone can get stabbed in broad daylight because he reminds a deranged cult member of a high school tormentor. I’m not naive; I know such random acts of violence occur. But do we need a television show to remind us of that fact? Or, at a certain point, doesn’t a show (or film or book) that dwells in this genre take on a responsibility to do more than just push our buttons?
If The Following wanted to pursue its narrative down this path, I don’t mind. Go for it. But do it mindfully because, if this is how you choose to tell your story, it needs to mean more than just a weekly body count that results from that decision. It requires a nuanced approach, a light touch, even a hopefulness. We need to know Joe Carroll (and now, I suppose, copycat in the making Lily Grey) are aberrations. We need to know their violence has an expiration date. We need to know these lunatics cannot hold us hostage with threats of violence, that the hate and death that populates newspapers and news cycles is not forever. That‘s the message we need from The Following if it wants to depict its violence in the manner it has because then it becomes a show with something to say. Look, there was no more disturbing show than True Detective, but each narrative wrinkle came imbued with ideas for us to ruminate on; its darkness held purpose. The Following depicts public violence because it knows it will make us cringe. It has no interest, it seems, in doing more.
But until it does that, it will remain irresponsible. With only a handful of episodes left, I will stick with it in the hopes that there is some redeeming subtext to pull from it in the end. And after what it’s put me through, there had better be.