Tumblr really is a fanciful, magical place. It sort of occupies its own little wish-fulfilling corner of the internet, where “feels” and “ships” don’t mean what people who go outside on a daily basis think they mean.
Don’t take this badly. I have a Tumblr, most people I know have a Tumblr, so I’m just as pasty as everyone else. But bear with me, I swear I have a point here.
Yesterday I watched the first three episodes of The Following. I didn’t like it much, but it brought up some interesting questions about what the show is trying to accomplish.
If you haven’t heard of this show, it’s essentially Silence of the Lambs with a network of murderers instead of Buffalo Bill. Kevin Bacon plays the lead character, a consultant for the FBI named Ryan Hardy, and James Purefoy plays antagonist Joe Carroll, a charismatic ex-literature professor on death row. We eventually learn that Carroll’s got a web of would-be serial killers out there doing his bidding. And so kicks off the main action of the show. We’ve got the FBI and the serial killer’s minions, squaring off.
The whole thing is kind of over the top, especially after the “Edgar Allen Poe as the serial killer’s inspiration” aspect is introduced, and the FBI agents just aren’t well-rounded enough for me to care about them. However, there’s a pretty intriguing subplot about Carroll’s minions kidnapping his son to train him as a serial killer. For the first three episodes, this reason for his kidnapping is kept on the back-burner, while the trio of minions and their personal interactions are brought to the fore.
Because of the overall blandness of most of the show, I found this pseudo-love triangle to be the most interesting bit of the whole thing. The subplot boils down to this: Jacob and Paul, two supposedly straight guys who posed as a gay couple for about two years, and Emma, who became a nanny for Joe Carroll’s son during that time, are trying to make their new living situation work now that they have dropped their fake identities and are on the run from the FBI. While Emma is technically in a relationship with Jacob, Jacob and Paul are dealing with some residual feelings left over from their extended time together. (Turns out they weren’t just acting.) Now they’ve got to keep that aspect of their relationship a secret, because this chick is psychotic – they’ve witnessed her homicidal tendencies firsthand. It’s heavily hinted that she won’t take kindly to her boyfriend cheating on her.
Being a Tumblr (ist?), I went online and searched for the show, wondering what kind of gifs would pop up (I think the most hilarious kind I found were the ones in which people imagined Kevin Bacon’s and James Purefoy’s characters to be lovers – hilarious because I totally got gay vibes during their shared screen time too). And wouldn’t you know, all sorts of gifs and text posts popped up in favor of the love triangle going on between the cult members.
Now, I’m not about to judge these “shippers”. Tumblr (ers?) are famous for creating paper thin relationships out of nothing, and it’s very rare when one actually comes to fruition. So I’m happy that they finally got to see one become “canon”.
The thing I find odd is that the writers chose to include this subplot in the first place.
You’ve got these three individuals, the only regularly featured cult members on the show, and each episode has spent a good chunk of its time trying to humanize them. Not only that, but it’s doing so in the lamest way possible.
Humanizing the villain has been done before, of course, with shows such as Dexter, and movies like Silence of the Lambs. The difference in those cases was that, while those serial killers still had their evil natures, there were also positive aspects working alongside their murderous mindsets. Dexter kills serial killers, Hannibal Lecter helps Clarice catch a killer, etc.
The Following doesn’t take that route. At the same time, it doesn’t try to go the other obvious direction: making the would-be serial killers just plain evil, portraying them in such a way that you want to see what appalling thing they’ll do next, so that when they’re eventually caught the audience will cheer.
Instead, we’re left with an odd middle ground. While Emma had murdered her mother in cold-blood years prior, Jacob and Paul haven’t actually killed anyone. However, when Emma is shown in a flashback stabbing her mother to death, the show goes out of its way to show how cruel the mother is to her, to the point where it’s basically making excuses for her daughter’s broken state of mind.
One half of the gay couple, Paul, has kidnapped a store clerk by the end of the third hour, but he has yet to do anything to her. It’s horrible, but it’s not as horrible as you would expect a group of cultists who hero-worship a serial killer to act. Plus he doesn’t do it to feed a psychosis, he does it to feel like less of a third wheel, adding another level of humanity to his character. Essentially, it’s a storyline straight out of a soap opera wearing a serial killer hoodie.
Giving character depth to a batch of serial killers could have been done in a multitude of ways, and the way the writers have chosen – a romantic subplot of all things – seems like the strangest way to go. There is no questioning of their choices going on, no change in outlook. When watching the show, you get the sense that the writers are heading in the direction of making them flawed anti-heroes. We’re going to see them do some terrible things, but nothing so terrible that it would actually turn you off of them or their drama.
In the end, it all comes off as scared. The writers don’t want to commit to making them completely evil, so they go about humanizing them. But the attempt at humanizing just muddles things even further. These aren’t well-adjusted people that are going through meaningful character growth. They’re just slightly insane people who aren’t being handled as such by the writers. Instead, they’re being forced into trite romances when they could be characterized in a much more meaningful way.
Why would the viewer want to root for people who are supposed to become serial killers? Instead of interesting psychos, we get three WB-type leads with slightly stabby tendencies.
This weird middle ground just doesn’t seem to work. Are we going to end up rooting for their capture? Or is this all going to result in what I expect is going through every shipper’s mind: “FBI, shoot the girl. Those two guys are so hot, let me just ignore their psychoses for the next hour. Leave them behind and let them make out on the couch some more.”