Tuesday, March 4, 2014

THE FOLLOWING: "Sacrifice" -- A Case of Too Many Villains

Joe, Emma, Lily, Mark/Luke, Giselle, this episode's chock-full cult, (not to mention all the unnamed followers and those already dead this season and last...) -- since its inception, The Following has fought a losing battle with its own concept.

They've paid so much attention to the followers that they've weakened the power and effectiveness of the leader and main villain, Joe Carroll (James Purefoy).

This season, Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon), our hero has made it clear that he has one mission, and one mission only: Kill. Joe.


A much more concise and intriguing concept than season one in which the followers of Joe the supposed mastermind pretty much did whatever violent act they felt like albeit supposedly in his name. 

In fact, all season 1, the action of what should've been a constantly-twisting, anxiety-filled cat-and-mouse game between Joe and Ryan was pretty much non-existent. 

As were Ryan's investigative skills.

Just how many times did we have to watch him writhe in anguish over yet another failure to even get close Joe? (Let alone anticipate his next move...)

Thankfully, in season 2, Ryan's mission and his skills are so much sharper.

The storytelling seemed much improved, too. At least for the first few episodes... 

Lately the series has lost its way again. With episode 7, "Sacrifice," being the worst offender yet.

Just what made this episode nearly unwatchable? Let me count the ways...

Props for Improvements

Before I begin tearing into this episode (and season), let me begin by lauding the improvements made from season one. Before that, I should make clear that I don't watch (or dissect) shows I hate, so please temper all my criticisms with the knowledge that I only analyze shows I enjoy, in the hope that the show will somehow improve, and, if not, at least my own writing will.

So, to the props. Season 1 was plagued by the fact that Joe and his followers weren't always just one step ahead of Ryan and the FBI, they were thousands of staircases beyond their reach. That guaranteed that Ryan would have no hope of even impeding Joe's plans, let alone catching him.

Thankfully, in Season 2, Ryan is sharp and on-point, and has succeeded in fouling things up for the bad guys one numerous occasions. 

I must also mention the surprisingly pleasant addition of the Max Hardy (Jessica Stroup) character to the mix. I didn't have much hope for this obvious Claire replacement (after all, Ryan must have a damsel in distress to rescue), or the 90210-vet's acting chops, but I've impressed on both counts. Max isn't playing a typical victim, and her acting isn't bad, either. Especially in this episode, but we'll get to that.
Max Hardy vs. The Huntman: A Scene that Works
I simply have to give a shout out to the one moment that really worked in "Sacrifice." At the break the scene that had Max strung up by the Huntsman seemed primed for her to devolve into the typical victim. Thankfully, that didn't happen. She intelligently attempted to talk her way into a fighting chance. Then, the scene smartly decided to deny her that option, and arced toward her escaping on her own. Things got better yet when the cavalry arrived in time for Ryan to deliver the kill shot that ultimately saved her life after letting her save herself most of the way. If all the scenes in every episode could be this well-structured, I'd be elated.
Keeping the Mike Weston (Shawn Ashmore) character front and center is a smart move, too. He's one of the few layered, intriguing characters developed in Season 1, so I'm interested in his story arc, although I'm not quite sure I like where it's going in "Sacrifice."

Unfortunately, the show still has more problems than points in its favor (although, luckily, none of them are so terrible that they can't be fixed in time to save the series).


1) Joe The Protagonist?!?

Okay, this has been a problem from the outset, that the series has been writing Joe as the show's protagonist and leaving Ryan Hardy in the dust to wail over his failures to catch him. 

Season 1 was so caught up in all the sick, villainous twists that they forgot to give Ryan a fighting chance. While Ryan had a bunch of screen time, he didn't do a whole lot in regards to the plot.

So many of the season 1 episodes wasted screen time on the unfolding dramas amongst Joe's followers without considering what impact they wanted those scenes to make on the audience. We're we supposed to feel sorry for those followers that were marginalized or killed? 

Look at tonight's prime example of Emma being chosen as the cult's blood sacrifice. Were we supposed to sympathize with Joe and root for Emma's survival? That seemed to be the point of that whole debacle.

But did you?

Of course not. We're rooting for Ryan, and wishing that Joe's actions and movements were more mysterious. And thus more powerful. 

I will admit that Season 2 came out strong in the first few episodes -- with Joe in hiding and Ryan the only one believing he's still alive -- but now the story is no longer chasing Joe, it's following him along like a friend as he searches for safety.

What happened to the Ryan/Joe fight-to-the-death chase plot they established in the beginning? 

Is that tension supposed to be sustained throughout the season base off of that one look they shared through the bedroom window while Joe was making his getaway in episode 6 "Fly Away?"

Do me a favor, mute your TV and play that moment again with Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart" playing. That moment could've been a love scene, right?

Okay, I'm joking, but you get my point. There needs to be more interplay between Joe and Ryan that squarely defines Ryan as the main protagonist and Joe as the main villain for this show to work. And it needs to happen in Every. Single. Episode. 

Even if it's just a moment, at the end, it must be there.

And Joe needs to be back in control of his own destiny if he has any hope of developing into a villain that can sustain an entire series. 

This whole idea of him wanting to find himself, or become someone new that he was espousing during the lie detector test was just a power-sapping mess.

2) Too Many Alpha Villains... Make Joe Carroll Inconsequential

Joe not in control as the series' main villain is largely due to the fact that the show has so many villains, and always has.

From the get-go, Joe has never actually been the leader of his followers, he's simply been the figurehead. Others, who were just as strong and manipulative (like Emma and Roderick, etc.), as Joe, were the ones actually in control of his fate.

This same issue is happening again in Season 2. First Lily. Now the cult.

For Joe to a villain worthy to match wits with Ryan, he has got to become the mastermind manipulating all.

Lily and Co. need to be killed off quickly. Emma needs to Jonestown that cult, asap. And Joe needs to take control of his own destiny and start playing a masterful game of chase-to-the-death with Ryan.

(IDEA: What if Joe and Emma would Jonestown the entire cult, with the exception of Julia {Jacinda Barrett} who is simply too talented and intriguing to be killed so soon, and take over the grounds to form his own, fresh cult. Then he'd become a diabolical mastermind worthy of Ryan's dogged pursuit.) 

Identity Issues: Ominous Drama or Spine-Chilling Procedural

I think this "too many villains" problem stems from the fact that it's not sure what kind of show it wants to be.

Because the Joe-Ryan chase seems intended to sustain the entire series, the show is an ongoing drama with stories and plots that must arc across multiple episodes and seasons. 

Unfortunately, the writers seem so flush with ideas for various villains, they're dropping them into the show like they're writing a "murder of the week" serial cop show.

If done well, perhaps both of these genres could mesh (Blacklist is attempting and failing at that, but that's another sad story), but so far they have not succeeded.

It also seems that (since they can't decide on their story structure) they want to just distract the audience with creepiness rather than crafting a compelling story with longevity. And even more offensive is that they rely on tired tropes to impart that creepiness (Yet another kidnapping... And masks are scary, let's put them on everyone from the subway to the cult! -- To name just two...)

Story Arc Chaos: Every Episode a Wild Goose Chase

I'm sure I'm wrong, but to me the way this season has been unfolding, it feels like there's a major rift in the writers' room with multiple factions at war over which direction the show should go.

The result is that Ryan, as the main hero,and his "Kill Joe" mission, get lost in the shuffle. 

Instead, his character scrambles between various story lines (many of which are arcing too soon or not at all), with his focus shifting all over the place and his mission falling by the wayside.

Every episode should be focused on Ryan getting one step closer to catching Joe. All these other villains (that are currently annoying red herrings) should be mere obstacles (thrown in his way by Joe, of course) in his path to Joe that he makes clear progress on each week.

Instead, we're left twiddling our thumbs as Ryan gets sidetracked with chasing Lily and Co., and who knows else in future episodes.

With all that being said, The Following is still full of potential. Bacon and Purefoy are phenomenal. The concept of a global cult meaning that dangerous followers could be anywhere still has tons of juice left in it. Plus the rest of the stellar cast and crew... 

I have so much hope for this show, if only they can figure out how to amp up the clever, creepy storytelling. 

I suggest they start by watching a Hitchcock marathon...

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