Ryan Hardy and Joe Carroll have a complicated relationship.
Hardy hates Carroll, and for the best of reasons. Carroll's a serial killer—a former literary professor who slaughtered beautiful co-eds as his twisted salute to Edgar Allan Poe. Hardy's the FBI agent who captured him (twice), but not before Carroll stabbed him in the heart, forcing him out of active duty and necessitating a pacemaker. So Hardy's reminded of Carroll's evil with every beat of his telltale heart.
For Carroll, murder is a beauty sublime, a work of art. And Hardy, by imprisoning Carroll, has incorporated himself into the man's terrible tapestry. Now, never mind that he's behind bars, he means to use Hardy's thread to create an even more diabolical picture.
Carroll, who once published a book, tells Hardy that he's writing a sequel—one perhaps more literal than literary. Hardy's to be his protagonist, a tragic figure haunted by his past and searching for redemption. "You are my flawed hero," Carroll tells him.
One might assume that Carroll's sinister story would be quite short, given that he's in prison. If only Hardy—and we—were so lucky. Thanks to his inherent charisma, literary work and knack for exploiting psychological weaknesses in others, Carroll has built a cult—a following—while in prison, through the Internet and by way of personal visits. Somehow, he has come to command a hidden horde of helpers, all eager to die or kill at his whim. For Hardy and his team of FBI agents, it's no longer as easy as tracking down Carroll: It's all about finding one follower after another before each one writes another chapter of Carroll's sick "sequel."
The Following is a dark, taut crime thriller following the grotesque noir template perfected by The Silence of the Lambs. As such, it may also be the most disturbing show to ever land on broadcast television.
This serial drama hasn't indulged in suits of human skin … yet. But the violence and brutality we see here is disturbingly close, in both measurable content and emotional shock, to what then-horrified moviegoers saw when the R-rated Silence of the Lambs was released in 1991. The difference between the two is only a matter of degree. We see mutilated bodies and blood-spattered walls. We hear the screams of innocents as their assailants hurt and kill them. So often this happens onscreen that at times it seems The Following shares Carroll's thrill of pain and appreciates his vision of creating "beauty" by way of murder.
It punishes viewers for tuning in. Then, like a sadist, it hopes they will come back for more.
Joe Carroll escapes prison by killing five guards. (We see them in pools of their own blood). He has "unfinished business," we learn—to kill the woman he was attacking when Ryan Hardy apprehended him. Hardy, now a broken man with a drinking problem, is called in as a consultant.
We see at least a dozen or so dead, bloodied and mutilated bodies, many with their eyes removed. A woman disrobes down to only her panties at a police station, revealing a body covered with writing. (We see a full view of her from the rear.) "Lord, help my poor soul," she says—then kills herself by jabbing an ice pick into her eye socket. We see her face streaming blood and watch her twitch violently as she dies.
A would-be victim of Carroll's tells a jury how she tried to push Carroll's knife further into her abdomen, hoping it would cut an artery and end her misery. She takes off her shirt, revealing a bra and a torso covered with scars. One man nearly strangles another. Hardy bends back Carroll's fingers to torture him. People are stabbed, kicked and hit with pieces of wood. A follower practices his killing skills on dogs. (We see dead dogs and an injured one.)
Audiences learn that Hardy slept with Carroll's wife, and there's talk of other affairs. Gay men ogle a detective. Hardy replaces the water in a water bottle with vodka. Characters say "d‑‑n" and "h‑‑‑" twice each and misuse God's name a few times.