The Following: Violent Serial Killer Drama or Tragic Love Story?
Kevin Bacon and James Purefoy
Chances are you've probably heard a lot about Fox's new serial killer drama The Following.
It's violent. It's suspenseful. It's often terrifying. And someone does something unimaginable with an ice pick in the very first episode. But according to creator and executive producer Kevin Williamson (Dawson's Creek, The Vampire Diaries), it's also a love story.
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The story goes like this: Literature professor Joe Carroll (James Purefoy) brings his obsession with the works of Edgar Allan Poe to life by murdering 14 co-eds before being caught by FBI Agent Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon, making his TV series debut), who now wears a pacemaker as a permanent reminder of the encounter. After beginning and ending a relationship with Carroll's wife Claire (Natalie Zea) and going on an alcohol-soaked downward spiral, Ryan is called back to duty when Carroll escapes from prison just days before he's set to be executed.
But instead of going on one final killing spree that includes finishing off Hardy, Carroll has a far more insidious plot: He's created a cult (or, you know, a following) of killers to do his bidding and torture Hardy at every turn. "They have this extraordinary, weird dance of death around each other," Purefoy says. "He doesn't want to kill Ryan Hardy, but Ryan has put him in prison and Ryan has been playing footsie with his wife. For both of those reasons he wants to f--- him up and will continue to do that forever."
That doesn't sound much like a traditional TV love story. But Williamson, who first took an interesting look at serial killers with the Scream movies, thinks his characters fit nicely into today's TV landscape. "We are in the age of flawed heroes," he says. "I feel like the audience is ready for this. I am going to ask you to get engaged in the relationships of killers. I'm asking you to care about these very, very dark, twisted people. It may not be for everyone. But I think if you let loose and just sort of go with the twisted story of it all, I think you'll find it engaging.
"My villain and my hero have the same goal, the same motive," Williamson continues. "They want to be reborn. They want to have a new life. ... The more people that die, the more Ryan comes back to life. [He becomes] more energized, more determined, more fearless, more obsessed. But it takes those deaths in order to reinvent him and re-energize him."
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Indeed, Bacon says that Hardy, whose personal backstory features plenty of death and sadness, is at rock bottom when the audience meets his character. "He's a person that feels toxic. And even in his own toxicity, he's trying to do the right thing by pushing people away," Bacon says. "He's got a lot of demons. He self-medicates. He had this relationship with [Claire], which is probably the worst person in the world to have the relationship with. It's so professionally and personally ill-advised. He had to cut it off. But I think he's starting to realize that she's the one true love of his life."
But Williamson says Claire will eventually realize that a relationship with Ryan may be just as dangerous as being married to a serial killer. "She has a blind spot," he says. "Sooner or later, she has to look at herself and ask, 'Why do I love these damaged, tortured types of men?' But they are also so damaged in a weird way, who else could they be with, except each other? They came together under such horrific circumstances, it's never going to be an easy love story."
Then again, the true love story of the series may be between Hardy and Carroll. "This man has a lot of qualities that [Ryan] wishes he had," Bacon says. "He's bookish. He's charming. He's dynamic and people are drawn to him. That's not who Ryan Hardy is... and he just admires him."
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But Purefoy doesn't simply see his character as a master of charisma. "What he's doing is enabling people in the worst possible way," he says. "He has managed to create contact with people who would give him whatever he needs because they have a grotesque and appalling fascination with harming other people. All of them are being enabled and put into a safe place where they are being allowed to enact their fantasies."
And in some way, Carroll is also enabling Hardy. After all, Purefoy says his character's ultimate objective won't work unless Hardy is "activated" into playing his game. "Joe continues to play Ryan like a violin," Bacon adds. "He even tries to prop him up in subsequent episodes, [to] get him back on the horse. The sad thing is, I think that there's a part of Ryan that increasingly believes that if he was dead that would be it for Joe. If his endgame is truly to torture me, to just keep sticking metaphorical needles in my eye, if I was dead, that's it. Game over. I won."
Naturally, it won't be that easy. "[Carroll] actually has double motives," Williamson says. "Charles Manson preached there was a racial war coming and he sucked everyone in to sort of build their army. He [actually] wanted to be a rock star and he wanted to hang out with the Beach Boys. He was a narcissist. So there is always a double hidden motive. Joe Carroll has several motives. At the root of a lot of the motives here is love. Sick, twisted, f---ed-up love, but love."
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The question remains, will a broadcast network audience sit through the sick and twisted elements to get the deeper story? Purefoy believes so. "We've always need boogey monsters," he says, referring to Grimm's fairy tales. "Boogey monsters are a form of social control. They're about [the idea that] if you behave badly, you will get caught by this person. So, stay on track and do as you're told. And that's what this show is really about. It gets under your skin. I don't think it's about the body count or the blood. It's about getting under the skin of the audience and making them feel a little bit panicky."
Adds Bacon: "I don't think any of this matters if we don't make them interesting characters to watch. Of course some people are going to be turned off by it. Some people are turned off by gay couples on television. Some people don't like anything that takes place in a city. ... But you have to make these characters interesting and compelling. ... That's much more interesting than how somebody is going to get killed. If there's somebody about to jump out of a closet with a knife, [and] if you don't give a sh-- about the person that's walking by, it doesn't matter."
The Following premieres Monday at 9/8c on Fox.