The action picks up a year after the Season 2 finale, with Joe Carroll (James Purefoy) on death row and scheduled to be executed in one month. Meanwhile, even though Mark Gray (Sam Underwood) is still at large, Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon) and the rest of the FBI seem to be thoroughly enjoying their Joe Carroll-free lives.
That, of course, won't last for long. Within the first few minutes of Monday's premiere (9/8c, Fox), the wedding of FBI Agent Gina Mendez (Valerie Cruz) is interrupted - bloodily - by someone purporting to have a connection to Joe Carroll's cult. But does he really?
"We're opening up a new chapter in the story of The Following, one that shows a world that goes beyond Joe, and the fact that it's incredibly dangerous out there still," executive producer Alexi Hawley told TVGuide.com during a recent set visit. "There's a deeper mystery to unravel during the first five episodes. There's what's going on in front of you, and there's also hints that there's something different, conspiracies going deeper."
For those who've given up on the show, or who never got on board in the first place, now is a great time to jump (back) in. Based on the first two episodes of Season 3, The Following feels re-energized and rejuvenated. Joe Carroll's felt-but-not-seen presence has freed the show up to explore new avenues - and so far, it's working. Here are seven big changes to expect.
1. New showrunners
The Following experienced a behind-the-scenes shakeup between Seasons 2 and 3, with creator Kevin Williamson departing to focus on Stalker full time. He was initially replaced by Jennifer Johnson, who then exited the post after three months. Now, the show is being executive-produced by writers Hawley and Brett Mahoney, as well as director Marcos Siega. It was always Williamson's plan to leave the show after two seasons, according to Bacon, who says he has full confidence in the new team of showrunners. "They're doing a killer - sorry - a fantastic job," he tells TVGuide.com. "They've been able to stay true to the show but also make it feel fresh."
2. No Joe Carroll!*
The rumors are true - Joe Carroll will not appear in The Following's third season (*at least at first). When the action begins, Ryan has made good on his promise to never see Joe Carroll again. But is their separation really a good thing for Hardy? "When something that's that important in your life, whether it's good or bad, goes away, does it leave a hole that needs to be filled up by something else?" Bacon muses. "That's the question that we're kind of dealing with this year."
However, Joe's incarceration doesn't mean he won't influence the events at hand - and he and Hardy will eventually be forced together (by circumstances which are currently unclear) later in the season. "I think one of the things that we are beginning to realize is that Joe is a part of something much bigger," Purefoy tells TVGuide.com. "There is something else going on here that is beginning to reveal itself as the season progresses. So, just because he's in prison doesn't mean to say that bad things stop happening. ... We also know that he's been on death row before. He's been in prison before. He's escaped from prison before. It wouldn't be beyond the bounds of possibilities that he might escape again."
3. Even creepier villains
While Underwood is back as surviving Gray twin Mark (with an additional twist that we won't spoil here, except to say that while Luke is gone, he's certainly not forgotten), The Following is also expanding its roster of villains. Early on, we meet a twisted Bonnie and Clyde-esque couple played by Hunter Parrish and Ruth Kearney, as well as a spooky caregiver who looks after his elderly father by day and enjoys carving up bodies by night. The rumored big bad of the season, Theo (Michael Ealy), will be introduced at a later date. "There are many faces of evil in The Following," Mahoney teases. "What the show's done so well in the past is [create] those complex villains and [show] that emotional richness on that side. ... Another thing that we tried to build into this season is sort of more mystery. We've always had the surprise of who's a follower, who's not a follower. But we've also kind of tried to weave in a little bit more mystery."
4. A different - and scarier - kind of violence
The Following has drawn criticism for the extreme violence it displayed in Seasons 1 and 2, but while there may be less blood in Season 3 (don't worry, there's still a healthy amount), fans shouldn't expect the show to be any less chilling. A recurring character is killed off within the first two episodes, and in a fashion that's more sickening (if less overtly violent) than any death we've seen on the show in the past. "It's not that there's less violence," star Shawn Ashmore, who plays Agent Mike Weston, tells TVGuide.com. "It's just that the type of violence, to me, is more shocking." Adds Hawley: "We wanted to go more towards the psychological, more towards the thrill and the anticipation of violence. The acts of violence are ultimately the least interesting thing. They serve a purpose, but at the end of the day, we wanted you much more on the edge of your seat than sort of covering your eyes like, 'I don't want to see that.'"
5. Mike Weston 3.0
The central motivation for Weston in Season 3 is the character's desire to avenge his father's murder. "He's driven by revenge and bloodlust, to be honest," Ashmore tells TVGuide.com. "I think that until Mark Gray is dead, he will be driven by that." Such a goal will have both positive and negative impacts on Mike's relationship with Ryan, whose decision to not shoot Joe Carroll at the end of Season 2 confounds Mike. "He's starting to grow that thicker skin that we've seen Ryan grow, that we've seen some of the other agents grow," Ashmore explains. "There was a real sort of mentor/mentee kind of relationship, and now I think that they're becoming equals as far as the responsibility of the cases, and they're trying to protect one another."
The budding romance between Mike and Ryan's niece Max (Jessica Stroup) has also been quashed as a result of Mike's desire for vengeance. "Mike made some decisions between Season 2 and 3 that sort of splintered that relationship," Ashmore hints. "As we enter the third season, they're trying to maybe, potentially put it back together. There is that sort of push and pull between them. ... Mike's drive for revenge has sort of driven a wedge between him and Max, but I will say that the flame still burns, and fairly strong." Which is complicated by ...
6. New romantic interests for both Hardys
Having officially joined the FBI, Max Hardy has a new badge and a new man to boot. She's dating a guy named Tom (Gbenga Akinnagbe), who works on the FBI's hostage negotiation team. Meanwhile, Ryan has also found a new love interest in an ER doctor named Gwen (Zuleikha Robinson). "Gwen is probably the first really healthy relationship he's ever had," Hawley tells TVGuide.com. "He hasn't fared particularly well in the romantic universe. ... She feels like an equal to him. She challenges him. She doesn't let him get away with things in a way that I think is really good for his character. It allows us to humanize him." Adds Mahoney: "We were also really excited to have Kevin Bacon smile more in the episodes. And we really tried, in terms of our pacing, to allow moments throughout the season where you can see a lighter side of him, and also see that romance and see whether Ryan can actually have a life outside of Joe Carroll. That's sort of what Gwen represents."
7. Consequences for Ryan
In addition to his own guilt over the people he's slain in his quest to get to Joe Carroll, Ryan (and his colleagues) will actually face some concrete consequences this season for previously taking the law into their own hands. "This is a guy that makes really bad decisions, like, constantly," Bacon says matter-of-factly. "Takes the law into his own hands, uses methods that are questionable, doesn't really do things by the book. ... There needs to be a price that's paid for that. There's a haunting element to the show this season. [Ryan] is haunted by a lot of demons."
And he's not the only one. "This group of myself and Mike Weston, Max Hardy, Jeffrey Clarke (Felix Solis) - we were in on something that we shared, [that] we really have sort of swept under the rug," Bacon says. "There's going to be some personal and professional consequences for the fact that they did take the law into their own hands." The repercussions start with a Congressional hearing, but unfortunately don't end there. When the team discovers that killers are staging murder scenes to look like re-creations of the deaths of Lily and Luke Gray, they realize that they're actually being targeted - and at least one person will pay the ultimate price.
The Following kicks off Season 3 Monday at 9/8c on Fox. Check out a sneak peek below. Will you watch?