Early on in this week’s episode, cult specialist Debra Parker stands in front of a wall full of carefully arranged photos connected by string, the kind you see in every crime drama where the cops try to unravel the tangled threads of a case. Debra’s question to Ryan is a simple one: “What’s Carroll’s message?” We’re only a quarter of the way through the season, but I’m wondering if there’s an answer ahead. Instead of connecting dots in the storyline, the show has other goals in mind—namely, how far can it push the gross-out meter and our suspension of disbelief?
If you’re the type who needs a certain degree of realism in your entertainment, this might be the episode where you jump ship. The most head-scratching plot involves Carroll’s followers and the kidnapping commune they’ve established in a very large house on a few acres of land where the fugitives romp freely in the yard. The more answers we’re given, the more puzzles arise. As expected, we learn that the fake relationship between Jacob and Paul turned into something real. We also see flashbacks to their Serial Killer Book Club meetings in the attic, where they’re all acting more like ordinary college kids than psychos-in-training. Why do Jacob and Paul have to pose as a gay couple, they (and we) wonder? Because Sarah, Carroll’s last victim, wouldn’t bond with two straight guys. Jacob and Paul (and us) don’t quite buy it. To get them on board, Emma reminds them how disappointed Carroll will be if they veer from the plan. So they smooch and once again, we wonder why Carroll’s hold over these people is so strong that they’ll do anything for him.
That’s just one example of the many logic-bending head-scratchers we’re asked to overlook:
- Little Joey keeps asking for his mom, and of course, we know that a kid his age would be in meltdown mode by now.
- Paul’s solution to being the third wheel at the house is to abduct a convenience store clerk and bring her home. It seems Paul’s double-date options are limited, since Megan is bound and gagged, he’s in love with Jacob, and Emma wants to carve him like a turkey.
- These impressionable liberal arts/English majors and Carroll are so tech savvy that they’ve been communicating for years online and continue to do so without being traced.
- Rick, the nutjob behind the Poe mask, was so enthralled by Carroll that he practiced being a serial killer. With a knife. On his wife. And she was cool with that.
- Said wife, Maggie, is such a convincing thespian that she completely cons Debra and Ryan into believing her story.
- Rick kills two people—a dean at Carroll’s old school and a newspaper critic he lit on fire—in broad daylight with no interference from bystanders or law enforcement.
- When Ryan shoots Rick at point-blank range during their struggle in the yard, the kid jumps up and tackles him seconds later.
- Little Joey is being groomed to grow up just like Daddy, as Carroll’s groupies teach his son how to kill. (Hint: Start low on the food chain and work your way up!)
- When Jordy is questioned by Ryan and Debra, the crazy “I can’t hear you” song he sings to himself is the theme to The Greatest American Hero. Love the William Katt reference, but how can I take this seriously?
If you can overlook all of that and more, then there’s the gore to contend with. Kudos to the show’s sound editors, who’ve created a very particular stabbing sound—I’m guessing it’s a burlap sack full of applesauce being jabbed with a steak knife. Even bandages hold lethal potential, as Jordy spends a few agonizing seconds trying to choke himself to death on gauze. And Agent Riley’s demise comes just as we learn he’s divorced, the only biographical detail he had shared thus far. Did Maggie really need to kill him? No. But how else would we hear someone gurgling as his carotid artery spurts blood everywhere?
Agent Riley’s demise encapsulates what bothers me most about the series so far. The violence often feels showy and forced, as if there’s a cringe-quota each episode must meet. Although two significant characters have been killed—Riley and Sarah—there isn’t the sense that almost anyone could die at any time, a la Game of Thrones. But even if there were a surprise death, would we care? Riley, we hardly knew ye.
The same can be said for everyone else, including Ryan. When he sits in the SUV with young Agent Weston outside of Rick’s house, we get a brief moment of back story—Ryan grew up in Albany and seems to be estranged from his family. As Weston tries to strike up a conversation, Ryan bails. He’s not interested in getting to know anyone. Ryan and the series would be better served by opening up a bit, rather than rushing from one implausible gross-out to the next. But it’s beginning to look like there’s a meta-message here—that we, like Carroll’s cultists and the eyeless victims, can only enjoy the show if we embrace its madness and follow blindly.