The Following Finale: Who Lives, Who Dies (or Could it All Be a Dream?)

Plus: A look ahead at season two of Kevin Bacon's hit series.

For those of us trying to guess how The Following would wrap up its first season, creator Kevin Williamson shared a clue with Entertainment Weekly. “People live, people die,” he told the mag, coyly. But the real hint was in his explanation of what makes for a good TV ending. “I loved finales as a kid. Knots Landing had the best finales.” And so it should be no surprise that, in the tradition of those campy 80s soaps like Knots and Dallas, we’ve been left with a whopper of a cliffhanger. Williamson had suggested that the Joe Carroll story would draw to a close, and it did. Or did it? The only thing I’m sure of is that the season is over, Kevin Bacon will be back, and my eye is still twitching from that interrogation scene.

Carroll’s Zingers
Forget Fallon versus Leno—someone give Carroll his own talk show. Once again, he delivers the best lines, usually aimed at his most persistent critic. When his ex-wife says his retreat to the lighthouse was predictable, Carroll snaps: “It’s a motif, Claire. It bookends the story!” He also explains to Ryan why he’s not interested in a duel to the death. “I have been stabbed with both a knife and a fork. I don’t think there’s going to be anymore fighting.”

Buried Emotions
Perhaps the most moving performance of the season is Agent Debra Parker’s tearful goodbye from her freshly-dug grave. She uses up valuable daytime minutes to deliver a few last words: Say goodbye to my sister and my parents; Mike, don’t ever change; Ryan, this is not your fault. Since I figured Claire was the one who was doomed, I expected Parker to come gasping back to life. No dice. (She was in trouble as soon as Ryan insisted “We are going to find you,” considering his track record of keeping folks alive.) In an FBI full of morons, she was one of the least-stupid agents we knew. Rest in peace.

By Any Means Necessary
I’ve said before that some moments in this show remind me of another violent Fox hit, 24, and none more than when Ryan is told—or declares—that he’ll “do what he needs to do” to extract critical information from a cult member. But I wasn’t prepared for the beatdown that ensues when Ryan and Mike take Debra’s kidnapper to the woodshed. Mike grabs a pipe and treats the guy like a piñata, then Ryan follows with an old-school WWF eye gouge that goes on for approximately 13 minutes. One might think that after receiving such rough treatment, the guy wouldn’t make sarcastic comments about Debra’s death. Ryan responds to his bro observation—“Bummer”—with a bullet to the head.

The Darkest Show on Television
I don’t mean the grim subject matter—there’s literally less light than in any other show I can recall. Even Game of Thrones does its scheming in a well-lit garden or desert now and then. Scenes like the ones with Debra trapped in the coffin, Claire in the locked room at the lighthouse, and Ryan chasing Carroll into the shed were all pitch black. It practically forces you to turn out the lights in your living room to see what the hell is happening.

Crossing the Line
After spending an entire season trying to get under Carroll’s skin, Ryan finally succeeds. It probably helps that the killer is hopped up on pain meds and whiskey and rather annoyed that his wife helped Ryan catch him years ago. But it’s Ryan’s artistic critiques that push him over the edge. He hits Carroll below the belt with the “Those who can, do/Those who can’t, teach” insult, then launches a flurry of jabs and a knockout blow: Poe was a loser drug addict. Oh no he didn’t! A scuffle ensues, the pair end up duking it out, and Carroll is blown to pieces. Or is he?

Not Over Yet
Of course we knew that something terrible would happen at Ryan’s apartment, even with armed guards at his door. You’d think the first thing they would do would be to sweep his pad for anything unusual—like the homicidal redhead next door who still has a key—but of course, they don’t. Molly reminds us that Carroll promised that she’s have the honor of killing him, so perhaps this is Carroll’s attempt at a Shyamalanian twist ending. Ryan ends up with a knife to the gut and Claire gets shanked hard in the back. Meanwhile, at a diner in Alabama, a wig-wearing Emma breaks down over news of Carroll’s death. Despite her grief, she doesn’t dine-and-dash. It’s her lone redeeming quality.

Looking Ahead
The big question for next season is whether Claire will survive. I’m sticking to my prediction that Ryan is headed for heartbreak and Claire is a gonner (though perhaps not before weeks of agonizing life support). What will keep Ryan moving forward is Joey—who will be handed over to a guy with a death curse—and Mike, who admits he’s rather messed up by all of this. (What won’t happen is an inquiry into why Ryan shot an unarmed suspect, execution style.) Expect to see Debra’s sister appear as a key character, perhaps as Ryan’s next love interest, and certainly as someone who provides insight into the cult mentality. As for the bad guys, Emma looks ready to round up the remaining followers and avenge Carroll’s death. Then there’s all the talk of dental records and DNA recovered from the explosion. With any other show, I’d say it’s absolutely bat-shiz crazy to think that Carroll could still be alive. But on this one, anything goes. (Though I’m never watching again if Carroll shows up in the shower and this season was all a dream. Like on Dallas, Claire! Now that’s how you bookend a story!)