The Way and the Light

I have been fascinated with religious cults since before I even knew what they were.  I was barely old enough to understand what was happening at Jonestown, Guyana, when the greatest mass slaughter of American citizens to date took place under the auspices of a lunatic named Jim Jones, but I knew how much people talked about it and what a huge impact it had on the world of my youth.  Later, in the early ’80s, I remember a huge cult scare:  the same preachers who warned me of the grave threat by heavy metal bands, Satanists, and punk rockers also told me that I could easily fall victim to maniacal cults, lying in wait to take advantage of my alienation and loneliness.  (By that time, luckily for me, I was beginning to take notice that the Southern Baptist church was doing pretty much the same thing.)

The exploration of the cult mentality has always been a rich one for fiction, though not always a well-realized one.  Hulu’s new series, The Path, is one of the few to address the topic in serial fashion, which is odd; it would seem to be an ideal topic for that format.  Cults, after all, explode into the public consciousness because of some indiscretion or assault, but they don’t enter the world fully formed; they simmer for decades before finally exploding.  The bloody aftermath, or the flashy collapse, is only the culmination of a fascinating story, and some of the most interesting parts of that story take place long beforehand.  Jessica Goldberg aims to tell not that whole story — she starts somewhere near the middle, teasing out hints of both what is to come and how it all started.

In the world of The Path, the cult (or, as the people inside perceive it, the way of living) under consideration is Meyerism.  Because this is America in 2016, and because we are obsessed with celebrity, many people have expressed the opinion that Meyerism is meant to be an analog of Scientology.  There are a few resemblances, it is true; subjects who stray from the teachings are subjected to isolation and brutal interrogations, the cult uses something that resembles one of L. Ron Hubbard’s infamous e-meters, and their leadership courts the favor of the wealthy and powerful as a means of legitimizing and publicizing their beliefs.  But in substance, Meyerism seems to be a melange of a number of New Age cults of the 1970s:  from its vaguely Christian theology and its obsession with South American mysticism to its apolitical communitarianism and its preference for forty-year-old pop songs that focus on sweetness and light.

The Path manages to be both satisfying and frustrating in the way it treats Meyerism. The frustration comes from how slowly it strings us along, never quite telling us everything we want to know about the cult, but the satisfaction comes from how they make the little hints they drop so intriguing that we never stop wanting to know more.  It also suffers from a sort of torpor in storytelling that marks a lot of serial drama coming out of streaming media companies; although The Path didn’t drop all at once and is aired in a weekly format, it skitters slowly around its major plot points, hoping that it’s laying down enough groundwork to keep people interested throughout.

So far — six episodes in to a 10-episode run — it’s doing a pretty good job of that.  Breaking Bad‘s Aaron Paul pays Eddie Lane, a man with a troubled past whose unsettled psyche led him to Meyerism, but who recently experienced a revelation of his own that leads him to question the fundamental truths of his faith.  His wife Sarah (a terrific Michelle Monaghan) is devoted to the cult and troubled by her husband’s straying, and shares an uncomfortable closeness with Meyerism’s heir apparent, Cal Roberts (Hugh Dancy).  And Rockmund Dunbar is Abe Gaines, an FBI agent who has suspicions about the cult but finds his attempts to infiltrate it clouded by his own personal demons.

It’s all a pretty standard set-up, but Goldberg makes a handful of good dramatic choices that keep The Path from being predictable.  The whole story is told from the inside out; a lot of cult narratives have a relatively straight-laced outsider going incognito to break up an obviously evil organization.  The Path looks at Meyerism from within, and almost everyone we meet is a true believer, and a pretty decent and kind one at that; Gaines finds the group much more compelling than he’d imagined, a TV spot meant to pull a gotcha turns out with the host practically converting, and the most disruptive element in the group we follow is Mary Cox (Emma Greenwell), a former addict whose desperation is wholly sincere but severely damaging to those around her.  We also experience Meyerism not through a social, religious, or cultural lens, but through the medium of a simple family drama; Eddie’s doubts about the cult come not from any sophisticated skepticism, but from his love for his deceased brother. Sarah can’t separate her suspicion over Eddie’s doubts from her fear of him cheating on her.  And the relationships they form with other Meyerists, rather than any firmness of belief in its tenets, are what make them most reluctant to rock the boat.

The Path is full of excellent performances; Dunbar is always welcome, Paul really gets to stretch his legs in a more mature performance after Breaking Bad, and Monaghan is simply tremendous.  (There’s also a minor part for my beloved Kathleen Turner, who has not been treated well by age and illness but is still a ferocious actress.)  But at the head of the cast is the head of the cult:  Hugh Dancy, fresh of his tortured stint as Will Graham on Hannibal, plays a calculating villain all his own here.  Most cult leaders are portrayed either as cynical frauds or as delusional psychopaths; refreshingly, Cal is neither.  He’s a true believer, but he’s also extremely calculating and cautious; his sincere faith in Meyerism doesn’t stop him from thinking that he’s the person best equipped to make it thrive, or delivering terrifying threats to those who try to thwart him ambition.  He’s also motivated not by venality, lust, greed, or monomania — though those are certainly present in both his character and his performance — but by rage, the grown-up hatred of an abused and abandoned child merged with the controlling wrath of a powerful man whose hold on that power is tenuous.  It’s such a leap from his tightly controlled will Graham that every scene of him on the edge of exploding, whether it works to his benefit or his detriment, is hypnotic.

The show has a long way to go, and while things are starting to happen, it has a short time to deliver enough answers to keep us involved until season 2 kicks off.  It’s also got a few problems, most of them involving the less interesting plotlines (the matter of the Lanes’ pouty teenage son, absurdly named “Hawk” and played by a deeply unhawkish dud named Kyle Allen, is profoundly boring and will be solved, I hope, by the character’s painful and sudden demise off-screen).  But it’s definitely an interesting treatment of a fascinating subject, and it’s got the goods to become great.  Cults never end happily, but if The Path steps up its game just a bit as the season draws to a close, Meyerism may at least end memorably.

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