All episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
Cults were all the rage for a while on TV. Between 2013 and 2014, shows gave viewers drastically different entry points into various “movements,” from the splatterhouse world of The Following to the fourth wall-breaking (and simplistically titled) Cult. It’s likewise hard to forget the chain-smoking villains of The Leftovers‘ first season, the Guilty Remnant, but as that show restructured for season two, even they took a backseat for a large chunk of its sophomore year.
The fascination with religious indoctrination and the psychological ramifications suffered from being part of such a belief – and beginning to question it – is where Hulu’s The Path seethes and flexes its most impressive dramatic muscles. In the process, it makes a damn good case to revisit a somewhat overplayed genre. The Meyerists (the not-a-cult at the center of this cult drama) do not kill people in broad daylight, and they aren’t plotting to secretly take over the world; they’re living. That’s where The Path will simultaneously win its biggest fans and spur its most fervent Ignorant Systemites (a non-believer, get used to the lingo) – it’s a compelling, wholly intriguing ten hours of TV that will be too rambling and placid for those looking for something base and pure in its form and presentation.
But there were three seasons of The Following and they’re available for anyone absolutely yearning to see an innocent woman speared through the chest with a harpoon in a coffee shop; at least The Path charts its own, well, path. Created by playwright Jessica Goldberg, The Path‘s dramatically dense and verbose story makes a lot of sense given its creator’s background. Her writing is good in not only slowly separating the show from the crass brethren of its genre, but constructing characters in sync with a sharply realized world that proves capable of pulling audiences through even its more languid stretches.
Given how niftily realized The Meyerism Movement is throughout the entire first season, its stretches of twiddling banality only feel tiresome in hindsight. In the moment, The Path always seems to have its footing, mostly thanks to the confident strut of of its leads.
The show centers on a family one character refers to as “The Kennedys” of Meyerism: Eddie (Aaron Paul), Sarah (Michelle Monaghan), daughter Summer and son Hawk (Kyle Allen). Sarah was born into the movement, but Eddie wasn’t, and the show opens – and mostly centers around – his crisis of faith over Dr. Stephen Meyer’s claims that everyone’s path is shaped by the journey up a ladder into transcendent enlightenment. There’s also something about an omniscient light, a garden death metaphor, and the future.
One of the more clever components of The Path is the way it slowly integrates parts of the Meyerism mythology into the show – you’ll pick up on what all those numbers and consonants mean soon enough – but such wit only goes so far. Characters will drop gonzo lines like “when the future comes” or refer to someone “shedding their corporeal form” and you’ll be left to fill in the blanks in the dark, like any true I.S. would in the show’s world. But, even more diabolically, The Path suggests that some of its devotees might be as unclear on the Big Picture as we are. When one considers the real-world threat of such charismatic people swooping in with half-baked narratives about the eternal damnation of everyone besides us, there’s tangible sting to such undertones.
At one point in the second episode, Eddie discusses his doubts with a “denier” of the movement, who asks him how he can keep living in a faith that he knows – with all of its convoluted inner-workings and disproved history – is a lie. “Isn’t that what the rest of the world does?” He responds bluntly. The Path usually operates on a subtler level than that, but the moment lands by coming early on. Eddie is the central thrust of the show’s story, but even as he tangles with his distrust of the Meyerists and their New York “Guardian of Light” Cal (Hugh Dancy), it’s hard to tell whether he’d risk ostracization over his second-guessing.
Paul walks that line of terrified suspicion and unapologetic loyalty with ridiculous precision. Even though his arc is a bit circuitous by the time things are all said and done, he graduates to the lead of his own show (after five seasons as Heisenberg’s sidekick in Breaking Bad) with an eerie confidence. The Path can be a bit too freewheeling in its advantageous claim over Paul’s ability to perfectly play someone stuck between two worlds (he shifts loyalties about two too many times) but Goldberg at least fuels the uncertainty with a few believable, if convenient, plot turns. His son Hawk has a prominent role, and it’s easy to see a pretty big trajectory for the career of relative newcomer Allen in the near future, because he more than holds his own alongside The Path‘s heavyweights.
As the born believer, Monaghan’s Sarah is the beating heart of the show’s more scathing comments on religious sects, particularly when it comes to some developments between her, Hawk, and his I.S. girlfriend Ashley (Amy Forsyth). Meyerists under sixteen attend public school, but they’re cordoned off from the hormonal pleasures of normal friends, video games, soda and, well, acting on their hormones. Once Sarah discovers Hawk’s transgressions, she implores that he “unburden” – Meyerism’s form of confession and a central cornerstone of the movement’s honesty-is-the-best-policy lifestyle – and when he doesn’t, she brings the foot down with Old Testament fury. She’s always backed by some sparkling personalities on the compound, particularly a frighteningly devout youngster (Stephanie Hsu) and the movement’s de facto psychologist-slash-warden (Clark Middleton).
But here’s another subtle point of brilliance in The Path: the show doesn’t start out with the lights and the ladders and the various rungs of hierarchy. Well, it does, but none of it is delivered as obscene or overtly out-there; the show, for most of its run, is about a dysfunctional family whose dysfunction just happens to emerge from a specific kernel of religious existentialism. Once you put aside all of the avenues taken to arrive at that concept, the people behind Meyerism become deceptively relatable.
Like the underscoring of its point about keeping faith in spite of such faith being debunked, a subplot about Cal’s decision to harbor illegal immigrants – and the public’s Trump-era reaction – delivers a message of acceptance with obvious but effective clarity. As the leader of the New York branch, Dancy errs on the side of amicable charisma instead of the kind of dangerous empathy he wielded in Hannibal. It fits The Path, though, and he makes it pretty clear to see why so many people are joining the movement, especially in the pilot’s opening scene, where Meyerists humorously beat FEMA to a poor neighborhood devastated by a tornado.