Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in. Using a quote from The Godfather Part III to sum up a TV series about a cult might sound reductive, but The Path, which premiered on Hulu back in March, is a painstaking study of the way a closed community can sink its hooks into its members, even after they’ve decided to cut ties. It’s the opposite of reductive, in the best and worst way possible.
We follow the Lane family, prominent figures in Meyerism, a fictional cult (they prefer “movement”) that’s based somewhere outside of New York. There’s Sarah (Michelle Monaghan), her son, Hawk (Kyle Allen), and the dad of the clan, Eddie (Aaron Paul). Sarah is a long-time member of the group, while Eddie has just come back from a retreat in Peru. What was meant to strengthen his faith, though, turns out to have done the opposite: following a trippy vision (The Path loves its trippy visions), he’s found himself questioning the whole of Meyerism. The fact that he’s meeting Alison, an ex-follower who believes the cult was responsible for her husband’s death, only adds to his disenchantment.
He’s not the only one with doubts. There’s an FBI agent (Rockmond Dunbar) investigating what exactly the cult is up to. Hawk, meanwhile, is falling for Ashley (Amy Forsyth), a girl at school who isn’t connected to Meyerism – and is therefore frowned upon by everyone else.
They stand in total contrast with Cal (Hugh Dancy), the charismatic would-be leader of the movement, who goes on TV, addresses the commune and recruits young believer Mary with a passionate conviction. But even he is far from perfect: he claims to be in contact wth Steve, the founder of Meyerism, who is confined to a hospital bed off-screen, but increasingly tries to position himself as the new movement’s head, going to extreme, nasty lengths to conjure up new religious tenets that complete the “ladder” the Meyerists are all striving to climb.
If that sounds a like a lot for a TV show to fit into just 10 episodes, you’re right: it is. The Path is stuffed to its seams with subplots and tangents, diversions and reunions, ideas and execution. That means that the pacing can be hard-going, particularly in the season’s first half, but it also means that there’s an endless amount to engage with.
The ladder at the centre of it all is made up of 10 “rungs”. Eddie’s at rung number 6. Sarah is 8R. Cal? He’s 10R. There’s an implicit level of authority and trust that goes with their respective ranks, but it’s one that’s constantly undermined by the lack of trust and respect that exists outside of their theology: Cal not-so-secretly covets Sarah; Eddie knows it; Sarah suspects Eddie, who disappears to meet Alison, of his own infidelity. All of them lie, cheat, deceive and manipulate. And yet they have one thing in common: they all genuinely want to do the right thing. For Eddie, that might well be leaving the movement, but for Cal and Sarah, there’s no question that this means furthering the cause. Even if, in Cal’s case, that means crossing ethical boundaries to do so.
The result is a goldmine for the performers. Hugh Dancy, whose charm and innocence has mostly been seen on screen up until now, sinks his teeth into the meaty part of Cal, biting off every contradiction with a gritty, often shocking relish. He’s scary, kind and sincere all at once, a combination that never gets old. Michelle Monaghan, meanwhile, has been wasted in so many roles, a supremely talented actor crying out for this kind of substantial role – and she delivers an award-worthy performance as a mother wife so deeply entrenched in her religion that it governs every aspect of her personal life. The person who makes it work, though, is Aaron Paul. Overshadowed by Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad, he breaks out on his own terms here, giving the kind of earnest, believable turn that made indie drama Smashed so affecting. He’s our window into the complex world of Meyerism and we can see every wave of doubt and belief on his face, in his cracked voice, in his angry outbursts.
A lot of The Path’s success relies simply on watching this ensemble interact, no matter where the script roams. And roam it does, taking us from one narrative to another, from one character perspective to the next, rounding out each member of our core trio, while still finding room for an entirely convincing teen romance between Hawk and Ashley – the superb Allen and Forsyth emerge as equally torn lovers, neither of whom really know who or what they are. The same is true of the adults, all of whom are messed up and struggling in the dark for some kind of purpose.
Halfway through, as the stakes rise, Cal strong-arms Eddie into climbing up to the next run. “Dig,” he orders him, in the middle of the words. “Keep digging until you find something.” It’s as much a motto for the show as the characters, but it’s also a valuable piece of advice for the audience – if you resist the initial reflex to switch off from The Path’s complex wall of concepts and characters and instead dig your fingers in, you’ll come up with handfuls of rewarding drama.
As the movement grows and the ladders climb higher, so too does Meyerism’s profile in the wider world. At one point, Cal decides to help refugees, an act that only fuels more suspicion from the FBI – ironically, though, his meetings with hedge fund managers and shots of his men effectively kidnapping new members go unseen by the media. That constant push-pull between good and bad underpins the whole programme: one episode, you’re appalled at the deaths, drugs and psychological torment that’s being dished out; the next, you’re seeing them genuinely help people to “unburden” their problems.
It’s a deliberately ambiguous, mind-bending quality that creator Jessica Goldberg and exec producer Jason Katims (both Parenthood veterans) have carefully crafted. Dunbar’s agent initially goes undercover with the pretence of seeking help for his ill daughter, but his daughter really is sick and, at times, Meyerism really does seem to offer comfort. Mary, meanwhile, can’t decide whether she’s in thrall to Cal or repulsed by him. Even Hawk is aware that the religion, for better or worse, is part of what defines who he is. The result, if binge-watched, is unnervingly immersive, normalising the wider beliefs of Meyerism, before jolting us back into questioning mode with mentions of not eating meat, or only listening to songs that predate the 1970s.
The climax teases fresh revelations and conversions, setting things up for a second season – Season 2 lands on Hulu in January – and bravely asking us to take Biblical visions at their face value. Over 10 episodes, we’re carefully shepherded from outsider skepticism to cautious curiousity, a journey that’s subtly steered by a nuanced picture of a family at war with itself. Near the end, Eddie prays to the Light for the detective’s daughter. He looks questioningly at the uncertain father. “It can’t hurt,” he shrugs. But, of course, they both know it can. The result is tough to watch, distractingly moving between endless angles and ducking down different side alleys, but it’s also the best piece of cult fiction since Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene. The Path is a brilliantly layered study of religion in practice as well as in theory, one that fascinates as much as it frustrates. Every time you think you’re out of it, it pulls you back in.
All episodes of The Path Season 1 are available to buy and rent online on Amazon Instant Video.