“It only works when you believe,” says Eddie (Aaron Paul) in Season 2 of The Path. “Because once you pull that thread it just turns to nothing, right in your hands.”
Eddie has always been the character with the best grasp of Meyerism, the fictional cult movement at the centre of Hulu’s drama. Jessica Goldberg’s series explores the way that faith, belief and doubt impact personal relationships, and Season 1’s best moments occur in the interactions between the doubting Eddie and the devoted Sarah (Michelle Monaghan), his wife. Intruding upon their marriage? The dubious Cal (Hugh Dancy), who is manoeuvring his way up the cult’s power ladder. Throw in their son, Hawk (Kyle Allen), who is torn between his family and his first love – an “unenlightened” girl at school – and the result was a compelling drama that didn’t always juggle the bigger picture, with its ambitious themes, but resonated with personal, intimate details.
Season 2 switches things up, focusing on the wider story over the family dinner discussions. That could mean a series that ends up wayward and confused, but Goldberg’s vision has only gotten stronger, clearer and more confident. What was initially disorienting now feels nuanced; what previously seemed overstuffed is now rich and layered. If your patience to keep watching once was lost, now it’s found again at the end of each episode.
Goldberg is a theatre writer by trade and that shines through in the way she zooms in on inner conflicts, yet balances it with a large, rounded ensemble. Stepping up the scale, then, is a surprisingly natural move for the show: Season 2 builds upon the firm foundations of the complex relationships formed in Season 1. Geographically, too, the widening frame fits the fragmented nature of Eddie’s family, which is gradually becoming more dispersed.
Eddie, lest we forget, ended Season 1 with something of a revelation, as he left Meyerism, only to find himself plagued by intensely real religious visions. We learn that “Steve”, the cult’s leader, seemed to plummet to his death from a mountain in Peru – an event that Eddie may have witnessed, judging by a hauntingly weird sequence early on. Is it a flashback? A dream? Did Eddie really meet Steve? Was Cal the one who pushed him? Who should be the person leading the cult? And with Steve’s body found by local followers, Richard and Kodiak, where does all this leave us on the truth-crazy spectrum?
One of The Path’s strengths is the way that it presents everything in the same, hazy manner. When visions happen, we see them with dizzying clarity. When Hawk, now studying 1R, thinks that he floats in the woods during a dramatic sunrise, we actually watch him float. The Leftovers DoP and Preacher director Michael Slovis is the perfect choice of helmer for the season’s opening episodes, able to present the otherworldly in a way that seems natural and the natural in a way that seems otherworldly; the characters question what the others see, but the show never asks us to.
Nowhere is that more evident than with Cal, who appoints Sarah as his Co-Guardian of the Light to take the movement forward. Lying, cheating and killing his way (poor Silas) to the top, he’s a nasty piece of work, but that is a fault of him, not Meyerism. Hugh Dancy gets better with every moral line he crosses – and that nasty streak is thrown into sharper relief by the way he drags Sarah down with him.
One of the greatest pleasures of The Path is seeing Michelle Monaghan get the complicated part that she deserves, and she gets even more opportunities to sink her teeth into Sarah. Trusting Cal the less she truly gets to know him, she finds herself having to make the same mistakes he did, joining in the deception to keep the movement going – because, above all, the movement is what matters. And so while Dancy gets the chance to be intimidating towards a former member (one confrontation in a car park is a standout), in the hope they’ll help Meyerism get the tax exemption befitting a bona fide religion, Monaghan gets to show the conviction of Sarah’s beliefs by throwing herself into uncovering a local water poisoning cover-up.
Eddie, meanwhile, is working as a builder, occasionally seeing his kids, but finding them more and more estranged, due to their contrasting faith. As if to emphasise the distance between them further, he bumps into an old school fried, Chloe (Leven Rambin), and they fall in step with one another, as she leads him into a world of drink and gambling. Rambin and Paul have instant chemistry, selling their shared memories in a way that only helps to alienate Hawk even more. And so Hawk buries himself in his own connection with college student Noa, who leads him down the path towards misbehaving.
The Path always uses people to convert other people, something that allows the movement to be both sweetly appealing and, over time, sickeningly sour. It’s a show that understands why people would be susceptible to joining the cult, that captures the joy of belonging to something bigger than you, that shares the loss of not being part of it, and navigates the difficult clash of business and ethics, as the community consciously tries to expand its reach.
And so as Meyerism moves into the more hostile New York city, the bond between Mary (the fantastically pained Emma Greenwell) and Sean Egan (the sincere Paul James) is tainted by her pre-existing ties to Dancy’s leader, who holds sway over her with evangelical authority. Heading in the opposite direction is FBI agent Abe Gaines (the likeable Rockmond Dunbar), whose suspicion of the movement is increasingly undermined by his growing involvement with the church – and, in particular, the affection he has for the wife (Ali Ahn) of Sarah’s brother, Russell (Patch Darragh). On the one hand, Abe’s trying to block the Meyerists’ application for tax-exempt status; on the other, he’s trying to look after his wife and baby, who, in a brilliant twist, was apparently healed by Eddie at the end of the first season.
Just as the cult is figuring out its place in the world, every character is undergoing a similar struggle with the ambiguity that proved an obstacle for some viewers in Season 1. The uniformly excellent cast embrace these shades of grey in way that allows The Path to broaden and sharpen its scope. Blackmail, unabashed requests for donations, paranoia over being followed; all of the storylines are made compelling by the complications that arise on an individual level. Eddie, for example, should now be free from the clutches of Meyerism, but only winds up in a support group for PTSD – a therapeutic environment about unburdening and shared progression that doesn’t feel a million miles from where he used to be.
At the heart of it all, Aaron Paul remains fantastic, perpetually bewildered and determined in equal measure. His flustered manner repeatedly becomes clearer when he’s talking about Meyerism – every time he mentions “The Light”, his facial expression really does light up. The only other time he’s so enthused is, tellingly, when he talks of the importance of love and family to Sean. It’s a wonderful idea, positioning the most skeptical person in the programme as the most inspirational and, it seems, the most attuned to what Meyerism really is about. Because The Path knows that you can’t have belief without doubt; they are two halves of the same coin. And the more the series refines that central principle, the more intriguing the drama becomes. It’s a series that only works when you believe, but there’s a growing sense in Season 2 that, more than ever, The Path knows what it’s doing. You keep pulling that threat, but it refuses to unravel.
The Path Season 1 to 3 is on Amazon Prime Video, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.