Warning: This contains spoilers. Not seen Season 2 of The Path? Catch up with our spoiler-free review here.
“It only works when you believe,” says Eddie (Aaron Paul) at the start of The Path’s second season. “Because once you pull that thread it just turns to nothing, right in your hands.”
It’s the kind of comment that’s par for the course in Jessica Goldberg’s deliciously ambiguous drama, which follows the fictional Meyerist movement – a cult that’s not entirely unlike Scientology, but isn’t entirely unlike any other spiritual organisation either. This is a show that is full of unanswered questions, in a way that could frustrate some viewers, but consciously deploys that limbo of uncertainty to capture the nature of life in the thrall of a charismatic community. At its heart is the simple understanding 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 it pulls that thread, the more intriguing the drama becomes.
Aaron Paul’s Eddie has become the natural cornerstone for that creed, and the actor sinks his teeth into the role with a bewildered sincerity that emits its own understated charisma. Turning the most skeptical person in the programme into the most inspirational is a masterful touch that opens up the spectrum of truth and deceit into something that defies easy categorisation. Eddie, we learned at the start of Season 2, was present in Peru when Steve Meyer died, and his visions that began near the end of Season 1 are just the first step in a season-long arc that yields vivid complexities. Sporting a tree-shaped scar on his back, from when he was struck by lightning, he’s the Chosen One, appointed by Steve to become the real Guardian of the Light and lead Meyerism forward. Yes, the guy who bailed on the movement to become a builder.
He’s hardly a role model, but that’s precisely the point: none of these devout characters are. The current Guardian of the Light, Cal (Hugh Dancy), has become a corrupt, power-hungry despot, manipulating others and even killing them, to retain control. He’s also taken Sarah (Michelle Monaghan), Eddie’s wife, down with him: appointing as Co-Guardian of the Light, she’s the righteous figure who ended Season 1 as the epitome of family and loyalty. Now, she’s digging into former members’ unburdening tapes and using the confessions recorded therein to blackmail them into donating money to Meyerism. Both of their intentions are purportedly honourable: they want to make the church grow, at a time when they’re facing foreclosure. Cal is keen to grant the group tax-exemption status, while Sarah is determined to seize any funds necessary.
It’s heartbreaking to see her go to such extremes, and Monaghan continues to milk every last drop of sympathy from the best role of her career to date. Dancy, meanwhile, becomes more and more unhinged, as his calm demeanour increasingly gives way to more erratic outbursts. They’re perfect foils for each other, because they’re both capable of bringing out the heart that is buried beneath their dubious actions. It’s only when they’re together that either achieve a measure of peace and happiness; one standout moment where Sarah is about to speak at a cross-faith conference sees them both recognise the faith the other has, a silent exchange that equally sees them desperately seeking justification in the other’s equally compromised morals.
All the while, Cal’s fathering of Mary’s (Emma Greenwell) baby looms over them, something that she uses to blackmail Cal, teasing Sarah with hints of her child’s abusive dad’s identity during their private sessions. But Sarah’s actions catch up to her first, as she finds herself on the run to Canada with her own daughter to avoid a murder charge – and Cal is left with Mary to form a makeshift family, neither of them particularly cheery about that prospect. It’s especially sad to see Mary land back with the loathsome leader, as she struggles to wriggle out from under his thumb; she and loyal boyfriend Sean try to flee the compound, but she ends up turning back by choice, stumbling through the woods and giving birth there on her own.
The other pregnant secret waiting to emerge is Abe Gaines’ (Rockmond Dunbar) undercover infiltration of the community, but, in another brilliant display of ambiguity, we never know which is the truth threatening to be unmasked: the fact that he’s an FBI agent, or the fact that he genuinely buys into Meyerism. Ever since Season 1’s climax saw Eddie heal Gaines’ sick child, he’s been drawn to the movement’s apparent powers – and not just because of his affair with the wife (Ali Ahn) of Sarah’s brother, Russell (Patch Darragh). Dunbar is fantastic, never at ease in any of his conversations, because he still hasn’t worked out which group of people he should be honest with; on the one hand, he’s uncovering the Meyerists’ many crimes, but on the other, he discovers that he’s only doing so because his boss has set him up, in a move to stop the cult before it can damage the reputation of his highest campaign contributor. Even the supposedly good force of the law isn’t free from corruption; if both sides are wrong, then who’s to say which is right?
The campaign contributor is DeKaan, who is being investigated by the Meyerists for poisoning the water supply of a nearby community – a campaign taken up by Sarah and her son, Hawk. (Gaines, in an act of atonement, uses FBI funds to pay for the expensive tests to prove the water has been tainted.) With his mum corrupted, Hawk becomes emblematic of what Meyerism can be, trying to help the homeless, become more woke in his social awareness, and expose the water contamination, all positive acts that can change the world for the better. And it’s that ability to show both the positive and negative sides of Meyerism that makes for such compelling viewing: Goldberg’s scripts are generous, compassionate and constantly open-minded. We see miracles occur with just as much clarity as the crimes committed to protect their sacred existence; we see support groups for ex-members unfolding with the same ritual comfort as the prayer meetings inside the Meyerist compound.
It’s a blurred dynamic that finds a natural parallel in the show’s familial relationships; so much of the drama and tension stems from seeing parents and children, partners and lovers, friends and enemies interact, all in the kind of proximity that a closed community mandates. Cal tries to position himself as a new father to Hawk, mentoring him through 2R, just as he tried to instil authority over Eddie as his mentor – yet Hawk still finds himself drawn to his father, even though when he demands to be shown proof that Eddie is the Chosen One, Eddie can only reply with confused shrugs.
But faith is a powerful thing, and Eddie’s fate is seemingly sealed by the unwavering certainty of Richard, who believes that Eddie really has been chosen. Interrogated by a suspicious, paranoid Cal, Richard doesn’t even bother to lie or pretend otherwise – a rare act of transparent honesty in a show full of half-truths. And a brief glimpse of Richard evicted from the community, struggling to find a home on the street, gives us a moving taste of what life can be like for institutionalised members of a cult; he winds up returning to the compound and locking himself in the archive room, which he torches with gasoline. It’s an act of sacrifice and sabotage all wrapped in one, a gesture that simultaneously wipes the records of each member’s past sins. And it’s that baptism by fire that seems to inspire Eddie’s eventual sense of certainty: he finds himself surrounded by a group of deniers and deserters, all of whom are behind his vision to return to the compound and reunite the families that have been separated for years by faith.
It’s a compelling revision to Meyerist philosophy, one that seeks to put behind past divisions and focus on new unity. It’s particularly pertinent in a modern society that has become defined by extremes, as bipartisanship in politics has bled right through to the way people perceive facts versus opinion. (“Repealing rights is always done in the name of safety,” notes one cult member, as Gaines and Cal introduce ID badges to help root out the FBI insider in their group – one of many gentle nods to the current American climate.) Gaines’ boss, for example, is all too ready to dismiss Meyerism as nonsense, but when Gaines questions his chief’s belief in the Virgin Mary, he responds with a matter-of-fact statement of blind belief that carries a darkly humorous weight.
And, again, The Path finds a personal parallel to explore that theme: the line between family and faith is being put behind by Eddie, as he learns that both can be equally important and not mutually exclusive. And yet even in that realisation, there’s compromise and conflict: Sarah suggests they run away to start afresh, but Eddie chooses the movement over her. At the same time, he puts her above his own moral standing, as he agrees with Cal to bury their water test findings, in exchange for the FBI dropping any charges against Sarah.
As Eddie and his followers march upon the Meyerist gates, Cal welcomes them with open arms, pretending that he’s been part of this whole plan all along. He talks of forgiveness and new beginnings, even as he tries to stop a new beginning starting under Eddie’s eye. Sarah, meanwhile, is advised by Felicia to be ready to lead herself, because both Cal and Eddie have compromised their ideals – unaware, of course, that Sarah has her own transgressions on her conscience. Everything in Its Right Place plays over the uneasy reunion, Radiohead’s eerie, almost upbeat song refusing to let the soundtrack resolve in a clear note of catharsis. With a three-way power struggle on the cards, The Path’s next step isn’t set to get any clearer, but in an age of binary beliefs and a lack of respectful debate, that’s exactly how we like it. “It only works when you believe,” says Eddie early on. But as his Messiah-like return to the fold relies as much upon doubt as conviction, The Path’s boldly ambiguous second season inspires trust in its upcoming third run by posing a more honest and messy truth: it only works when you don’t.
The Path Season 2 and 3 is on Amazon Prime Video, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription. New episodes of Season 3 arrive every Thursday.