Warning: This contains spoilers for Season 2 of The Path. Catch up with our spoiler-free review here. This is also contains minor spoilers for the set-up of Season 3.
At what point does a movement become a cult? That’s the question that has plagued The Path ever since its first season. Hulu’s first hour-long drama, Jessica Goldberg’s show is easy to overlook as a minor offering in the shadow of The Handmaid’s Tale. But as it returns for a third season, The Path confirms itself as one of the boldest and most unique TV shows currently on our screens, delving into themes and concepts that many programmes would flee from in fear.
That’s partly because The Path has anchored itself in its ensemble of Meyerist believers. With the movement coming between husband and wife Eddie (Aaron Paul) and Sarah (Michelle Monaghan), the result has been a study of characters through the lens of their faith, navigating the fissures that can open up in relationships and lives as a result of people’s beliefs. But churches are built on people; corruption from within a group makes the group, by definition, corrupt. And that corruption can spread. The same is true of doubt, anger, resentment, selfishness. After two seasons of emotions flying between the fractured families and friends of Meyerism, Season 3 of The Path takes a big step back, zooming out to look at what all that means for the community as a whole. It’s a breathtaking switch of scale, one that fast forwards six months from Season 2 to allow a fresh starting point for new converts – or for doubters who may have drifted away from the flock – while rooting everything in the cumulative weight of what’s gone before.
We begin with a fiery burst of grief and a burning sense of something miraculous, as Eddie unleashes his inner hero to save someone in danger – just the kind of act needed to cement him as the Messiah-like figure that he became at the end of Season 2. Paul, who impressed in indie drama Smashed as well as Breaking Bad, is a master of playing desperate, frustrated men, and it’s a treat to see him graduate from playing that side of Eddie to showing us the new leader as a confident, charismatic figure: a man who can stand in front of crowds and TV cameras and proclaim that he knows the future for Meyerism. Monaghan, meanwhile, continues to do career-best work in the kind of complex role that she deserves: stepping back from the co-Guardian of the Light position she once held, Sarah travels in the opposite direction to Eddie, going from conviction to nervous uncertainty – but never letting distinction between the two become that clear-cut.
That, in itself, is a fascinating enough dichotomy to explore, as Eddie’s positivity shines a fresh light on the couple’s dissolved relationship. But, of course, grey areas are rife in Eddie’s new dawn, as his flaws go hand-in-hand with his leadership. He plans to make Meyerism a transparent movement, inviting the public in to scrutinise it and join in, and yet that open embrace makes the formerly remote community vulnerable. Firstly, to each other, as Eddie’s reinterpretation of the Light and Steve’s doctrines sparks a backlash among some of the veteran members. And secondly, to the wider world, as a sinister force appears in the woods, leaving violent threats between the trees. We’re allowed to sympathise with all sides of the argument, just as we’ve been allowed to emotionally invest in every character; this isn’t an open-shut criticism of a cult, but a sincere study of faith trying to find its way in the world. Cults are dangerous, The Path warns, but it’s dangerous being a cult too.
Sarah finds that as she meets Jackson (Raul Esparza), a college professor who specialises in new religions – an area of study that he admits is primarily cynical towards young movements, as old beliefs from established religions are so ingrained in society. And the interrogation of her beliefs finds an effective parallel in the way it both explores Meyerism and her own feelings.
Eddie, meanwhile, is undergoing a similar challenge, in the form of his publicist, Vera (an excellent Freida Pinto). Vera begins as someone in thrall to Eddie’s charm and potential mass appeal, but becomes more than that, as she has her own relationship drama going on, plus a dark side that hints at her own willingness to protect her client – an extreme streak that you’d associate with a cult rather than an outsider.
And what of Cal? Hugh Dancy continues to relish the role of the twisted former leader, a man who plummeted from a position of power in Season 2, as he repeatedly corrupted himself to stay at the top of the Meyerist ladder. Now, he’s out on his own in Florida, with Mary and their son, Forest. He’s sold out more than ever, as he turns Meyerism – something he believes in honestly – into a cheap self-help course, which he uses to spin a quick buck from punters on the street. He’s even brought Mary in as his stooge.
There’s a tragic irony to his speeches about reinventing oneself in a positive way, but again, The Path’s third season doesn’t stop there, even though it could: on top of that absorbing character drama, Goldberg lays yet another layer, as Cal’s inability to move on from the past manifests itself in vivid memories of incidents that happened when he was a child. Sparking a sort-of nervous breakdown, his flashbacks recall the unstable state of Eddie in Season 2, part-trauma and part-righteous vision – an ambiguity that frames both as “Chosen Ones” in their own right, but also as damaged men.
The Path, pleasingly, hasn’t left behind their joint protege: Eddie’s son, Hawk. Here, he’s positioned himself as a deputy leader for the movement, and, after doubting his dad in Season 2, has fully accepted his father’s place as leader and as his role model. They have a wonderful dynamic, and Kyle Allen also gets the start of his own intriguing journey, as he gives the interfaith space in the Meyerist’s fancy new HQ to Caleb, the son of a major Christian preacher – a relationship that is set to challenge both young men, as they come into contact with opposing ideals and philosophies. All the while, the movement continues to welcome new members, won over by Eddie’s new teachings.
The result is a melting pot of ideas, opinions, grudges and secrets that’s as absorbing and ambiguous as ever – a messy soup of moral conflicts and guilt that introduces previously unseen methods for atonement that are disturbingly intense. It’s a reminder that we’re still only finding out the first things about Meyerism, and about the people who follow it. Eddie is insistent to Vera and Hawk that they don’t react negatively to hate campaigns accusing them of kidnapping loved ones; Meyerism, he explains, isn’t going to behave like a cult. But if individual people do, what does that make the movement then? Three seasons in, and with a cast still on stellar form, The Path may be about to deliver its most thought-provoking run yet.
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.