Which is just as well, because The Path is more or less my perfect TV show.
|Eddie has doubts.|
The Path is about the Meyerists, a fictional New Religious Movement (never a cult, as their members continually remind us, not a religion, only a movement), as seen through the eyes of three individuals who work for it, and the people whose lives intersect with theirs.
|Hawk, Sarah and Eddie.|
Meyer, presumably in trouble with the US authorities, set up a world HQ in Cusco, Peru, but his movement, the Meyerists, now has something like 6,000 members across the United States, with a big residential compound in New York State, where most of the action in The Path happens.
Which are held in rooms that have large eye symbols hung on the walls. As all of their rooms do.
|The family at dinner.|
Sarah (Michelle Monaghan), his wife, is 8R, and she's both more senior in terms of the faith, and more senior in her role in the movement. She's a cradle member of the group and is absolutely committed to the faith.
And Cal Roberts (Hugh Dancy), the 10R member responsible for East Coast operations, has a bit of a thing for Sarah – always has, in fact – and is concerned with making sure that, when Dr. Meyer dies, the next leader of the Meyerist movement will be him. The other leaders of the Meyerist movement, the first generation leaders, aren't happy with that.
But Meyer is dying. Cal keeps coming back from trips to Peru and he's telling the people in Meyerist movement back home how Dr Meyer is busy writing the Final Three Rungs of the Ladder, but the truth is that Meyer is dying of advanced pancreatic cancer and he's comatose, and has been for a while now, and he's not writing anything.
|Meyer. Told you it was the easiest role ever.|
Sarah interprets his distance as his having embarked on an affair, and with no evidence whatsoever, concludes that it's with with an ex of his, Miranda Frank (Minka Kelly), who was also on the retreat. She's wrong, but she's absolutely convinced of it, both by her mother and her own fears.
And Eddie, accused of cheating on Sarah, does an entirely unexpected thing to anyone who isn't in a hardline religion: he admits to having an affair. He says, it's a fair cop, you got me, I did it, I'm sorry, and after some back and forth, finally agrees to go for a two-week programme where he's locked in a room, made to drink gallons of psychoactive herbal brew, and bullied into admitting his wrongdoing and committing himself anew to his vows.
|In the Program.|
Scarier still is that after Eddie's done on the Program, Miranda is taken from her house by Meyerist agents and locked in a room just like the one Eddie is in, until she also admits she had an affair.
This is the first real flag that for all their protests to the contrary the Meyerists really are a cult.
Meyerists believe in honesty... but that also means they're expected to "Unburden" themselves of sins and doubts and they have absolutely no concept of privacy, which on the one hand creates a sense of growing oppression with the knowledge that everyone knows what you're doing and what you did (which is horrible, and claustrophobic). On the other, this direct, probing honesty has people outside the sect finding them tactless and weird.
When people have doubts and leave, or they're kicked out, the Meyerists call them Deniers and forbid all contact with them... but still keep files on their whereabouts.
Which is a thing the Scientologists do, and there's a bunch of things Meyerists do that Scientologists do (evangelise, work from a book that's as much self help as Scripture, hound leavers while ostracising them, use weird devices to check on their spiritual wellbeing) but there's also a bunch of things Meyerists do that Scientologists don't, and more than once characters explicitly say that the Meyerists are "not the Scientologists", a qualification perhaps inserted by writer Jessica Goldberg for fear of attracting the ire of that legendarily litigious sect.
Hawk's relationship is ratted out to his parents by his more committed cousin Joy (Stephanie Hsu), and Joy gets unconditional praise for her actions from the family. Nonetheless, when Ashleigh's family get evicted from their home, Hawk convinces Eddie and Sarah to take them in for a few days.
And the working out of this is great drama, happening pretty much at the halfway point of the season. Up to this point, we've seen the cult from the inside, and for all the screwed up stuff, they've appeared as normal people doing weird stuff, as long as they're talking to each other. But now, in direct contact with the IS, you see how daft and frightening the things they do are. Ashleigh's mum sees the acts of charity they do and she's initially genuinely grateful, if a little bit freaked out. They even find her a job – with a Meyerist dentist. And then Ashleigh's mum sees it all close in on her and she runs, while the Meyerists who meet her use her tale of woe to assure themselves that the IS don't have compassion, are all hypocrites, are all dishonest.
And it's beautifully written and performed television, and it portrays with pinpoint accuracy the tension that religions that depend on personal commitment have between doctrine, ethics and practice.
|Getting in before FEMA.|
Kindness is a core ethical teaching for them. At the same time, Hawk finds himself butting up against the doctrine that the IS are the people on the outside who because of their ignorance of the evil System they perpetuate, will bring the Future (what the Meyerists call the apocalypse) and who won't live in the Garden (Meyerist Heaven). And he finds himself having to face up to the fact that in practice Meyerists fear, distrust and judge the "Ignorant Systemites".
I really appreciated the weird jargon the Meyerists used, so similar to evangelical jargon in character, if not in content, and The Path is great for that, it really is, the way it's dropped into conversations without explanation and you just have a rough idea what it means based on context.
The Meyerists do disaster relief efforts, as in the first few minutes of the first episode, where they turn up and help the survivors of a tornado that hits a small town in New Hampshire. And they genuinely, sincerely do help, and want to help, and do a faster, better job of it than FEMA (which, let's face it, isn't all that hard) ...and at the same time pick up the vulnerable, traumatised people and enlist them as converts.
And it's a phenomenally intelligent and empathic piece of writing, because it pretty accurately shows how you can have a movement of kind, peace-loving individuals of sincere faith who are willing members of a predatory and exclusionary apocalyptic cult at the same time. These things are not mutually exclusive.
Cults don't recruit bad people. They recruit good people, and they recruit people who want to be better. Religious movements like this get their members to align their desire for goodness with the doctrines of the faith.
It goes like this: you want goodness; this is a movement made of good people; their doctrines are therefore the doctrines that good people believe.
|The meter thing, the most obvious borrowing from the Scientologists.|
And if you choose being good to people, if you choose love over doctrine, you're going to have to question if your faith is really all that good, and you're either going to have to embrace contradiction and remake that faith (and I did, and it cost me) or you have too leave that faith altogether. If you choose the religion, congratulations, you've become the sort of person who'll throw anyone under the bus for the sake of your beliefs. The ironic thing there is that if you're following a religion that teaches goodness, in prioritising your doctrine over goodness, you're actually losing sight of your religion. You hollow it out and wear it like a hat.
I suppose that what I'm saying is that The Path presents religion of this sort exactly as it really is. Because when Eddie's doubts finally surface, when he develops the courage later in the season to say, I still want to be part of this movement but I'm not sure about there actually being a Light, the people he loves, his wife and his in-laws and his friends, they throw him under the bus. They drive him right out.
Look, I'm still a practising member of a number of religions greater than zero; aged nineteen I had, as I've written before a couple of times, a sincere conversion experience and found myself among a pretty hardline group of conservative evangelical Christians. And I swiftly became uncomfortable with the way they would tell you that you made friends in order to evangelise; the way they said that if you were set for Glory, most of the people you knew weren't, and you should be guilty about that; the way that they confused certainty with faith (when in fact doubt relates to faith as fear does to courage); the way they drive you out and blame you for leaving: the way that friendships with outsiders exist only for recruitment; those things are represented in The Path with excruciating truthfulness.
So there's this part where Eddie is asked to stand in front of the assembled meeting and give a spiritual truth about his recent movement-mandated ordeal, only he speaks with honesty and gives an off-message truth, and it leaves the congregation cold: that made me squirm because that's actually happened to me in the past, and if you've never bared your heart publicly to a couple hundred people who you thought liked you, only to be met with blank, uncomfortable incomprehension from the assembly and some exquisitely thrown shade from the leadership right afterwards, let me tell you it is an unbelievably horrendous experience.
|I didn't find the Movement. It found me.|
Or will be. The Path is also about the generational survival of a fringe group, and how it becomes a religion proper beyond the death of its founder. Eventually leaders die, and someone has to take over, and you see people of the first generation sceptical of the way it's going to go, and one guy convinced that it's time to wind the movement up, and you see Cal Roberts make a (successful) power grab that even extends to his writing the Final Three Rungs of the Ladder himself.
Cal is a liar, an abuser, an alcoholic, who listens constantly to instructional lectures about body language and salesmanship when he's driving or running. He's a sincere believer but he'll do anything to be the chosen successor of Dr Meyer, even kill. And he uses Mary, the damaged young woman who's one of the tornado survivors and who becomes a cult member out of her obsession with Cal, as a vehicle for sexual release.
Mary (Emma Greenwell) is actually an important secondary character, the very first person we see on screen, and she gives a view of the cult as it appears to a new recruit, just as Ashleigh's family shows how it appears to the people on the outside. Mary becomes Cal's creature, even eventually marrying the young man he tells her to marry, and she is both victim and facilitator of several of Cal's most reprehensible actions.
While Sarah is an unconscious hypocrite, Cal is well aware of his failings.
But Cal believes he has a supernatural mandate, and when you have a supernatural mandate, you'll do anything. And as the first season of The Path concludes, hints of the supernatural begin to work their way into the story. And it's nothing inexplicable, just things hard to explain, visions and coincidences and prophetic dreams, but it mounts up, and again, it's like the way evangelical Christians really see a connectedness in the world, the way things seem to happen for them.
This connectedness even begins to touch outsiders and even enemies, such as Abe Gaines (Rockmond Dunbar), the FBI agent who is convinced something dirty is going on and who infiltrates the group and..
|This is my soul.|
I unconditionally love this series. If you want to know what being in a fringe religion is like without actually having to join one, The Path is the nearest you'll ever get.