Karl Marx had a few things to say about religion, including the slightly mistranslated statement that it is “the opiate of the masses.” He also defined religion as “an inverted consciousness of the world” – in other words, an inward focus that blinds us to reality.
Even if you’re not religious, you may take issue with Marx, but his assess ment certainly applies to followers of the Meyerist Movement, a cult-like organization at the complicated heart of The Path, a stunning new dramatic series premiering Wednesday on Hulu.
Created by Dr. Stephen Meyer (Keir Dullea), the Meyerist Movement is a blend of spirituality and pseudo-science marketed as a way of achieving enlightenment to overcome pain and negativity in people’s lives. He visualized the Path as a ladder to self-awareness and, as the series begins, he is said to be holed up in Peru writing the ladder’s final rungs.
Meanwhile, a core group of followers reside in a gated compound in upstate New York, subsisting on contributions from external sympathizers and new converts. Cal Robertson (Hugh Dancy, Hannibal) runs things, claiming to have been personally annointed by Meyer to do so. He’s the only one who seems to be in touch with Meyer, but everyone takes Cal’s position of authority on faith, as it were.
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Eddie Lane (Aaron Paul, Breaking Bad) is trying to be a good Meyerist but something happened to him during a retreat in Peru that has filled his mind with doubts. He is reluctant to share his feelings with his wife, Sarah (Michelle Monaghan, True Detective), because as a staunch believer, she would be forced to report him as a possible “denier.” The Lanes have two kids, the elder of whom is a 15-year-old named Hawk (Kyle Allen, Never Leave Me), who is supposed to leave high school when he turns 16 to take vows of fealty to the movement. Hawk has his own struggles, however, when he breaks the movement’s rule against fraternizing with non-believers and becomes friendly with a girl from school (Amy Forsyth, Defiance).
Life is seemingly good, bounteous and peaceful among the rather eerily detached folk of the compound. From the outset, we sense that something is amiss beneath the placid surface. Bit by bit, we begin to see the cracks. In addition to his crisis of faith, Eddie is paying regular visits to a former movement member named Alison Kemp (Sarah Jones, Texas Rising), whose husband committed suicide. Now she’s in hiding, living in terror of being caught by other members of the movement.
Cal has rescued a young woman named Mary Cox (Emma Greenwell, Shameless), who has been pimped out by her trailer-trash father ever since she was a young girl. Can the movement help her unlearn how to use sex to get what she wants?
An undercover FBI agent Abe Gaines (Rockmond Dunbar, The Mentalist) believes there’s something nefarious about the movement and goes undercover to investigate. Meanwhile, his infant daughter is struggling with a potentially fatal health issue, making Gaines vulnerable to the movement’s slickly marketed promises and hope.
As the 10 episodes of the show’s first season unfold, the cracks widen until the entire construct of the movement is in danger of crumbling.
Creator Jessica Goldberg has done a masterful job of telling the story of the organization through the individual characters. We see each major character evolve in a naturalistic way, rarely following anything close to a predictable pattern. Similar to the character development in Breaking Bad, the seed of each character’s destiny is already gestating within – Sarah’s conflicted feelings about Eddie and Cal, Eddie’s agony as he tries to balance loving his wife with his growing doubt about the movement, Cal’s attempt to temper his lust for power while trying to keep secrets about his past and present.
Goldberg has said she did not specifically draw on Scientology in creating The Path, but the similarities are more than coincidental, including a founder who has gone missing for a period of time and an electronic gizmo that evokes the concept of a Hubbard E-meter.
But the series is not whether the movement hews closely to a particular religion. It’s about the human drive to believe in something larger than ourselves, whether the object of our projection is a supreme being, a gaggle of deities, a collective system of beliefs or, on a smaller tier, love, ambition and power.
It is also about how self-interest plays a corrupting role in social structure, much in the way that the adaptive society created by the marooned boys in Lord of the Flies was undone by the inevitable conflict between human nature and the common good. The movement’s encampment is a microcosm of human society, and Meyerism is merely a refracting factor in the battle between individualism and the group.
Goldberg’s perfectly crafted script is realized through shattering performances at every level, especially among the major players. Dancy has never done better work. His Cal is a tin-horn messiah hampered by human frailty and desires. Aaron Paul, possibly heading toward another Emmy to add to his Breaking Bad collection, makes Eddie Lane the tortured soul of the series, compellingly real at every turn. Michelle Monaghan has perhaps the greatest challenge among the major players, because unlike the leading male characters, Sarah is a true believer in the Path, which means she has to leverage already complicated feelings about Eddie and Cal with the strict rules of the movement.
As all of these story lines play out, we realize The Path is not the ladder Meyer envisions, but a winding route through the dark forest of conflict and fraility known as human nature.
‘The Path’ is a 10-episode series from Hulu. The first two episodes are available for streaming on March 30. Weekly episodes will follow.