How Hulu's The Path reveals the darkness in enlightenment
When I was in college, I spent some time in a spiritual group that promised to improve my life. It began with your standard-issue list of qualities they would help me achieve: peace, joy, harmony, mindfulness. All I needed to do was integrate their teachings into my day-to-day life. It started with a friendly, informational meeting; then a few simple seminars; then, at the cheerful urging of my new friends, a long weekend at a retreat center in the woods, devoting several days to an in-depth crash-course on the organization's various teachings.
During this time, I had some genuinely powerful experiences — but for reasons I didn't fully understand at the time, I decided that the retreat would be the end of my involvement with the group. I stopped attending the events; after a few unreturned emails and phone calls, my contacts seemed to get the hint, and I never heard from them again.
It was only much later, when I looked back on my brief stint with the group, that I realized there were some things that had never sat quite right with me. There was the near-deistic reverence with which the organization's leaders spoke about its founder, a meditation teacher. There was the increasing insistence on integrating the teachings into my lifestyle, and dropping the parts of my life that didn't fit. There was the way that the group's most devoted members tended to interact almost exclusively with other members, creating a kind of ever-more-isolated social bubble. None of it was enough to raise alarm bells, or even to cause any real harm to anyone. But it was beginning to feel — and this is the word they would undoubtedly bristle at — a little cult-like.
If you've ever wondered how a person ends up in a cult, here's the truth: It's easy, and they usually don't even realize it's happening. The Unification Church offered young idealists a chance to protest against communism. Jim Jones' Peoples Temple promised spiritual healing through organized charity work. Scientology offers free "personality tests." Along the way, you meet attractive, charming people who say they're living the kind of life you want to have. And if you're passionate about changing the world, or if you're in pain, or even if you're just curious — well, then you're a potential convert.
Cult and religion, and the difference between the two — assuming there is a real difference between the two — is the backbone of The Path, a smart, haunting new series that premieres on Hulu today. The Path follows the members of a fictional religious movement called Meyerism. (They prefer not to be called a "cult," of course, though that's the word most would use.)
Meyerists view their religious path as a ladder; with every "rung," they get closer to enlightenment, securing themselves an afterlife as beings of light in the midst of the darkness. Their religious practices also include vegetarianism, abstinence from alcohol and drugs, and total honesty, which extends to Scientology-style "auditing" sessions in which members are recorded revealing their innermost secrets. (This emotional directness conveniently doubles as a first-rate storytelling engine; since the characters believe so passionately in the virtue of telling the truth, every lie they tell is that much more consequential.)
The Path broadens its perspective with every episode that passes, but our primary POV characters over the first season are Sarah (Michelle Monaghan), a woman raised from birth in the Meyerist movement; Eddie (Aaron Paul), her husband, a convert who is beginning to have some creeping doubts about the religion; and Cal (Hugh Dancy), the charismatic true believer who aspires to lead the movement in an unprecedented global expansion. Each of them is deeply damaged in their own way, and as pressures mount both inside and outside the community, each of them threatens to snap.
I'd hate to spoil The Path, which is extremely deliberate in the way it lets you in on its various secrets — but it wouldn't be much of a TV series if the Meyerist Movement didn't have some kind of sinister side. But the most interesting moments in The Path are the ones that suggest that Meyerism isn't an entirely unreasonable way for a person to confront the horrors of the world. Like most religions, the basic tenets of honesty, goodness, and family are pretty unimpeachable. It's in the details, and in the powerful people who manipulate them, that the best of intentions can so easily go off the rails.
But even Meyerism's worst followers don't negate every value the movement teaches, or the very specific good it does in the lives of its members. Is living within a kind of creepy cult any worse than being a heroin junkie? Or being physically and sexually abused? Does the shadier side of Meyerism negate the help they offer a community ravaged by a tornado? Does it matter if any of the tenets of Meyerism turn out to be true, if the ultimate outcome turns out to be a net good? And if a person reaches genuine enlightenment, does it really matter which path took them there?
These are complicated, thorny questions with real-world implications, and The Path is coming at an ideal time to tackle them. Meyerism may not be real, but it's not implausible — and as the series delves into the various sad, hopeful people who seek meaning in it, the greatest revelation may be how much viewers begin to recognize themselves.