[This is a review of The Path season 1, episode 1. There will be SPOILERS.]
“Let me bring you into the light.” Those are the words uttered by Hugh Dancy‘s appealing cult leader Cal in the waning moments of Hulu’s new domestic/cult drama The Path, as he addresses his followers. His promise to bring them into the “light” comes after he regales them with Plato’s allegory of the cave, and both his words – complete with the implicit promise of knowledge and understanding that no one else has – and his pure showmanship are met with rapturous applause by those wholly taken in by the Meyersist Movement he not-so-benignly leads.
The moment, like so much during the first hour of The Path (two of which have been made available on the streaming service for its premiere) feels born of the glimpses that have been given inside other religious movements, particularly Scientology, though at a much less opulent, celebrity-driven level. But in Cal’s presentation, and more so in his followers’ attention, there are also hints of the political machine running non-stop this election year. You see it in the way people – believers – hang on to Cal’s every word like he’s talking solely to them; they know when to laugh, when to “oooh,” and when to stand up and applaud. And to Cal’s credit, he knows how to work his followers into a frenzy, promising them a way out of the darkness of their lives and up the spiritual “ladder” at the center of Meyerist Movement’s hierarchical system.
From the get go – i.e., the bizarre, dreamlike showiness of the series’ opening sequence in which a town has been ravaged by tornado – the series underlines the eeriness of the Myerist Movement and its Johnny-on-the-spot response that because of the way it was filmed, looks less like the opening to a potential candidate in the prestige drama circle, and more like a video used to promote the Movement to potential believers. It is an odd way to begin the series: a step or two out of synch with external reality, but the undeniable eccentricity of the moment and others that will follow helps carry what is an admittedly languorously paced drama through from beginning to end.
Despite this unique, sometimes unsettling setting, and its often sleepy pace, The Path, from creator Jessica Goldberg, is really more of a family drama; one that looks inside the lives of Eddie (Aaron Paul) and his wife Sarah (Michelle Monaghan) and their children, as they contend with life in and around a well-meaning, but somewhat controversial movement like the Meyerists. The focus on family shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, as Goldberg recently worked as a writer on NBC’s sure-to-make-you-cry family drama Parenthood, and even that show’s creator, Jason Katims (Friday Night Lights), is on board here as a producer. The family drama doesn’t kick entirely into gear until the second episode, thereby making the premiere a two-part affair a smart call on Hulu’s part. Doubling up and showing both halves of the dramatic circle may help temper expectations or limit claims of the series hustling audiences into thinking The Path was entirely a tense drama about a dissenter in the ranks of a growing movement he now believes to be fraudulent.
Such claims would be (at least partially) unfounded as the show is and isn’t those things. It’s an odd duck of a series that is at times so purposefully paced it could give AMC’s Rubicon a run for its money. And yet, it is also given to a hazy, calculatingly disjointed structure, brought on by some chronology-twisting editing and a deep love for drug-induced dream sequences. The fusion of these two disparate characteristics feels as deliberate as anything else on the show, as it underlines the conflicts at the center of the narrative by making it seem as though the series is at conflict with itself.
Those divergences are slow to fully reveal themselves, but thanks to key performances from Paul, Monaghan, and especially Dancy, they are also all there right from the very beginning. The first hour isn’t much for exposition, and as such drops the audience in the middle of a situation that is immediately unsettling. There are hints that the Meyerist movement is facing a crisis of sorts, as its leader Stephen Meyer (played by 2001‘s Keir Dullea) has been absent for some time, as he attempts to transcribe the finale three rungs of the groups’ doctrine – called The Ladder. In his stead is Dancy’s Cal, whose relationship with power is complicated to say the least. At the same time, Eddie’s crisis of faith comes after a group-sponsored sojourn to Peru – where Meyer currently resides – and a drug-induced hallucination leads him to conclude the outwardly benevolent movement may be harboring an inner darkness, just like its interim leader. Eddie’s crisis, then, leads to conflict with his wife, who was born into the movement and is as close a representation to a “true believer” as the show has to offer.
The tendency of The Path to wander in and out of its cult-focused conspiratorial narrative and its deep dives into the curious domesticity of a family profoundly entrenched in – but with varying levels of commitment to – such a movement can make the series feel somewhat scattered at first. But by eschewing the pull to be just one thing, Goldberg’s drama manages to amp up the unnerving, inscrutable quality that keeps the series interesting, even when it seems to be taking the long way around an otherwise straightforward journey. And while there are times when The Path feels as though its bouts of haziness might cause the whole thing to just lift up and float away, the distinct, lived-in, and oddly familiar familial interactions occurring in and around the Meyerist Movement acts as the anchor holding the whole thing securely in place.
It is the foundational aspects of the series – its convincing sense of place, the well-written dialogue, the talents of the ensemble cast – that make the slow-to-unfold narrative worth the viewers’ time. Some unhurried dramas can feel like a chore – especially in this television landscape increasingly disposed to providing bingeable entertainment – but The Path, with its distinctive and captivating blend of cult curiosity and domestic drama, serves up enough entertainment to make its slower pace feel worthwhile.
New episodes of The Path are available every Wednesday on Hulu.