Hulu’s effort to establish itself as a big-time purveyor of original content kicked off in earnest earlier this year with the release of 11.22.63, a just-OK alt-history miniseries connected to various splashy names: James Franco, Stephen King, JFK. Starting Wednesday, Hulu debuted The Path, a much better drama also linked to various splashy names, including the splashiest of all: Scientology. The Path, produced by Friday Night Lights’ Jason Katims, co-stars Aaron Paul, Michelle Monaghan, and Hugh Dancy as three senior members of the Meyerist Movement, a religious cult that is not exactly Scientology but is close enough to provide Scientology-adjacent frisson.
The Path is set in upstate New York, on and around the compound of the Meyerist Movement, a religion begun by a war vet named Stephen Meyer. Meyerism was born in the hippie era: Acoustic guitars are at every gathering, and psychedelic drugs, particularly ayahuasca, play an important role in members leveling up the “ladder” toward “the light.” Meyerism has communes across the country, but it is still small and young, eschewing outside attention.
As the show begins, Cal (Dancy), the unofficial acting leader of the movement and a deeply troubled, charismatic alcoholic, has ambitions to grow the church. In the show’s opening scene—which is unrepresentatively cheap and silly looking—Cal and other Meyerists arrive at a tornado disaster site in New Hampshire before the Federal Emergency Management Agency bringing water and aid. Cal is close with Sarah Lane (Monaghan), who was born into the church, is one of its senior members, and acts as an adviser and drug counselor. (Meyerism, like Scientology, offers rehab services.) Sarah’s husband, Eddie (Paul), has just returned to her and their two children from a spiritual retreat to Peru, where he had a drug-influenced experience that rocked his faith and drives the show’s plot.
Meyerism, like Scientology, is full of jargon. Meyerists do not pay to reach the next level of knowledge, but they are constantly trying to level up: Cal is a “10R”; Sarah an “8R”; Eddie went to Peru to become a “6R.” As with Scientology, members engage in intense and prolonged questioning sessions, though they are not called audits, sometimes while hooked up to devices that look like but are not called E-meters. People who are not Meyerists are called Ignorants, not Suppressive Persons. Leaving Meyerism is difficult and will get you labeled a Denier, with no rights to see your children.
The Meyerists have such a zero-tolerance policy toward religious doubt, it is easier for Eddie to pretend he is having an affair than to tell Sarah he is not sure the ladder is real. Eddie, after confessing to this fictional affair, has to spend 14 days “in-house,” going over what happened in mind-shattering detail, all while drinking a spiked, truth-telling “juice.” The woman he claims to have had an affair with—played by FNL’s Minka Kelly—denies it, and no one will believe her: She is essentially held prisoner, until she is brainwashed into admitting she did something wrong.
For all this, The Path is not focused on the ways that Meyerism—or Scientology or any religious cult—makes its members odd or other or dangerous. Rather, it is devoted to exploring the ways Meyerism meets its members’ all-too-human needs for purpose, certainty, and a sense of belonging. The Meyerists do good work; they aid the flailing, feed the lost, provide treatment for substance abuse. If its members sometimes revert to uplifting chatter full of Orwellian doublespeak and have the smug contentment of the brainwashed, Eddie and Sarah’s home life is warm and jovial, full of family dinners, gossip, and bonhomie. In this regard, Meyerism is like any zealously strict religious movement or well-functioning police state: Operating within the boundaries of what is acceptable, one feels safe.
Cal, Sarah, and Eddie are The Path’s three protagonists, and they each mark out a different quadrant on a matrix measuring devoutness and decency. Dancy, Paul, and Monaghan all act their tails off, but somehow Monaghan seems infinitely more mature than either of them. Cal is devout, but power hungry. His careerist ambitions are utterly tangled up with his ambitions for Meyerism. He listens to audiotapes about sales technique and animal communication in his car. When questioned, he gets violent. He has a creepy sexual rapport with newbie Meyerist Mary (Emma Greenwell), an abused addict who is probably better off with the cult than her pimp father but is only staying with the cult because of her and Cal’s perverse dynamic. Eddie, in contrast, is a good man but increasingly skeptical of Meyerist teachings, though not of the life and family Meyerism has brought him. This is unacceptable to Sarah, whose faith is so strong it occasionally trumps her decency: As she toggles between these two poles, she toggles between the two men.
One of Eddie and Sarah’s major points of conflict is their teenage son, Hawk (Kyle Allen. I would bet money he’s in the running for a superhero series in the next couple years, which I mean as a compliment; he’s very good.), who falls in love with a non-Meyerist girl. The thought that Hawk might leave the church distresses Sarah so much, it drives her to an awful rigidity. Simultaneously, the thought of what Cal’s missteps might do to the church concern her so much, they drive her to distasteful flexibility. The Path is not a rollicking Scientology takedown but a more measured, slow-building dismantling of the insidious accommodations required to maintain absolute religious certainty.