Some free advice: If you ever find yourself defensively reminding people that you’re not in a cult, you’re probably in a cult. This comes up early and often in The Path, Hulu’s new series premiering on March 30, not that any adherents of the fictional Meyerist Movement seem fazed by how outsiders perceive their gated, self-sufficient community. The show’s arrival is timely: What better subject in the binge-watching era than a cult? Both promise more of what you seek so long as you pledge your undivided attention; before you know it, you’re in too deep and have no choice but to finish what you started.
The Path’s three most important members represent a full spectrum of belief: Eddie (Aaron Paul) is a potential apostate; his wife, Sarah (Michelle Monaghan), is a dyed-in-the-wool devotee; and Cal (Hugh Dancy) is the charismatic leader whose true aims are known only to himself. The hierarchy gets blurry beyond Cal, who heads the Upstate New York compound where much of this takes place. Meyerism’s messianic founder, known as the Guardian of Light, is said to be off in Peru transcribing the rest of something called “the Ladder.” That’s also where, at show’s beginning, Eddie has just returned from a retreat and suffered a crisis of faith — though we don't yet know what exactly planted these seeds of doubt.
The center isn’t holding, but that doesn’t stop Eddie from going through the motions. The Path makes his routine seem mellow enough at first — woo-woo and crunchy, sure, but these people aren’t exactly preaching about the endtimes. The wordy, pre-dinner equivalent of a prayer delivered by Eddie and Sarah’s extended family mostly involves sending positive energy to the victims of a recent natural disaster, whom they’ve taken in. The line between commune, compound and cult gets ever blurrier throughout the first several episodes, however, with scattered hints that something is amiss: A parent is described as “6R,” the hallucinogenic ayahuasca is the active ingredient in “the medicine,” the Meyerist logo of an eye is a bit too all-seeing.
But it's easy to imagine a certain kind of person getting swept up in the group’s ideals before consciously absorbing the underlying strangeness. No one joins such a cause because they’re happy, of course, and the Meyerists run the gamut of vulnerable targets: addicts, children of broken homes, school-shooting victims. The movement is just old enough for some of its members to have been born into it, never knowing anything else, and these minds are as valuable to the upper brass as they are impressionable. Eddie and Sarah’s teenage son Hawk (Kyle Allen) is one of these, but, thanks to the pernicious influence of a girl at school, he begins questioning his entire worldview after being introduced to the evils of cheese fries, making out and iPods. (“We're not allowed to play video games,” he says when asked whether he likes Arcade Fire.)
To the show’s credit, the Meyerists’ insider terms are never laid out in a bland, expository way. We aren’t treated like novitiates being handed a brochure. Instead, The Path piques curiosity and makes the eventual realization that you’re beginning to understand what it all means frightening rather than comforting — Oh, you think. That’s how they get you. Through immersion, Meyerism’s own internal logic starts to make sense. The Path rarely gives us the benefit of looking at this movement from the outside in, patting ourselves on the back for being far too well-adjusted to ever be seduced by its promises of truth and understanding; it has us roam through the compound and get a feel for the day-to-day. “I.S.,” the term they use to describe outsiders? Its definition isn’t even mentioned in passing until the sixth episode.
The show itself starts at around a 7R, occupying that not-quite-there status shared by a lot of fledgling prestige TV. But it gets more confident and compelling as it zeroes in on the way that, when almost any institution reaches a certain size and attains a degree of power, it exists primarily to perpetuate itself. Meyerism's members are cogs in a larger machine, and the big-picture thinkers at the top are tasked with keeping their underlings distracted from the ever-mounting fear that, no matter how high you ascend that ladder, whatever you’re trying to out-climb will never be more than a few rungs beneath you.