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Review: Hulu’s Compelling Cult Drama ‘The Path’ Starring Aaron Paul, Hugh Dancy & Michelle Monaghan

Review: Hulu's Compelling Cult Drama 'The Path' Starring Aaron Paul, Hugh Dancy & Michelle Monaghan

The foundation of faith is belief, but that bedrock can easily be shaken by doubt. And within the confines of certain religious strictures, doubt is an indication of moral failure, a step away from a personal relationship with God and the religious community at large. For some, that stumble leads to an inward journey that eventually sees them recommit to their faith and their God. But for others, that initial feeling of misgiving is the tentative start in moving away from a faith they perhaps never fully committed to in the first place. And it’s that latter scenario that marks the intriguing starting point of Hulu’s “The Path,” an engaging new drama series that investigates the turmoil that brews at the intersection of uncertainty, devotion, and the quest for power.

Aaron Paul leads the series as Eddie Lane, who married into the Meyerist Movement of which his wife Sarah (Michelle Monaghan) and her family have been lifelong members. The fictional following traces its roots to the ‘60s when their founder Dr. Stephen Meyer (Keir Dullea) had “the ladder” revealed to him, and has spent the time since transcribing the “rungs” which form the foundation of the movement’s teachings. However, as we learn at the top of the series (the entire first season was sent to press), Dr. Meyer has been squirreled away in insolation, where he’s said to be working on the final three rungs, which will be of key importance when The Future arrives (sort of a less threatening version of The Rapture). In the interim, Cal (Hugh Dancy) has stepped into the leadership role on the Meyerists’ upstate New York compound, but nothing is as simple as it seems.

Indeed, the Meyerists don’t like the label “cult,” though their rules make it difficult to operate outside of the group. Very much like Scientology, which the show’s writers were clearly influenced by, faith is measured by how far up the ladder you’ve ascended, or how many rungs (Rs) you’ve climbed in your spiritual education (not unlike OTR levels). A process known as Unburdening is akin to Auditing, which through the process of a confessional, negative energy and emotions are expelled. E-meter like devices are used to stimulate health, those outside the group are designated IS (ignorant systemite) or if you leave the group, you’re a Denier (again, not unlike a Suppressive Person). And this latter category is most threatening to Eddie, because if you’re a Denier, all contact with Meyerist friends and family is immediately severed.

Thus when the season begins, the anguish that Eddie feels is one that he’s been keeping secret. During a Meyerist retreat to Peru, in the midst of a chemically induced high, he stumbles across the sickbed of Dr. Stephen Meyer, who is dying from cancer, and not translating the rungs as Eddie and everyone else has been told. It rocks his world to the point that he begins doing clandestine research about the Meyerists which leads him to Alison Kemp (Sarah Jones), a former member turned Denier, following the death of her husband, which was ruled a suicide, though she believes he was murdered at the hands of the movement’s followers. It’s a lot to take in for Eddie who has built a rewarding life within the Meyerist movement, putting his own dark past behind him, getting married, and raising a family. And he’s torn between uncovering the truth and remaining willfully and ignorantly agnostic, going through the motions for the greater good.

And this struggle is the main thread of what unfolds into a fascinatingly knotty look at the quandaries of the devout in a system that becomes corrupted. Created by Jessica Goldberg (“Parenthood”) who also executive produces alongside Jason Katims (“Friday Night Lights,” “Parenthood”) the series presents the Meyerists as a complicated collection of people, many of whom are leading fulfilling lives, and taking pride in the good work they do beyond their gates in the outside world. When “The Path” kicks off, Cal is leading the charge in rescuing the survivors of a tornado, and bringing them back to their compound for care. However, while the larger sentiment may be noble, he’s craftily using the rescue for his own power grab, as he seeks to take the Meyerists, who have long kept out of the public eye, into the spotlight in a bid for legitimacy. But this also puts the group on the radar of FBI investigator Abe Gaines (Rockmund Dunbar) who believes there is something more sinister going on. And soon, “The Path” is unraveling an intriguing array of subplots as Eddie’s anxious behavior gets noticed, Cal’s motivations become clearer, and the dirt under the fingernails of the Meyerists (notably Cal) becomes more pronounced. However, the show’s most resonant theme of spiritual uncertainty is realized most movingly through the unlikeliest character.

Hawk (Kyle Allen), Eddie and Sarah’s son, is fifteen years old, and has followed every rule in the Meyerist book since he was born. He’s the picture-perfect child, and he’s eager to say his vows on his fast approaching sixteenth birthday, solidify his Meyerist bond (think of it as similar to Christian confirmation), and leave high school where his beliefs already make him something of an outcast. That’s the plan until he meets an IR girl, Ashley (Amy Forsyth). And what develops between them and the arc of how it plays out is beautifully realized, perhaps not a surprise given that Katims knows the authentic voice of teenage relationships thanks to “Friday Night Lights.” But Hawk’s genuine anguish at feeling real love for someone he’s been told all his life would hinder his spiritual growth, coupled with not wanting to disappoint his parents, and a genuine fear of losing his loved ones should he be branded a Denier is wonderfully complex, and Allen gives a raw, wrought and powerful performance of a teenager, perhaps too innocent for his age, facing a dilemma that’s far beyond his years.

Elsewhere, the trio of lead performances are very good, with Monaghan arguably the best of the bunch. Modulating between devastation at her husband’s potential transgression and a distinctly terrifying stickler for the rules of Meyerism, Sarah emerges as a woman who will desperately cling to the life she has fashioned even as the hard realities of what’s really behind the curtain of the movement and her husband’s doubts come to light. Paul is a strong foil to Monaghan, with his Eddie continually trying to walk a tightrope that’s quickly evaporating beneath him, while Dancy’s Cal offers an interesting portrait of manipulation in the character’s bid for control of an organization whose spiritual and financial potential remains untapped. And shoutout to Kathleen Turner for a strong midseason guest spot as well.

However, the talent on camera isn’t always supported by the material. “The Path” can offer wobbly pacing at times, and storylines sometimes unfold predictably rather than with satisfying surprise twists. And some subplots are just plain baffling. Easily the worst, and perhaps most disposable, follows Cal’s involvement with Mary (Emma Greenwell), an abuse survivor, rescued from the aforementioned tornado, who becomes something of a physical plaything for the leader. It’s a thread that spins its wheels and since we’re already shown other examples of Cal’s self-centered ruthlessness and his legitimate weaknesses, it’s not quite clear why Greenberg and Katims keep returning to that story.

On a technical level, while “The Path” pushes the sexual and violent edge that a streaming service like Hulu will allow, in all other regards, it’s rather unspectacular. The look is still very network TV, with little pizazz on the visual front. However, the score by Will Bates is quite notable, brushing at times with Hans Zimmer’s finest hours, ably capturing the tenor of tense unease that ripples through the series.

While “The Path” is entertaining fare, and often thought provoking, it just misses on being truly enriching. However, it’s a series that gets its hooks in quick (no waiting for six or seven episodes for the wheels to start turning) and offers more narrative directions than you might expect. While not quite ready to be branded a cult favorite, “The Path” may still have you finding religion. [B]

“The Path” debuts on Hulu on Wednesday, March 30th.

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