We’ve been hyped for The Path for awhile—you know it landed on our most anticipated TV round-up this year. Executive produced by Jessica Goldberg and Jason Katims, the show’s pre-release buzz saw reddit threads humming with rumors that it would be loosely based on 2015’s award-winning documentary Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief. Goldberg was quick to shut down any comparison, saying instead that the writers invented their own cult-like community for purposes of creative freedom. "It wouldn’t allow us the same sort of storytelling opportunities if we put it into something that already existed," she said during a Television Critics Association's press tour. But fabricated as it may be, The Path—starring Breaking Bad alum Aaron Paul opposite True Detective’s Michelle Monaghan—certainly bears striking similarities to some shared experiences of former cult members.
We’re introduced to The Path’s Meyerist Movement by way of a natural disaster in New Hampshire, a catastrophe that wiped out an already low-income community with little resources for such a devastation. In the aftermath, we watch a wayward heroin addict (Emma Greenwell) forage for a fix, a man search desperately for a lone surviving picture of his late wife, and a visibly wounded woman cry out for help as she cradles a screaming baby in her arms. Just beyond the horizon, as if by some miraculous calling, nondescript white vans carrying handfuls of non-governmental volunteers move in. Offering water, resources, and first aid to the affected citizens, the Meyerist Movement is depicted as a well intentioned and benevolent organization not unlike the Red Cross. Led by the charismatic Cal Robertson (Hugh Dancy) though, it’s not until later we learn there’s something more sinister lingering just below the movement’s orderly facade.
Mild spoilers ahead, for those who've yet to watch (which you should do immediately).
The Meyerist Movement is founded on a belief system called "the Ladder," which follows the path of light to salvation in a distant post-apocalyptic future—a common thread in the doomsday belief systems of IRL cults like Heaven's Gate, Peoples Temple, and many iterations of extremist religious sects. The movement ("It’s not a cult," members frequently clarify) is presented as one that preys on individuals bereft of purpose, typically former addicts or those with nowhere else to turn. One of the Meyerists’ newest and most devoted followers, Mary Cox (Greenwell) is taken into their Upstate New York commune (because of course) following her rescue from the New Hampshire wreckage. It’s quickly discovered that Mary is an addict by Meyerist physicians, who assist her with a regimented rehabilitation of prescription medication, proper rest, and cathartic garden work. Also a sexual abuse survivor, Mary is introduced to compassion, support, and kindness she never received in her former life.
In reality, the type of person targeted by real world cults are often much more aspirations, says Daniel Shaw, a psychoanalyst and private practice psychotherapist in New York, who frequently works with former members of extremist or cultic groups. And he would know, too—Shaw is a former member of a cult-like iteration of Siddha Yoga, which he left in the 1990s. "There are various cult followers that tend to fall into a hierarchical system, so the most desirable followers will be the most intelligent, personable, and attractive people. Those will be the individuals cult leaders are looking for—charismatic, educated, attractive people—and that will vary depending on the cult," Shaw tells me. These individuals are often middle class young people, college-educated, and "usually somebody pursuing or already involved in a professional career" he adds.
Where this comes to make sense, he says, is that these are people who have come to a point in their lives when they’re seeking some greater purpose. "Nobody’s looking to join a cult," he says. "They’re thinking they want to join a community that will help them grow in some way, or to which they can make some kind of contribution that feels meaningful. They will only come to realize they have gotten involved in a cult if they leave it at some point."
And that’s precisely the point reached by the show’s protagonist Eddie Lane (Aaron Paul), who suffers a crisis of faith following a Meyerist retreat. During his retreat in Peru to reach the sixth of rung of enlightenment, Eddie’s dosed with potent, Meyerist-approved Ayahuasca (a tactic Shaw claims often occurs among active cults in real life). Eddie’s trip unveils troubling revelations about the movement’s founder, Dr. Steven Meyer, who’s rumored to be on leave, while he transcribes the Ladder’s last three rungs. This spiritual unrest sets the tone for much of the rest of the season, unleashing a series of events that result from Eddie’s attempts to conceal his doubt from his family and fellow Meyerists. Eddie goes as far as to admit to his wife’s suspicions of an affair, implicating an innocent movement member in the process.
In Meyer’s absence, Cal—something of an adopted son to Steven Meyer—becomes the de facto leader of the movement’s commune. With unbounding charisma (at least as he projects it), Cal bears a likeness to the many infamous cult leaders of the 20th century—a fucked up hybrid of Charles Manson, Jim Jones, and Marshall Applewhite. If there’s one thing the show did well, it’s cast Hugh Dancy (formerly of Hannibal) in the role of a sociopath with a god complex. "Without followers the leader really is nothing and nobody," explains Shaw. "And the leader is often actually a person who could become psychotic if they were unable to maintain their power over other people." We see this in Cal’s delicate tap dance for control over the lives of each of the movement’s members in his orbit. It’ll no doubt offer some fodder for plot-thickening as the whereabouts of Dr. Meyer are revealed.
The Ladder’s rungs of elite Meyerist knowledge are likely going to to be an integral part of the cult’s power dynamic. One of the most important parts of a cult leader’s ability to maintain control, says Shaw, is an ultimate quest for an end goal, forever just out of reach. "They can be religious, in which case usually enlightenment, purity, or purification is the goal. They can also be business orienting, in which case wealth is often the goal; or they can be multi-level marketing groups, and again, success and wealth is the goal," says Shaw. "But usually it’s about supporting the leader of the cultic group." On the show, this manifests with the Ladder’s yet-untranscribed final rungs and Cal’s perceived ability to keep the movement afloat without them.
Fabricated or not, in its immediate portrayal of the real manifestations of cults, The Path wavers, but reflects truth in many ways. And notions of veracity aside, it makes for great television.