Saturday 4 February 2017

Cult Cinema #2: The Path, Season One (2016)

So after Sound of My Voice, which was pretty great,  I thought I'd do 1981 Moonies movie Ticket to Heaven, but that turned out to be a bit rubbish on every level, so I thought, maybe I'd give that a pass and do Season One of The Path instead.

Which is just as well, because The Path is more or less my perfect TV show.
Eddie has doubts.
Look, I'll be honest, very few of the things I've reviewed here in the last four months have been the sort of thing my Beloved likes watching. She's not into horror at all, and has quite a low tolerance for the sort of artsy dissonance that tends to excite me in media. On the other hand, we regularly put time aside to watch things together, and we'll have at any given time one show that we will watch together, and be able to talk about and think about. That's been Community, and Arrested Development, and Poldark, and Orphan Black and recently it's been The OA. And beginning of last week I introduced my Beloved to The Path, which is available on Amazon Prime here in the UK and Hulu in the US. And we've really been enjoying it. I'm enjoying it because it has a refreshingly clear-sighted view of hardline religions and sects. And my Beloved is enjoying it because it's got a strong dramatic strand centred around conflicts in a family.

The Path is about the Meyerists, a fictional New Religious Movement (never a cult, as their members continually remind us, not a religion, only a movement), as seen through the eyes of three individuals who work for it, and the people whose lives intersect with theirs.
Hawk, Sarah and Eddie.
The Meyerist Movement is in a period of transition. It's not spelled out until it's reasonable to do so, but sometime in the late 60s or early 70s, Dr Stephen Meyer (Keir Dullea of 2001: A Space Odyssey, playing the easiest role he's ever had, but more on that later) abandoned his job in US Army PsyOps (inspired, I think, by the First Earth Batallion stuff). He went on a long walk, and at the culmination of his journey, had a vision of a red-hot ladder and he climbed it, and wrote about the revelation of the Light that he had on the top of the ladder in a book that's just called The Ladder, and The Ladder inspired a movement.
The Light.
Now the impression is that originally this movement was kind of a disparate, freewheeling, peace and love sort of a thing. You can still see some of it. They're all vegetarian. They literally stopped listening to pop music when the hippie era ended (the Byrds were tied up with fringe religion for a bit, I recall, and maybe this is call back to that). You see the first generation members, the people who knew Doctor Meyer back in the day, smoking vast amounts of pot, appropriating Native South American shamanic practices, and just being old hippies: some are still more or less permanently stoned, some are a bit more corporate, a bit more serious and settled. One guy is deeply spiritual in ways that no longer gel with the movement as it's developed.

Meyer, presumably in trouble with the US authorities, set up a world HQ in Cusco, Peru, but his movement, the Meyerists, now has something like 6,000 members across the United States, with a big residential compound in New York State, where most of  the action in The Path happens.
The compound is beautiful, arboreal; it's full of allotments and beautiful houses and happy people who have families and friends, and who work allotments and hang out and hold down jobs and say slightly odd graces at their big happy family dinners.

Which are held in rooms that have large eye symbols hung on the walls. As all of their rooms do.
The family at dinner.
Eddie Lane (Aaron Paul) works as an evangelist. He's just achieved the Sixth Rung of the Ladder (6R) on a retreat in Cusco, but the vision he had there shook his faith to the core and he's beginning to have doubts.

Sarah (Michelle Monaghan), his wife, is 8R, and she's both more senior in terms of the faith, and more senior in her role in the movement. She's a cradle member of the group and is absolutely committed to the faith.

And Cal Roberts (Hugh Dancy), the 10R member responsible for East Coast operations, has a bit of a thing for Sarah – always has, in fact – and is concerned with making sure that, when Dr. Meyer dies, the next leader of the Meyerist movement will be him. The other leaders of the Meyerist movement, the first generation leaders, aren't happy with that.

But Meyer is dying. Cal keeps coming back from trips to Peru and he's telling the people in Meyerist movement back home how Dr Meyer is busy writing the Final Three Rungs of the Ladder, but the truth is that Meyer is dying of advanced pancreatic cancer and he's comatose, and has been for a while now, and he's not writing anything.
Meyer. Told you it was the easiest role ever.
Eddie's crisis stems from him having a vision in Cusco of his dead brother (whose death, we learn early on, precipitated the crisis that made him join the movement in the first place) who took him to the room where Meyer lay. Eddie has started to wonder if there really is a light. He has started to wonder if Meyerism is real. He contacts a former member of the group, Alison Kemp (Sarah Jones), to talk about it. And of course, he's starting to be furtive. Makes phone calls in the middle of the night. Keeps slipping out.

Sarah interprets his distance as his having embarked on an affair, and with no evidence whatsoever, concludes that it's with with an ex of his, Miranda Frank (Minka Kelly), who was also on the retreat. She's wrong, but she's absolutely convinced of it, both by her mother and her own fears.

And Eddie, accused of cheating on Sarah, does an entirely unexpected thing to anyone who isn't in a hardline religion: he admits to having an affair. He says, it's a fair cop, you got me, I did it, I'm sorry, and after some back and forth, finally agrees to go for a two-week programme where he's locked in a room, made to drink gallons of psychoactive herbal brew, and bullied into admitting his wrongdoing and committing himself anew to his vows.
In the Program.
This is what we take away: even knowing he's going to undergo two weeks of imprisonment and psychological torture, Eddie would rather admit to an untrue accusation of infidelity – and it's clearly, obviously untrue, any idiot can see that, he's crazy about his wife – than tell anyone he's lost his faith. Sexual infidelity is a less scary charge for him than apostasy.

Scarier still is that after Eddie's done on the Program, Miranda is taken from her house by Meyerist agents and locked in a room just like the one Eddie is in, until she also admits she had an affair.

This is the first real flag that for all their protests to the contrary the Meyerists really are a cult.

Meyerists believe in honesty... but that also means they're expected to "Unburden" themselves of sins and doubts and they have absolutely no concept of privacy, which on the one hand creates a sense of growing oppression with the knowledge that everyone knows what you're doing and what you did (which is horrible, and claustrophobic). On the other, this direct, probing honesty has people outside the sect finding them tactless and weird.

When people have doubts and leave, or they're kicked out, the Meyerists call them Deniers and forbid all contact with them... but still keep files on their whereabouts.    

Which is a thing the Scientologists do, and there's a bunch of things Meyerists do that Scientologists do (evangelise, work from a book that's as much self help as Scripture, hound leavers while ostracising them, use weird devices to check on their spiritual wellbeing) but there's also a bunch of things Meyerists do that Scientologists don't, and more than once characters explicitly say that the Meyerists are "not the Scientologists", a qualification perhaps inserted by writer Jessica Goldberg for fear of attracting the ire of that legendarily litigious sect.
Eddie and Sarah's sincere and decent son, Hawk (Kyle Allen), all of fifteen, has a subplot where he falls for Ashleigh (Amy Forsyth), an IS girl (that is, a girl who's not in the cult – it's not until episode six that we find out that this stands for "Ignorant Systemite", a term that implies all sorts of things about how the Meyerists see the world). Ashleigh's father died while DUI, and her mother has had a breakdown of sorts; Hawk's attraction to Ashleigh is coupled then with a genuine compassion for her family. At the same time, Hawk isn't allowed to have an IS girlfriend.

Hawk's relationship is ratted out to his parents by his more committed cousin Joy (Stephanie Hsu), and Joy gets unconditional praise for her actions from the family. Nonetheless, when Ashleigh's family get evicted from their home, Hawk convinces Eddie and Sarah to take them in for a few days.

And the working out of this is great drama, happening pretty much at the halfway point of the season. Up to this point, we've seen the cult from the inside, and for all the screwed up stuff, they've appeared as normal people doing weird stuff, as long as they're talking to each other. But now, in direct contact with the IS, you see how daft and frightening the things they do are. Ashleigh's mum sees the acts of charity they do and she's initially genuinely grateful, if a little bit freaked out. They even find her a job – with a Meyerist dentist. And then Ashleigh's mum sees it all close in on her and she runs, while the Meyerists who meet her use her tale of woe to assure themselves that the IS don't have compassion, are all hypocrites, are all dishonest.

And it's beautifully written and performed television, and it portrays with pinpoint accuracy the tension that religions that depend on personal commitment have between doctrine, ethics and practice.
Getting in before FEMA.
Hawk was brought up to believe that Meyerists help people in need. And they do! They value kindness. They don't discriminate against disabled people (a man with a disability holds a senior, respected place in the cult and he is represented impeccably as far as I can tell) and they're not homophobes.

Kindness is a core ethical teaching for them. At the same time, Hawk finds himself butting up against the doctrine that the IS are the people on the outside who because of their ignorance of the evil System they perpetuate, will bring the Future (what the Meyerists call the apocalypse) and who won't live in the Garden (Meyerist Heaven). And he finds himself having to face up to the fact that in practice Meyerists fear, distrust and judge the "Ignorant Systemites".

I really appreciated the weird jargon the Meyerists used, so similar to evangelical jargon in character, if not in content, and The Path is great for that, it really is, the way it's dropped into conversations without explanation and you just have a rough idea what it means based on context.

The Meyerists do disaster relief efforts, as in the first few minutes of the first episode, where they turn up and help the survivors of a tornado that hits a small town in New Hampshire. And they genuinely, sincerely do help, and want to help, and do a faster, better job of it than FEMA (which, let's face it, isn't all that hard) ...and at the same time pick up the vulnerable, traumatised people and enlist them as converts.

And it's a phenomenally intelligent and empathic piece of writing, because it pretty accurately shows how you can have a movement of kind, peace-loving individuals of sincere faith who are willing members of a predatory and exclusionary apocalyptic cult at the same time. These things are not mutually exclusive.

Cults don't recruit bad people. They recruit good people, and they recruit people who want to be better. Religious movements like this get their members to align their desire for goodness with the doctrines of the faith.

It goes like this: you want goodness; this is a movement made of good people; their doctrines are therefore the doctrines that good people believe.
The meter thing, the most obvious borrowing from the Scientologists.
And at some point, and this doesn't happen with everyone, because a lot of members of hardline religious groups never find themselves in a position to have to face it, you get to the crisis point where you have to decide between being good to people (that is, following the core doctrinal ethic of your religion) and following your faith (following the doctrine of your religion as practiced). Often this happens when one of your kids falls in love with an unbeliever.

And if you choose being good to people, if you choose love over doctrine, you're going to have to question if your faith is really all that good, and you're either going to have to embrace contradiction and remake that faith (and I did, and it cost me) or you have too leave that faith altogether. If you choose the religion, congratulations, you've become the sort of person who'll throw anyone under the bus for the sake of your beliefs. The ironic thing there is that if you're following a religion that teaches goodness, in prioritising your doctrine over goodness, you're actually losing sight of your religion. You hollow it out and wear it like a hat.

I suppose that what I'm saying is that The Path presents religion of this sort exactly as it really is. Because when Eddie's doubts finally surface, when he develops the courage later in the season to say, I still want to be part of this movement but I'm not sure about there actually being a Light, the people he loves, his wife and his in-laws and his friends, they throw him under the bus. They drive him right out.

Look, I'm still a practising member of a number of religions greater than zero; aged nineteen I had, as I've written before a couple of times, a sincere conversion experience and found myself among a pretty hardline group of conservative evangelical Christians. And I swiftly became uncomfortable with the way they would tell you that you made friends in order to evangelise; the way they said that if you were set for Glory, most of the people you knew weren't, and you should be guilty about that; the way that they confused certainty with faith (when in fact doubt relates to faith as fear does to courage); the way they drive you out and blame you for leaving: the way that friendships with outsiders exist only for recruitment; those things are represented in The Path with excruciating truthfulness.

So there's this part where Eddie is asked to stand in front of the assembled meeting and give a spiritual truth about his recent movement-mandated ordeal, only he speaks with honesty and gives an off-message truth, and it leaves the congregation cold: that made me squirm because that's actually happened to me in the past, and if you've never bared your heart publicly to a couple hundred people who you thought liked you, only to be met with blank, uncomfortable incomprehension from the assembly and some exquisitely thrown shade from the leadership right afterwards, let me tell you it is an unbelievably horrendous experience.
I didn't find the Movement. It found me.
The Meyerists' obsession with truth creates a kind of situational honesty. In fact, although honesty is given as a central core, among the Meyerists, just like it is with conservative evangelicals, you're only allowed to be honest about certain things at certain times. So for example, Sarah is "unburdening" all the time, while hiding the truths and fears that drive her by the end of the season into performing acts of monstrous hypocrisy. As when Sarah breaks into the home of her sister Tess, who left/was driven out of the movement years before, and handles all her stuff, until she finds something she can judge Tess for.
The hole.
Hypocrisy is a complex charge, made all the more so that it's often a crime you're unaware you're committing. And sure, the Meyerists talk about how little compassion the IS have, how rubbish organised religion is, and so on, when they're just as able to find excuses for their lack of compassion, and they are actually, you know, an organised religion.

Or will be. The Path is also about the generational survival of a fringe group, and how it becomes a religion proper beyond the death of its founder. Eventually leaders die, and someone has to take over, and you see people of the first generation sceptical of the way it's going to go, and one guy convinced that it's time to wind the movement up, and you see Cal Roberts make a (successful) power grab that even extends to his writing the Final Three Rungs of the Ladder himself.

Cal is a liar, an abuser, an alcoholic, who listens constantly to instructional lectures about body language and salesmanship when he's driving or running. He's a sincere believer but he'll do anything to be the chosen successor of Dr Meyer, even kill. And he uses Mary, the damaged young woman who's one of the tornado survivors and who becomes a cult member out of her obsession with Cal, as a vehicle for sexual release.

Mary (Emma Greenwell) is actually an important secondary character, the very first person we see on screen, and she gives a view of the cult as it appears to a new recruit, just as Ashleigh's family shows how it appears to the people on the outside. Mary becomes Cal's creature, even eventually marrying the young man he tells her to marry, and she is both victim and facilitator of several of Cal's most reprehensible actions.

While Sarah is an unconscious hypocrite, Cal is well aware of his failings.

But Cal believes he has a supernatural mandate, and when you have a supernatural mandate, you'll do anything. And as the first season of The Path concludes, hints of the supernatural begin to work their way into the story. And it's nothing inexplicable, just things hard to explain, visions and coincidences and prophetic dreams, but it mounts up, and again, it's like the way evangelical Christians really see a connectedness in the world, the way things seem to happen for them.

This connectedness even begins to touch outsiders and even enemies, such as Abe Gaines (Rockmond Dunbar), the FBI agent who is convinced something dirty is going on and who infiltrates the group and..
This is my soul.
I have to stop somewhere, but seriously I could write a book about this series. Season Two is being eked out an episode at a time on Amazon UK; I'm certain I'll have more to say when it's complete. So far, though, The Path is solid, satisfying dramatic television that succeeds in being absolutely true to its source material. It portrays why people are scared of groups like this, and why they leave, but also why they join and why they stay.

Folk horror enthusiasts will find much to commend it (and there's some genuine, bloody horror there in the home stretch, as well as plenty of creepy visions); it's the best sort of folk horror, the sort that's accidental.

I unconditionally love this series. If you want to know what being in a fringe religion is like without actually having to join one, The Path is the nearest you'll ever get.