The first thing you notice is the Eye, a tribal rendering of an orb that resembles a sun inside the middle of a circle. It's virtually everywhere: etched in wood outside meeting halls and headquarter offices, hanging framed on walls inside homes and prison-like "isolation" cells, adorning everything from communal teepees to recruitment pamphlets. The Aztec-like symbol is the mark of Meyerism, a controversial religious movement based in upstate New York; some might call it a cult. "It's the idea that 'your eyes have been opened, and now you've seen the truth,'" says Jessica Goldberg, the playwright and TV writer responsible for dreaming up the fictional faith's omnipresent logo. "But it's also: You're being watched. You're always being watched."
Enlightenment and paranoia — that's the duality at the center of Hulu's new drama The Path, which drops viewers into an on-the-fringe spiritual community complete with an enigmatic founder and mystic mumbo-jumbo jargon. Specifically, it follows three Meyerists in crisis: Cal (Hugh Dancy), a high-ranking lieutenant in a power struggle to become the public face of the organization; Eddie (Aaron Paul), who's belief system is shaken after a disturbing, hallucinogenic vision on a retreat; and his wife Sarah (Michelle Monaghan), a lifelong member who thinks the outside world is corrupting her son and is confused by her spouse's sudden remoteness. In many ways, the trio could be anybody dealing with modern life, insecurity, bad choices and a broken marriage. They just happen to belong to a growing "religious" organization perched on a slippery moral slope that doesn't take kindly to having its tenets questioned. (The first two episodes premiered on the streaming service Wednesday night; the rest of the series will be doled out one episode a week.)
"I mean, I had a childhood fascination with alternative social experiments," Goldberg says. "I grew up in Woodstock, and there were a lot of hippies around still. Every block had a crystal shop; my boss at the video store I worked at was a Jewish man who had become a Sufi. It wasn't like I was intent on writing a show about cults. But there was a point recently where, within a year, I lost my dad and got divorced, and suddenly had this huge existential crisis. What happens when one day you look at your life, and you don't believe in it anymore? I needed a frame to talk about these things — and that's when I just started inventing this heightened world."
She wrote the pilot on the sly, eventually taking the completed script to Jason Katims, the executive producer behind shows such as Boston Public, Friday Night Lights and Parenthood, for feedback; the next thing she knew, he'd signed on as well. Once they started shopping around the idea, however, they were were met with blank stares. "Look, it's not an easy sell," Goldberg says, laughing. "People hear the word cult and they run to the hills. But Hulu had gotten a hold of my script, they knew Jason could put together a show, and I think they wanted to make their mark in terms of edgy programming. To have a network say like, 'Be bold, be weird, let people be ugly. Slow things down. It's okay if things are slow' ... this is what you want to hear as a writer."
"The only thing they did say," she continues, "was that their involvement was going to be cast-contingent." Goldberg lets the silence hang on the phone line for a good 10 seconds. "I think it's safe to say they got a much bigger cast than they were expecting."
It's one thing to assemble a heavy-hitting group of actors; it's another thing entirely to say that your three main characters are played by veterans of Breaking Bad, Hannibal and True Detective's groundbreaking first season. Having all come off of critically acclaimed, how-do-you-top-that? series, however, none of them were looking to jump back in to another TV drama right away. Monaghan admits that being on the initial run of HBO's anthology series "kind of ruined of me, because where do you go from there?" while Dancy had received the script in a daze "as Hannibal had literally just been cancelled. It arrived the day I was informed, so I was just beginning to mourn the loss of the show and all that went with it. But when I started to think about, okay, what would I like to do next, the first thing that came to mind was doing something just as character-driven but in a less stylized world. Hannibal takes place in what might as well be an alternate universe. This felt like it existed in a recognizable place."
Paul echoes his cast mates' sentiments regarding a sense of anxiety in following up what had been a career high. "I don't know if you know this, but I had just finished doing this other TV show — I was told a few people saw it," he jokes. "Obviously, I got really lucky with it, and while TV has given me a career, I had no idea when I would want to do another series. This just kind of came out of nowhere. I grew up in a very religious household. My father was a Southern Baptist minister — and a lot of people thought we were crazy, you know? So the notion of looking at what constitutes an accepted religion or spiritual movement versus what gets labeled a cult ... I was in."
In fact, Goldberg says that she purposefully wanted to blur the lines between what constitutes a respected organization versus an exploitative (or downright dangerous) spirituality-based scam when she set out to create "a religion from scratch." She and her writing team stayed away from "obviously cult-y" things like polygamy or rampant sexual abuse, and cherry-picked elements of Orthodox Judaism, Mormonism, Islam, and various other Christian and Eastern religions; a Meyerist might go on a long marathon walk à la St. Ignatius as well as taking ayahuasca in search of visions. When cast members first arrived on set, they were presented with a primer — what Monaghan calls "a Bible of sorts for Meyerism. It told you what the rules were, the vocabulary these people use was: what's an IP or a denier? Were they vegetarian or vegan? Do they all drive a Prius? That sort of thing."
Given that Meyerism also features electronic devices to measure self-defeating spirits and a recruitment book written by a charismatic all-knowing leader, there's the temptation to think that The Path is specifically representing one much-contested faith in particular. ("Let the record show that I have no idea what you're referring to," Paul says, laughing.) "I mean, we've all seen or heard of a certain documentary," Monaghan declares, referring to Going Clear, Alex Gibney's takedown of the Church of Scientology. "We all knew that people might naturally make comparisons. But Jessica purposefully didn't want this to be a show that says, 'Well, this is what it's like to be a Scientologist, or a Mormon, or a Catholic.' It’s much more about the unknown behind most religions — what’s going on behind that door, and why is that door closed in the first place?"
"I mean, there are no celebrities or aliens in Meyerism," Goldberg says when asked. "But I get it. Our focus is much wider than one or two movements, though. None of them have a lock on crazy, and all of them speak to a need in people. I'm more interested in why we gravitate towards these movements, and what happens when they stop fulfilling that need."
In the end, that need to feel tapped into a spiritual higher power — even if said faith feels weird and threatening to outsiders — is what makes The Path feel more universal than a documentary-style portrait-of-a-cult-member story. (That, and the recognizable primetime dramatics involving dead bodies, sexual improprieties, undercover cops, flawed protagonists and boundary-pushing teens. It has as much in common with network shows as it does cable-based prestige dramas.) Folks may not identify with the Meyerists' notions of "ascend the ladder" transcendence and rather left-of-center doctrine, but almost anybody can relate to their yearning for something to believe in.
"There's a scene later on in this season," Katims says, "that takes place in a recruitment office that Cal is visiting. We were shooting in Westchester, and the art department dressed up the storefront with fake posters, brochures and hats for Meyerism. And before we started shooting, while we were blocking a scene, people would wander in and want to know what was going on. Not what were we filming; what the movement was, and how they could join! It was at that moment that I realized we really were on to something bigger. People were ready to sign up on the spot."
Although, you can never discount the power of branding when launching a new sect. "Maybe they were just curious about the big eye everywhere," he muses. "It is a cool-looking symbol for a movement."