Welcome to Meyerism, TV's newest cult — or should I say movement? That's what the characters on The Path call it, anyway.
The Meyerists live on a compound in upstate New York that looks an awful lot like a place you'd see in a Whole Foods catalog. They've got organic gardens, doctors on hand, and even soap bars engraved with the Meyerist insignia: an eye surrounded by a circle of flames. Oh, and let's not forget that they boast the impressive trio of Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad), Michelle Monaghan (True Detective), and Hugh Dancy (Hannibal) among their numbers. The Path is Hulu's latest drama, coming off the heels of 11.22.63, and it's clear they've invested a lot in its production.
Like the Meyerists, The Path could win converts through spectacle alone. Good thing, too: This pilot needs to both establish a religious movement and set the stage for intricate character drama, but doesn't fully succeed on either count. "What the Fire Throws" has a loose handle on Meyerism and a looser understanding of the show's key characters. But I'm eager to see more, so maybe I'm already drinking the Kool-Aid.
To be fair, the Meyerists do big gestures well. We first meet them in New Hampshire, speeding into the wreckage of a tornado with an armada of white vans. Mary (Emma Greenwell) tries to find her way through the debris. She finds Cal (Dancy, playing a variation of Hannibal's tortured Will Graham), the leader of the group, who's sporting a fitted T-shirt with a big fat Meyerist eye. He's immediately her savior. Neither of them will forget it.
Meanwhile, in upstate New York, the upstanding Meyerist couple Eddie (Paul) and Sarah Lane (Monaghan) treat their guests to homemade dinner. They have two children with Park Slope–ready names: a little girl, Summer, and a 15-year-old boy, Hawk. Eddie has just returned from a retreat in Peru and he's drinking wine with marked frustration. Back in the kitchen, Sarah's sister-in-law suggests that Eddie may have had a Peruvian love affair. Honesty seems to be the policy in this cult; no one minces their words.
After dinner, Eddie and Sarah face off in the bedroom. He keeps getting texts from an unknown number and attempts to leave. Sarah corners him, luring him away from some secret rendezvous and back into the bed for sex. We know frustratingly little about Sarah, but Monaghan quickly gives her impressive authority.
The refugees from New Hampshire begin to arrive in the Meyerist compound, which is covered in eye insignia. The movement feels like a stew of new-age organizations like Esalen and EST, with a hearty dollop of Scientology on the side. Each member has reached a level within the group: Sarah and Cal are no less than 8R; Eddie's trip was for 6Rs. The Meyerists also have a L. Ron Hubbard–like leader named Dr. Steven Meyer, who is allegedly hard at work in Peru translating the last three rungs of the Ladder, a religious text reminiscent of Buddhism's Noble Eightfold Path. Steven's backstory seems to involve military experiments — at least according to a gruesome picture book Eddie reads to Summer. He's supposedly so pure, he's surrounded by light at all times, like a sentient star.
We pick up most of these details in passing, while Mary makes her way through the compound. She meets Sean, a smiley novice with a crush on her. She gets treatment for drug withdrawal. But mostly, she wants to know more about Cal. When she was a kid, Mary's father sold her to other men. She dreamed of a guardian angel who would save her. She tracks down Cal in his office, then strips in front of him. She seems to suggest — though The Path doesn't give her much depth beyond the stock characterizations of a victim — that she belongs to him, and he deserves to have her. Cal admits he wants Mary, gets on his knees … and then pulls up her dress. Her pain won't go away that easily. He's going to teach her to work through it.
Cal, by the way, has a long-time crush on Sarah, who passed him over for Eddie when they were kids. This comes out in a clunky exchange between him and Sarah after she arrives in the camp (in her Prius, of course). I get that the Meyerists like to tell the truth, but do they always have to speak in such expository ways? Eddie, for instance, delivers a lecture to the New Hampshire recruits about his road to Meyerism: He used to be a drug addict, and he was totally reliant on his brother Johnny. When Johnny hung himself with an extension cord, the tragedy sent Eddie into the arms of the movement. Aaron Paul navigates the speech well — he certainly plays a good addict — but just like Mary's backstory, there's a lot of telling and not much to show for it.
Sarah, who was born into the cult and welcomed Eddie to it, is his savior the same way that Cal is Mary's. This creates tension with Cal, who straddles the line between empathy and condescension for Eddie. The trend continues: Cal holds Sarah up as a mythic figure, the girl he loved, a pillar of fortitude in the faith.
The cycle of adulation between these characters didn't bother me as much as the dialogue; it seems emblematic of what happens when people live with radical beliefs. If you commit to a cult, you have to believe that people can be more than themselves. Given the pain he carries, Eddie needs structure to survive.
Which brings us to his Peru trip, during which he spun out on ayahuasca with the help of a woman named Miranda (Minka Kelly), saw a vision of his brother, and followed that vision to a mysterious doorway. After Peru, Eddie has spun into doubt. At a local library, he searches the web for the truth about Meyerism. On a site that appears to be Geocities circa 2002, he finds a phone number. He texts the number, which leads to the covert messages he's hiding from Sarah, as well as secret trips out of the house.
Sarah, meanwhile, seems to have caught wind of his undercover activities, though she thinks he's having an affair. Late at night, as Eddie drives off to a motel to meet this voice of truth, Sarah follows and watches in the distance. It's hard to watch this couple fall apart so quickly, and harder still knowing that Eddie's transgression is much deeper than Sarah realizes.
The source of all things anti-Meyerist is Alison (Sarah Jones), who seems to be on the run from the movement. During their meeting, Alison doesn't give up any secrets just yet. Instead, she asks Eddie what he saw behind the doorway. His answer: Dr. Steven Meyer, hooked up to life support, a python coiling and uncoiling over his chest. Steve is decidedly not divine.
As Cal puts it in the grand sermon that precedes Eddie's revelation, people need stories to survive. Cal tells this through a cheesy, yet effective reading of Plato's Allegory of the Cave: We build an understanding of the world based on what we see (the shadows on the wall of the cave), but we resist when someone tries to free us from those fictions with the truth (the light outside the cave). If you believed in the light, like Eddie did, and then discovered it doesn't exist, the people who "liberated" you suddenly look a lot like captors. A faith that insists on absolutes can't accommodate nuance and doubt.
The Path certainly has room for both, though we've only seen broad strokes so far. In a scene intercut with Cal's grand speech, we see him wake Mary up in the middle of the night and take her to confront her father. Cal demands that he apologize to Mary for his abuse. Her father refuses. Cal starts throwing punches. The man's face gets bloodied. All the while, Mary looks at Cal with awe, ignoring the red flags. She sees him as her guardian angel. Eddie may have lost it, but she has found the light.
- Amid the flurry of exposition, I almost forgot to mention Eddie and Sarah's son, Hawk, who's four months away from starting his trip up the Ladder. Until then, he has to stay in high school, where he sits at the "cultists" lunch table Tina Fey forgot to mention in Mean Girls. Of course, there's a cute non-cult girl who smiles at him, which means we'll probably see some teenage rebellion soon enough. I'm not too excited, because a) that potential plot seems like it could be redundant with Eddie's arc, and b) TV teens are always exhausting.
- After Sarah decides that Eddie had an affair in Peru, she insists that they do "the Program" together to get over his "transgression." Whatever the Program is, it doesn't sound fun.
- Aside from the novice who greets Mary and a few guests at the Lane's dinner party, the Meyerist movement is remarkably white. Yes, the hippie-farmer-meets-yoga-mom demographic that comprises the cult is very white, but I hope The Path finds a way to see their world from the outside. What is with the relationship to Peruvian culture? Are the rungs grounded in an indigenous faith? And what about the shamans who serve up ayahuasca? Are they also part of the movement, or is this a side gig for them?
- A short list of ways the Meyerist movement is super crunchy granola: Cal carries a giant Nalgene and has a pull-up bar in his house; everyone appears to be vegetarian (possibly vegan); aforementioned branded soap; hybrid cars; Eddie's daughter wears tie-dye; after dinner, Eddie's friends casually pass around a joint.