Hulu’s ‘The Path’ Is Totally About Scientology, But That’s Not What Makes It So Compelling

The creator of Hulu’s The Path, playwright and former Parenthood writer Jessica Goldberg, insists her show is not about Scientology

That’s true, up to a point. The “movement” known simply as Meyerism, after its founder, is smaller and earthier than Scientology. There are no Celebrity Centers, no huge, tacky buildings erected confrontationally in major cities. Meyerism is a humbler faith, headquartered at rural compounds and mountain outposts in San Diego, upstate New York, and Peru. Its members are strict vegetarians; its “gatherings” look like old-school revival meetings, not the blinged-out Illuminati summits of David Miscavige. And in a line that says, “Are you happy now, Legal?!,” one FBI agent even brings up the S-word only for the other to deny the comparison.

But The Path is a show about cult psychology, and as the richest, most famous, and longest-lasting faith to emerge from midcentury America’s frantic search for meaning before we learned to channel our spiritual panic into more capitalistic, and thus more palatable, enterprises like yoga and the modern tech industry, Scientology is an undeniable influence. On their climb up “The Ladder” to spiritual enlightenment, Meyerists are divided into numbered “rungs” that essentially correspond to clearance levels; by the time a member has earned their right to advance, they’re immersed enough that they’re primed to accept whatever improbable revelation awaits on the other side, whether it’s about thetans or the healing properties of ayahuasca. Meyerists gauge their spiritual states using pseudoscientific machines that look like a cross between Scientologist “auditing” tools and a game of Operation. And because this is a prestige drama, and the first attempt at one from a growing streaming service at that, there’s a lingering sense that Meyerism’s outward expressions of peace and acceptance might belie a less forgiving, and more violent, attitude towards those who cross its invisible lines.

Even without the obvious real-world analog, though, Meyerism already provides a near-perfect setting for a television drama. Where comedies, or at least sitcoms, tend to aim for the universal — even the specificity of shows like Fresh Off the Boat or The Carmichael Show seems designed to add to their resonance — dramas train their sights on the unusual; the more alienated their characters’ lives and beliefs are from those of a show’s audience, the better. It’s a formula that uses television’s length to its advantage, steeping us in the norms of organized crime or ’60s corporate chauvinism or high school football worship until their participants stop being case studies and start being recognizably human. (Friday Night Lights, one of the best-executed examples of this approach, shares an executive producer with The Path — and Parenthood — in Jason Katims.) And there are few things less recognizable to consumers of American popular culture than the self-isolation of a fully immersed cult member.

Like Big Love, a show Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff recently praised for expressing “the appeal of fundamentalist religion better than any other in the history of American television,” The Path finds its way into one of America’s most peculiar institutions through one of its most familiar: the nuclear family. We open on a man leading a pre-meal prayer that, with its talk of bodily vessels to be left behind in the not-too-distant future, isn’t so far removed from standard- issue Christian dualism. The man is Eddie (Aaron Paul), who’s returned from his retreat at the Meyerist mothership in Cusco with some serious doubts about both its founder, whose “writing lockdown” to finish his scripture has begun to run suspiciously long, and his teachings. But the extended family he’s hosting belongs to his wife Sarah (Michelle Monaghan), a woman born and raised into a group of Meyerism’s longest-standing, and highest-ranking, believers.

The fault lines that emerge in their marriage once Sarah senses something’s amiss — though, tellingly, the idea of doubt is so alien to her, she defaults to infidelity — turn into chasms with the return of Cal (Hugh Dancy), the childhood sweetheart she left for Eddie who’s grown into a high-ranking leader. We’re told by Sarah that Cal has always been charismatic, but that’s not what we’re shown; Cal’s inviting, yet dominant public face is one that’s carefully honed, often with cheesy audiobooks on leadership he plays in his car. In private, he’s both more calculating and more vulnerable, making him more Frank Underwood than Lancaster Dodd. Cal the leader is principled and aloof. Cal the person is petty and insecure, passive-aggressively undermining his onetime romantic rival and succumbing to the advances of a new recruit he knows is a survivor of sexual abuse.

That tension between expected roles and lived reality is what drives The Path, particularly once it reveals some of Meyerism’s actual beliefs. There’s a dash of doomsday cult, in which an imminent Future (the capital “F” is implied) will leave most of humanity in flames while a privileged few ascend to something called the Garden. And there’s some of the expected spiritual jargon about “truth” and “light” and, as Cal puts it in an interview, “by achieving personal enlightenment, we can achieve universal enlightenment.” At its core, however, lies the concept of “unburdening,” in which radical honesty is met with total lack of judgment, leading to a community without secrets or guilt. In theory.

In practice, the weight — and the repercussions — of characters’ private lives are simply amplified. Eddie recommits to something he knows might be a lie, a violation of his and Meyerism’s deepest-held principles, to preserve the stability he found in the wake of his brother’s suicide. The hypocrisy of Cal’s moral lapses, and closely guarded alcoholism, is even more apparent. Worst of all, as Eddie and Sarah’s issues spiral out of control from the heart of Meyerism to its other practitioners, unburdening begins to look less like a voluntary act of revelation than a forced conformity to an agreed-upon standard that may or may not be the truth.

These conflicts find their purest distillation in Monaghan’s performance as an upstanding community member faced, for the first time in her life, with a conflict between her ideals and her personal happiness. Last seen on television in the role of Worried Scowl in True Detective‘s first season, Monaghan is the only one of her top-billed costars who’s yet to have the sort of showcase role the current television boom has made possible. As a woman forced to question whether her motives for investigating her own husband are spiritual or personal, she’s clearly relishing the opportunity.

If Monaghan’s Sarah is the highlight of the show, Kyle Allen’s Hawk, her teenage son tempted by adolescent romance, is the predictable weak point. (Homeland may be the most notorious example and The Americans the most prominent exception, but adult dramas have never been particularly good at giving teen characters the same complexity as their parents.) Yet even Hawk’s inner turmoil fits neatly into The Path, a show that’s remarkably unified in its themes even as it finds plenty of avenues to pursue them. Scientology, and any “coincidental resemblances to it,” may pique viewers’ interest, but The Path doesn’t need it to sustain a tense, layered drama.

The Path premieres Wednesday, March 30 on Hulu.