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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Atmospheric visuals show The Path the way

Michelle Monaghan (Hulu)
Michelle Monaghan (Hulu)
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Toward the end of The Path’s first episode, charismatic cult movement leader Cal Roberts gives a sermon on Plato’s Cave, exhorting the faithful to abandon the shadows of this world and follow him into the light. Comforting as they may be, Cal argues, the shadows in Plato’s cave offer but fleeting impressions of the weighty subjects casting them and must be shunned to begin the search for understanding. Yet in these episodes, it’s the style, rather than the substance, that intrigues.

Despite the show’s unusual premise—Eddie and Sarah are members of the cult-like Meyerist Movement whose lives are turned upside down when Eddie starts having doubts—the first two episodes of The Path are fairly straightforward, introducing the main cast and giving viewers a feel for their unorthodox religion. While the Meyerists we meet are on the whole kind and accepting, their idyllic home feels too good to be true and frequent allusions to Scientology will have fans of Going Clear rooting for Eddie to extricate his family and escape immediately. Michelle Monaghan brings needed warmth and sincerity to true believer Sarah and Hugh Dancy is engaging and at times entertainingly petulant as Cal, but Aaron Paul’s nervous, conflicted performance keeps the audience squarely in Eddie’s corner. Without shifting allegiances to fuel the drama and with the added familiarity of the movement-related scenes—again, to fans of Going Clear and other Scientology exposés—the interplay between the characters winds up feeling surprisingly mundane. Fortunately, these episodes’ directors spice things up with striking, memorable visuals.

This interest in visual storytelling is apparent immediately, thanks to the vibrant, beautiful animated opening credits. The best sequence in the premiere, however, is its least colorful, the aforementioned monologue from Cal about Plato’s Cave. The message itself is somewhat on the nose, particularly as Eddie looks on, trying to decide whether to run from his doubts or embrace them, but the decision to pair Dancy’s performance with stark lighting, Cal sharing center stage with his shadow and the promises he’s peddling, elevates the entire scene. Though he may still believe what he’s saying, this is theatre, choreographed for utmost effect, and the crisp outline of Cal against the screen is a nice contrast to the flickering light of the fire on Eddie’s face earlier in the episode. Eddie is much less certain, much more in flux, and much more natural, so the light flits across his face as it would the cave wall.

Just as affecting is the closing montage of episode two, showing Eddie’s 14 days of interrogation and his deteriorating mental state over that time. These sequences opt for visceral, gut reactions over intellectual engagement, combining strong performances with impactful direction and excellent editing. Faith is a personal, knotty topic and the more intimate and specific the storytelling as Eddie, Sarah, and Cal solidify their relationship with their faith, the more effective the series will be. Not all of the scenes manage the efficient storytelling of these episodes’ more visually-minded sequences, but if it embraces its visual flourishes and trusts its talented cast, The Path has the potential to be a strong addition to Hulu’s lineup.

Stray observations

  • Welcome to The A.V. Club’s weekly coverage of The Path! I’m excited to be diving in with the series and I promise to try to keep my Hannibal and Breaking Bad references to a minimum. Speaking of, I expect a flood of Dancy Fannibal art with everyone’s favorite former profiler glowing, or I don’t know Fannibals at all.
  • Cal practicing his facial expressions is delightful, a great, telling character moment and a much appreciated bit of levity. Not delightful is the rape culture-promoting sex scene between Sarah and Eddie, where Sarah clearly rejects Eddie’s advances only to have her no ignored, or potentially turned into a yes, depending on how one reads the scene. It’s 2016, how is this still a thing? (Note: Should this come up later this season and be addressed, rather than ignored as it is in the rest of the episode, objection retracted.)
  • Cusco is a beautiful city and I’m thrilled to see it specifically referenced here. However, my skeptical eyebrow is officially raised at that pan piper with the feather. If the show’s going to include shamanism and elderly theoretically Andean people as set dressing, it needs to make sure and do its research. I’ve only been there twice, I’m no expert, but again: skeptical eyebrow raised.
  • Why fly a handful of people across the world to the building where you’re housing your secretly comatose cult founder and then get them incredibly high and give them free (enough) rein of the place? This sounds like a recipe for disaster and disillusionment.
  • Rockmond Dunbar is always a welcome presence, but his appearance in episode two points towards a less movement-specific and more straightforwardly procedural series. There aren’t many shows set inside a cult, but there are lots that see an agent or detective infiltrating a group like this with an inside source. Hopefully The Path has something more interesting up its sleeve.
  • It only came to the fore significantly for me a few times, but I really enjoy the score for these episodes. It’s atmospheric and tense, with interesting instrumentation and enough melodic material to resolve satisfyingly (when appropriate).
  • The logo for the Meyerist Movement looks good, but I can’t help but see it as a discarded Dharma Initiative design.