Aaron Paul, Michelle Monaghan (Hulu)

Just as The Path seemed poised to stumble, unwilling to commit to specifics on the Meyerist Movement or its leads’ beliefs and motivations, “The Future” soars, humanizing its characters and delivering the best episode of the series so far. In response to Miranda’s hospitalization, Sarah and Eddie come together, supporting each other and voicing their concerns. It’s hard to overstate what a difference this makes. We’re still getting to know these characters; seeing the strength of their connection and how much they mean to each other, rather than being told how out of character their estrangement has been, centers both Sarah and Eddie tremendously. This is their normal, this is where they’re coming from, and with a starting point established, we finally have context for what Eddie’s experience in Cusco may cost them both.

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Right after firmly re-establishing Sarah and Eddie’s connection, “The Future” jumps to Abe Gaines, out of the office and off-duty. This is easily Rockmond Dunbar’s best scene yet, Abe relaxing with his wife and reacting honestly to The Ladder. As with the opening exchange between Sarah and Eddie, this brief domestic scene says worlds about Abe, humanizing him and adding a personal dimension to his decision to infiltrate the Meyerist Movement. It’s great to see someone actually reading The Ladder, rather than just referencing it, and the snippets given align with what has been shown so far. Like so many religions, Meyerism speaks of a better life to come, accessible through adherence to the tenets of the movement. The general tone and teachings will feel familiar to those with a religious background and there are enough specifics thrown in, such as the drawing Abe and his wife respond to, to give the movement some personality. With the basics sketched out, and Abe’s motivations and personal stake in his work clear, Abe feels like a much more natural addition to the series.

“The Future” doesn’t stop with the basic teachings of the Meyerist Movement, however, it also gives viewers a much clearer picture of the structure and size of the movement. The now six thousand-strong group started with only six members: Dr. Steven Meyer, Silas, Felicia, Bill, and Sarah’s parents, Gab and Hank, who were the first members to join after Meyer’s ascension. This ascension, a specific (drug-fueled) moment experienced by Steve, Felicia, Bill, and perhaps Silas, even has tangible proof, Felicia’s scarred hands. Cal is 10R, which is presumably the top of the ladder, at least so far, and while Cal may be Steve’s choice to lead the movement, he is not trusted by Felicia, Bill, or Silas, and given his calculating, manipulative actions this episode, it’s easy to see why. “The Future” comes down clearly on the side of Cal as a villain, and having this definition to the character frees the series immensely. The shading and background given in “A Homecoming” remain and understanding what led Cal to the Meyerist Movement is significant, but this episode finally lets the audience see Cal clearly by having him interact with peers, rather than solely followers.

Cal’s desire to control people comes to the fore almost immediately, as he shapes Miranda’s memories until they support what Eddie has said, then ferrets out what information he can about Eddie’s actions in Cusco. Showing Cal as a sadistic manipulator, enjoying Miranda’s pain as she bends to his narrative, allows the audience to thrill in Silas’ refusal to disclose information about the retreat. Giving the series an antagonist in Cal, and a compelling rather than cookie-cutter one, allows Eddie to step into the role of the questioning hero, skeptical of the movement and Cal’s teachings, and positions Sarah as Meyerism’s potential savior, pitted against Cal in the second generation battle for the soul of the movement. If Cal is the snake coiled around and endangering the weakened Meyerist Movement, whose response is best? Eddie, who would abandon his faith and the movement if his family would come with him, or Sarah, who clearly believes in the good the Meyerist Movement can do and would fight for it? This is a much more interesting conversation to engage in than the ill-defined, vague look at belief given in the first episodes and watching these characters develop and their positions shift over the rest of the season should be fascinating.

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While Michelle Monaghan, Hugh Dancy, and Aaron Paul have done well with their material so far, each having standout moments, “The Future” lets them shine. Monaghan’s intensity and ugliness as Sarah confronted Miranda in “A Homecoming,” her face contorted in rage, was incredibly powerful, but it’s even more impressive contrasted with her nuanced work here, moving Sarah deftly between skepticism toward the Ridges, wariness with Cal, concern for Miranda, and playfulness with Eddie. Eddie finally gets an opportunity to speak about the movement to non-believers unsupervised and Paul’s frustrated but adamant, “It’s not a cult!” confirms that despite his doubts, Eddie still feels a genuine connection to the movement and its teachings. Paul’s great with Monaghan, and their scene on the dock is lovely, but the highlight of the episode is without a doubt Eddie’s charged scenes with Cal. Paul and Dancy are fantastic together, and pairing up Cal and Eddie for the foreseeable future is an excellent move for the show. They are combustible together and these actors will undoubtedly make the most of the tension between the characters, a heady mix of lapsed friendship and genuine camaraderie tinged with suspicion, betrayal, and manipulation.

Dancy’s best moments may be with Paul, but he’s given plenty of material to work with here. His cold calculation as Cal talks with Miranda—conveying just enough warmth with her to get her to open up—is striking, as is Cal’s predatory manipulation of Mary. Emma Greenwell is incredibly affecting as Mary, her hopeful vulnerability making Cal’s abusive treatment of her all the more devastating. Equally strong is Minka Kelly, and following Miranda’s journey as she rises in the movement should be interesting. Does Cal have the hold on her he thinks he does, or is she more canny than he supposes, making the most of her situation? Miranda shifts significantly in demeanor throughout “The Future” and given Kelly’s engaging performance in each of her scenes and the strong character work throughout the episode, this feels deliberate, rather than sloppy. Tony Award winners Adriane Lenox and Brian Stokes Mitchell are very welcome additions as Felicia and Bill and if this is their only significant appearance this season, it will be a shame. Cal works best when interacting with peers, and while Eddie’s skepticism of Cal and role as Bill and Felicia’s mole levels the playing field between them considerably, none of the rest of the ensemble has the honest, pointedly barbed dynamic with Cal that Bill and Felicia bring.

After “A Homecoming,” The Path seemed to be wavering, hedging its bets with its characters and mistaking hazy motivations for nuanced ones. “The Future” rights the ship and moves confidently forward, establishing a strong base upon which it can build an exciting, compelling rest of the season.

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Stray observations

  • Miranda’s body language as she interacts with Cal in the hospital is telling. She recoils from him as he moves to sit down next to her and looks away from him, ashamed, then starts apologizing for defending herself against Eddie’s claims, a stark contrast to how she acted pre-hospitalization.
  • Alison Kemp gets a mere namedrop and I did not miss her.
  • Hawk and Ashley remain adorable, and Ashley’s tempting of Hawk with Arcade Fire and other sinful modern music works well. The cuteness award, however, goes to Sarah and Eddie on the dock, particularly Eddie’s shuddering, “This is colder, running” as they race back to Eddie’s car.
  • The Meyerist teens talking about The Future in the cafeteria is a nice way to explore the movement’s apocalyptic elements. There’s a nonchalance to their discussion and low-key concern that feels age-appropriate.
  • Once again, the visual flair of the first two episodes is mostly absent, but the final shot is gorgeous, with Eddie’s lantern creating a halo of glowing leaves. Eddie may not be directly in the light, but he’s not fully in the shadows either, unlike Cal, who steps away from the light before telling Eddie to dig.
  • The Path gets right what so many shows get wrong: When you have Tony Award winner Brian Stokes Mitchell in your cast, you find a reason to let him sing. If it makes sense and works organically in the narrative, even better!
  • A few thoughts on this episode’s score: Hawk’s cello line returns, oscillating intervals and triads recur through the episode, often to propel the action forward, and a heartbeat motif underscores Cal’s assertion that he’s, “the chosen son.” Sarah’s meeting with her addict group is paired with relaxing lines that match the pastoral setting and move up and down, going from dissonance to resolution and back, settling on a calm minor sixth. Similarly on the dock, there is light motion in the score, chords moving away from but always returning to the tonic. This is a safe, happy space. In contrast, the score as Miranda reassures Felicia and Bill moves between dissonance and resolution, but never settles comfortably into that resolution; her seeming contentment and acceptance can’t be trusted, or if she is convinced, Miranda shouldn’t trust the new memories Cal’s given her.
  • The sliding perfect fifths (and occasional minor sixths) that accompanied Abe’s drive onto the compound in “A Homecoming” return in a big way here. The smooth, eerie sound connects strongly to me with the snake from Eddie’s vision and had it not been so closely tied to Abe in the previous episode, I would call it Cal’s theme. It’s slippery and unresolved, and not trustworthy. This returns several times, notably in Cal and Eddie’s first scene together. It lingers as Cal decides what approach to take with Eddie. When he pitches 7R, and as Eddie seems to decide he’s being manipulated, the still, held pitch cedes to a more aggressive re-articulation of the interval. Cal’s order to Sarah not to give Freddie medicine is also scored with a pulsing open fifth. Cal’s exerting control and she doesn’t like what she’s hearing.

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