The Path, which has never been a great show, continues its streak of being just-kind-of-okay into and beyond its third season premiere. Culturally, it’s always been “that Scientology show with Aaron Paul on Netflix… or wait, Hulu… or is it Amazon?” (It’s Hulu.) And while it’s not explicitly about Scientology, it is about a Scientology analogue called Meyerism — not the worst fictional cult name imaginable, so props to creator Jessica Goldberg on that score.
The Path has already been through most of the storylines you associate with cult narratives — people leaving the faith, people joining the faith, questions as to the legality of the organization’s practices, hints that the cult’s belief system might actually be based in some sort of truth, etc. And while these are all at least mildly interesting avenues for further narrative exploration, The Path has never actually been particularly interested in any of them. Instead, its primary interest is in maintaining the appearance of “prestige TV,” which manifests in its ongoing obsession with interorganizational power struggles, à la Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.
Last season concluded with Eddie Lane (Aaron Paul) ascending to leadership in place of Cal Roberts (Hugh Dancy). Eddie had spent much of the season questioning his own beliefs, but is now secure in the “knowledge” that he is “the chosen one” who is meant to lead his followers “into the light.”
The Path’s third season premiere covers a ludicrous amount of ground in its first ten or so minutes. Before the first act break, the Meyerist compound collapses in an earthquake, Eddie rescues a young girl from the wreckage in what the Meyerists consider to be a miracle, video of the rescue goes viral, Eddie is launched into internet superstardom, the Meyerists open a massive Meyerism center in New York, and a mysterious publicist arrives, wanting to make Eddie into the “new face of faith.” The season’s very first sequence wholly reconfigures the entirety of the show: where just an episode ago this was a show about an obscure culty group with only a few glaring similarities to Scientology, now it’s a show about a one-to-one Scientology analogue with Aaron Paul as its leader and moderating force.
I had to pause the episode at the ten minute mark just to make sure I hadn’t somehow missed an entire season of the show.
It doesn’t take very long for The Path to settle into its old rhythms, refocusing on boring power struggles within Meyerism: while Cal Roberts begins the season at his lowest, giving motivational speeches in Florida, the show manages to have him vowing to retake the Meyerist-leader mantle by the end of the third episode. Plus, Eddie’s ex-wife, Sarah (Michelle Monaghan), is beginning to resent Eddie softening Meyerism’s edges and has some inklings of her own about assuming power.
And over the course of the season’s first three episodes, Eddie does do a fair bit of edge-softening, allowing Meyerism’s new PR rep (who naturally has sinister ulterior motives) to market Meyerism on college campuses in the most callous of ways, and to take swift and brutal action against detractors of the faith in the season’s most obvious Scientology moment yet.
It’s actually Aaron Paul’s best season thus far as a result. Surprisingly, he’s better — or at least more engaging — as Eddie now that Eddie is in a position of actual power. There’s a subplot about Eddie allowing a kid with a swastika tattoo to join the Meyerists at the strong opposition of nearly all of his followers; it’s one of the more interesting arcs the show has done, and Paul is quite good in it. However, it’s still apparent that Paul — like most of the other actors here — is struggling with the material, due to a pervasive sense of tonal confusion from top to bottom. It feels like the show’s writers, directors, actors, editors, etc. have never sat down and had a conversation about the type of show they’re working on together.
As a result, The Path suffers from an overall sense of fakeness. Every tertiary performance on the show is out of a bad student film. The show’s visual sense is more professional, but feels like a studied replication of any number of better shows of actual prestige. And oh boy does The Path take itself seriously. And I think that may be its fundamental problem: taking itself too seriously, at least in its execution. The show that I keep coming back around to as I think about The Path is Billions, another faux-prestige show about inter-organizational intrigue. Unlike The Path, Billions is fully aware of how silly it is, and is therefore incomparably the better of the two shows (Billions is fun, go watch it). With The Path, there seems to be a divide between its writers, who may just have a clue that theirs is a silly, silly show, and its on-set personnel, who execute the material as if it were Shakespeare.
Some more specifics about this season: Cal Robert’s story is just as boring as ever, because the whole conception of Cal is dull and because Hugh Dancy, whatever praise he may have garnered off of his role in Hannibal, seems less than enthusiastic to be in The Path. And Emma Greenwell, who plays Cal’s wife, is similarly uninteresting in her role, immediately bringing all of her scenes to a standstill. These two characters/performances have been trouble for The Path since its very first episode.
The most prominent new additions to the show are Freida Pinto as Vera the PR rep, and Sarita Choudhury as her mother. If Pinto’s character were just a straightforward, ambitious publicity maven, she’d be a great new character and a new dimension to the show’s view of modern day American cults/“new religions.” However, we learn that she’s only working with the Meyerists to carry out some dastardly plan of Choudhury’s character, who runs a Meyerist offshoot movement and believes that Eddie must die.
There’s a storyline about a male youth group leader developing an ongoing flirtation with Eddie’s son Hawk (Kyle Allen), which Hawk may or may not even be aware of. It’s predictable and a bit of a waste of time. On the less predictable end of things, there’s a crazy sequence where Sarah goes through a brutal BDSM bondage process as self-punishment; you can’t help but cringe for Monaghan as you watch; it’s right out of the worst, deepest recesses of exploitative internet porn; and most definitely not worth the pain and effort that Monaghan must have expended on this mediocre Hulu show.
This show might have been good if everyone involved understood how incompetent it is. The performances — from actors who’ve done excellent work in other projects — are flimsy at best. The writing, well… I still can’t get over the teary-eyed “cockfight.” Hulu would be doing right by a whole lot of people if it cancelled The Path after season three.
This review covers season three, episodes one through three of The Path. The show is currently available to live-stream on Hulu.