“People don’t want to be in a cult; they want to be in a movement,” says Aaron Paul, star of the Hulu original series The Path. Paul plays Eddie Lane, a charismatic everyman who just may be extraordinary.
The foundational story of Meyerism, the fictional faith at the center of the series, can sound outlandish or inspiring, depending on your propensity for religious belief: In the 1970s, Stephen Meyer climbed a ladder of pure light—he may have been tripping on ayahuasca at the time—and received the wisdom of the universe.
“What the Meyerists preach,” says Paul, “isn’t too far from what a lot of other religions preach: Live a life with transparency, don’t lie, be good to each other, be good to the planet. You climb each rung and eventually get to this garden full of love that sounds incredible.”
In its third season, The Path asks viewers to allow for the possibility that Meyer truly did climb that ladder and achieve enlightenment, which he then passed on to his followers, most of whom live in communes in San Diego and upstate New York. The other possibility, still very much on the table, is that Meyerists are 100 percent bat-shit crazy.
The first two seasons saw Lane veer from faithful Meyerist to outright denier and then back to believer. As season three begins, he has not just returned to the fold; he has grown from follower to leader—the psycho-spiritual offspring of Dr. Phil and the Dalai Lama.
“I grew up in a very religious household, believing everything that was presented to me,” says Paul, whose father was a Baptist minister. “Eddie wakes up one day and says, ‘I just don’t buy it anymore.’ But those beliefs keep pulling him back until he can’t ignore them. He eventually sees it as his true calling.”
The Path presents just enough facts to make you believe—or come close to believing—that Lane is more than a fervid disciple and that Meyerism is about more than hallucinogenic hysteria. Lane claims to have been struck by lightning, seemingly corroborated by an elaborate scar on his back, and has had intuitions about things that came to pass. And then there was that time he appeared to heal a baby with a potentially fatal heart defect just by touching him.
Show runner and frequent series director Jessica Goldberg says one of the reasons The Path works is that Paul makes such a convincing case for Lane as a divine figure. “Aaron Paul is a very instinctual actor, and his character is coming from a very instinctual place,” she says. “He’s the leader and the most honest person who could be that leader. The question is whether he can stay that honest.”
With parallels to multiple real-life religions including Mormonism (a founder who saw visions), Scientology (electronic gizmos), Buddhism (spiritual enlightenment), shamanism (trippy drugs) and Catholicism (confession), the Meyer-ist movement provides rich territory for a reflection on how a small sect with seemingly odd beliefs can evolve into something greater.
“The majority of cults don’t consider themselves cults,” Paul says. “Religions start off as something—heaven and hell, let’s build an ark, let’s part the Red Sea—that sounds so out there. Once you stamp ‘religion’ on it and get millions of followers, you validate it.”
Shocking moments in early episodes of season three reconfigure TV’s weirdest love triangle—involving Lane; Sarah (Michelle Monaghan), Lane’s wife and a lifelong Meyerist; and Cal Roberts (Hugh Dancy), leader of the New York branch—but at its core the new season is about something far larger than personal relationships. It’s an inquiry into the nature of truth and the deep, twisted foundations of belief.
Given the current cultural climate, in which objective facts are more elusive than ever, this is the kind of story we need to be telling.
Image courtesy of Jeff Neumann/Hulu