By Devon Shuman, Culture Editor
"Cult" is a loaded term. It's packed to the brim with a very particular set of images - secluded compounds, eerie symbols, Utopian communities.
When we think of a cult, we think of the leader, the despicable individual that preys on the weak and uses false rhetoric to sway them to the cause. But we also tend to focus on the followers. We question their unwavering devotion, wondering how they can't see through all of the bullshit.
The beauty of "The Path," Hulu's latest original series, is that while it skewers the immoral practices of cults, it also puts us into the minds of the followers. The show introduces us to Eddie Lane (Aaron Paul) his wife, Sarah (Michelle Monaghan), and their children as if they are a normal, happy family. It's not until Eddie starts talking about his recent trip to Peru for his "6R" retreat that we realize something is up. We're not outsiders looking in anymore - we're right in the thick of it.
While in Peru, where the headquarters for their cult - The Meyerist Movement - are located, Eddie has a bad ayahuasca trip that causes him to begin to question his faith. This is where the show starts to create the tension that makes it so compelling. It's fascinating to watch how the fabric of Eddie's reality begins to dissolve as he reluctantly questions everything he knows to be real. You can see the crippling apprehension on his face as he types "Is Meyerism real" into Google.
As the all-seeing eye that acts as a symbol for the Meyerist Movement suggests, secrets are hard to keep in a cult, and Eddie's lapse in faith does not go unnoticed. When he sneaks out in the middle of the night to call someone and then meet them at a motel, his wife follows him and comes to the conclusion that he's having an affair.
When she relays this information to their leader, Cal Roberts (Hugh Dancy), he recognizes what is actually going on and is quick to confront Eddie about it. This swift action reminds us of the chilling truth about cults - there is no room for critical thinking.
Dancy plays the role of a cult leader with a delightful creepiness.
He's equal parts charismatic, sinister and psychologically messed up. He's quick to lend a hand and usually has a smile on his face, but it's the kind of smile that has darkness lurking behind it. The kind of smile that reminds you that one wrong move could cause him to snap.
The tension between Eddie and Roberts has the potential to make for some great television, but "The Path" has yet to play it up too much. Hopefully it will continue to develop their conflict in the coming weeks (like the other Hulu original, "11.22.63," "The Path" is being released episode by episode instead of all at once).
For now, what makes it great is the way it examines the psychology behind cultists, both the leaders and the followers. It's mesmerizing to watch how someone can lead people to believe that there is a spiritual "ladder" they must climb in order to gain entry into the "garden" that awaits them in the afterlife. In one breathtaking scene, Roberts lectures his followers about Plato's cave, detailing how the inhabitants of the cave don't realize that the images they see on the wall are simply shadows of reality. As everyone throws their hands up to bask in the light of his wisdom, Eddie looks around with unease, clearly wondering if what he sees is real or simply a shadow.
"The Path" has work to do, but it's off to a promising start. With this, and the spectacular "11.22.63," which ended on Monday, Hulu is showing its rival, Netflix, that it can churn out great original programming as well. It may not be "House of Cards," but "The Path" is sure to attract much more than a cult following.