For much of its first season, Hulu's religious drama The Path existed in an uncomfortable prestige drama version of the uncanny valley, epitomizing the idea that the more realistically you try to represent something human, the more it will freak us out for not being human.
It looked like a good TV show, with its dreamlike visuals and its heartfelt, intimate scenes between two people. It was performed like a good TV show, with actors like Aaron Paul, Michelle Monaghan, and Hugh Dancy (a.k.a. the quality TV all-star players). It even sounded like a good TV show, with rich, literate scripts.
Yet for quite a while, it seemed like it might never make the leap. The show's core was hollow, in that it never quite made sense why all of the characters believed so deeply in a religion that seemed to be either complete bullshit or a damaging cult.
For all the series' attempts to ape Twin Peaks in its visuals or tell resonant stories about what happens when one spouse has lost faith while the other still has it, it couldn't overcome that central failure.
Until now, that is. Because in its season one finale, The Path abruptly became one of TV's most exciting shows. Don't read on if you don't want to know. I'm going to spoil this sucker.
The Path solves its biggest problem with something retroactively obvious
In the last handful of episodes of this first season, I found myself wondering something big: Was Meyerism, the fictional religion at the show's center, supposed to be real?
The evidence cropped up slowly but surely, manifesting most frequently in the characters of Eddie (Paul) and Sarah (Monaghan), the married couple at The Path's center who occasionally seemed to display, for lack of a better word, magic powers. Specifically, Eddie seemed to have the gift of foresight and prophecy, while Sarah could, apparently, bring the dead back to life.
And the finale makes all of this clear, at least to me. Eddie and Sarah really are gifted with divine power. Meyerism really does have answers for a world that is indeed about to face some sort of manmade apocalyptic event, one that only Eddie and Sarah can guide it through.
This revelation is, in short, completely ridiculous. But it's also a little breathtaking in just how far it pushes The Path to its breaking point, shatters everything we thought we knew about it, and then keeps on going.
Remember, this is a show that was sold on the basis of being from executive producer Jason Katims, the man who shepherded family drama classics Friday Night Lights and Parenthood to the small screen. He's just about the last person you'd expect to be involved with a drama that retroactively exposes itself as a show about a superpowered married couple confronting the apocalypse. And yet here we are.
Or maybe it's not as clear-cut as all that…
Of course, Katims isn't the creator of The Path. That role belongs to Jessica Goldberg, who slowly but surely built the show into one of the most intriguing on TV.
And when I asked her about my theories, she was quick to tell me that she really wants to leave the truth of Meyerism ambiguous, the better to play with the individual characters' levels of belief. (That said, she said she has an ending in mind for the series that will point toward the truth about Meyerism, or the lack thereof — though of course she won't tell me what it is.)
To achieve that sense of ambiguity, The Path's writers themselves had to believe.
"When we went into this show as writers, we had to believe in it the way people believe in Christ. That felt like the only way to do justice to really telling a story about faith, was that we ourselves saw the good in it and the hope in it," Goldberg tells me.
Under her leadership, the series has grown from what seemed to be an indictment of cults to an exploration of all religion — what makes us believe, what makes us keep believing, and whether our faith is enough if what we believe in proves itself to be as human and flawed as everything else.
"To me, the most interesting believer is the Job, the one who has everything taken and still believes," she says.
For Goldberg, that role on the show is filled by Eddie, while Sarah is the true zealot and Meyerism leader Cal (Dancy) is the pragmatist who understands that religions are also, on some level, businesses.
This is not a show about a cult; it's a show about faith
Those character dynamics should make clear that Goldberg is interested in the separation between the human and the divine, never more memorably than in a plot where Eddie and Sarah's teenage son longs to have sex with his girlfriend — but his religion ends up tearing them apart, which only commits him more deeply to Meyerism.
Goldberg calls the dissolution of this relationship the show's greatest tragedy, and says she's interested in the intersection of sex and religion and how often it gets warped.
"I find biblical imagery super sexual. The Bible feels overwrought with sensuality, and yet I feel like religious institutions sort of pushed that part down," she tells me. "In a weird way, that’s probably why so much damaging sex has come out of religion."
That emphasis on sex might suggest Meyerism is a cult, but Goldberg insists her show isn't about cults. Instead, she says, it's about faith and what it takes for a religion to make the leap from its first generation (which revolves around a charismatic leader) to its second (when it must become about memories and rituals tied to that leader).
She and The Path's writers sat down to write an actual bible of elements they would love to see in a religion, hoping to avoid most of the characteristics that make cults so horrible in our reality. "I don’t want men married to 12 girls. I wanted the religion to have a strong sense of matriarchy. I feel like cults are very anti-women," she says.
I obviously have no idea where The Path's second season is headed, but it will almost certainly contain a story about a faith that is deeply, beautifully "true," if only to its adherents, while still doing terrible things — like pushing apart teenage lovers or creating a worldview where all who don't believe will perish (a tenet that becomes that much darker if Meyerism really is the one true path).
And as I'm enjoying stewing over all of that, the ending (and all it stirs up) have made me realize that the beginning of the series had to be as slow and drawn out as it was. Now, there are hundreds of shows where that's not the case, hundreds of shows (especially on streaming services) that take their time only to mire in boring, go-nowhere hours. And The Path hews dangerously close to that territory throughout the first half of its first season.
But the more I think about it, the more I realize the show needs to try our patience. It needs us to doubt as surely as Eddie does, so when the season's final revelations tumble into place, we can have our eyes reopened with the fervency of reborn belief. That necessarily requires leading the audience down a dark path for a while, and testing our faith.
"What do you need to believe? Do you actually need to see something? Can you believe without proof? What is a leap of faith, really?" Goldberg says. "We definitely want to grapple with that."