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Hulu's The Path gets even more esoteric — and better — in season 2

It’s like the writers of Parenthood taking a swing at writing a season of Twin Peaks.

The Path
Eddie Lane (Aaron Paul, left) confronts the founder of his religion in the jungles of South America. Yes, this happens on The Path.
Hulu

The Path season two is a fascinating exercise in creative stretching. It doesn’t always work, but it’s always doing something interesting enough that most of the time you won’t care.

Rating


4


The series’ second season launches on Hulu Wednesday, January 25, and unspools an episode per week (as Hulu, alone among streaming services, prefers to do). It’s clearly taken note of the biggest criticisms of The Path’s first season, which wrapped up in stirring fashion but definitely took its time to get going, and struggled to convey just why people would believe in the cultlike religion at its center, known as Meyerism.

But although The Path addresses both of these issues in season two — along with a host of other ones — it frequently feels as if it’s overcorrected. Where season one would have at most two storylines bubbling along at once, season two will often have five or six. And though most of them are interesting, the sheer number of storylines means that the show sometimes has to take big emotional leaps to get characters where they need to be for certain things to happen.

But what was always good about The Path is better than ever in season two. There’s still the hazy sense that you’re watching someone’s dream, rather than a TV series. (This ends up forgiving a lot in the way of plot logic.) There’s still a tremendous, all-star cast. And there’s still an idyllic, beautiful setting that hides sinister undercurrents.

But maybe that’s not enough to convince you to give this show a shot. In that case, here are three roughly accurate descriptions for what The Path does in season two.

1) It’s like the Parenthood writers tried to write a season of Twin Peaks

The Path
Eddie, now estranged from his wife, just wants to maintain a healthy relationship with his kids.
Hulu

The Path was sold on the auspices of being “from” Jason Katims, the TV genius behind Friday Night Lights and Parenthood, among others, though he is neither the series’ showrunner nor its creator but rather an executive producer. (Katims’s love of character drama stretches all the way back to his very first TV job on My So-Called Life.) As such, the series’ writing staff is stocked with people who worked on his former shows and write in the intimate, detail-oriented style he utilizes.

The show’s creator and showrunner is Jessica Goldberg, who worked with Katims on Parenthood, and she’s clearly learned a lot from her former boss. She comes from the world of theater and is more interested in exploring her characters’ emotions and inner lives than big, plot-heavy adventures. Yes, in its first season The Path was primarily set in the middle of what seemed to be a cult — but it was much more focused on the very internal question of what it means to lose your faith in something.

Now, in season two, Goldberg and her writers are taking the Katims approach and applying it to what’s essentially become a mystery show like Twin Peaks. This is, to put it bluntly, a little nuts. Mystery shows thrive on ambiguity, on unclear motives and hazy reasoning. The Katims character drama thrives on specificity, on absolutely everything being clear at all times, so you can feel the characters’ feelings alongside them. If you were going to assemble a writing staff for a mystery show, you probably wouldn’t start with a bunch of Jason Katims hires.

But here’s the thing: It all works surprisingly well. When season two opens, it’s apparent something happened to Eddie Lane (Aaron Paul) when he was in the jungles of South America at the end of season one, and the show more or less gives a big hint as to what that “something” was by the end of the premiere. Eddie, in his moment of greatest doubt, just might have caught a glimpse of the divine.

Turns out that setting character drama writers to work on a mystery show is something of a masterstroke. In our own day-to-day lives, none of us is sure if God exists or if we have a higher purpose; The Path turns the mystery we feel about our own lives into something fit for Lost in its second season, and that turns out to be the most compelling thing about it.

2) It’s a surprisingly nuanced retelling of the early days of Christianity, set in the modern day

The Path
Richard (Clark Middleton), one of the most avid followers of Meyerism, believes he’s onto something suspicious about Sarah (Michelle Monaghan).
Hulu

I keep saying “cultlike” or “seems like a cult” when describing Meyerism, even though the movement is a cult. It makes people financially dependent upon it, cuts them off from their families, and claims to have the only possible understanding of the divine. That last bit is true of many religions — but the first two are strong indicators you’re probably dealing with a cult.

But the history of every major religion has some key inflection point when it went from a tiny, cultlike movement to something broader, something others could tap into and believe in. In season two, The Path digs into what this must feel like from the inside, as your formerly tiny religion realizes that to sustain itself, it’s going to have to keep getting bigger.

Watching this season, I kept thinking of the early days of Christianity, perhaps because that’s the religion I’m most familiar with. After the death of Christ, the early Christians had a moment where their entire movement could have fallen apart. You can even read a one-sided version of these debates in the New Testament, where Paul argues that, yes, the religion should be open to Gentiles and not just Jewish people. Paul’s vision won out, Christianity took root, and now there’s probably a church in your neighborhood.

That’s where The Path season two goes too. Without “Steve” (as characters hilariously keep calling their holy prophet, who dies very early in season two), Meyerism is rootless and centerless. It’s currently being guided by Eddie’s estranged wife Sarah (Michelle Monaghan) and the slippery, occasionally treacherous Cal (Hugh Dancy), who’s nursed a crush on Sarah for years. At the same time, once he’s stuck on the outside of Meyerism, Eddie feels as if he knows how to reconcile its beliefs — which he has trouble shaking — with its less palatable practices, so he mounts a slow-building challenge of sorts.

“Obscure doctrinal differences” rarely make for compelling TV, but The Path gets away with this because of its tantalizing hints that there’s more to Meyerism than meets the eye, that in spite of all of its faults (mostly stemming from its very human leadership), Meyerism has tapped into something real and potent at the center of the universe. Thus, the stakes are high. Will this movement find the time and space to flourish upon the Earth? Or will it all be trampled into the dust?

3) It’s a weirdly hypnotic examination of the limits of faith, family, and love

The Path
Cal (Hugh Dancy) is haunted by guilt over something he did in season one.
Hulu

As a TV critic in an era when there are seemingly as many shows as there are stars in the sky, I’m used to saying that a show isn’t for everybody. But that’s especially true of The Path, which seems to turn off almost as many people as it attracts. When I would tell fellow critics I couldn’t stop gobbling up episodes of season two — and I’ve seen the whole thing now — they would often say, “Really?!”

Yes, really. Even when The Path is making me wince at its over-earnest storytelling or furrow my brow at some of its more baffling decisions, I inevitably end each episode floored by some sequence or revelation. Goldberg and her team have a much better handle on both Meyerism and what might draw worshipers to it in season two, and that keeps the rest of the show afloat.

But ultimately the show works because it captures the feeling of being enmeshed in something greater than yourself, whether that organization is bound together by faith, by familial duty, or by love. There’s a woozy disorientation to both the feeling of being inside such a group and the feeling of suddenly finding yourself outside of it.

At its best, The Path uses its weirdly hypnotic style (it sometimes feels as if half the show is filmed in slow motion) to capture the simple clarity of belief and the rootlessness of doubt. It makes you understand why the former would be so appealing — but also why the latter would be so necessary. And at all times, it doesn’t try to convert viewers, but instead invites them find the parts of themselves that believe in wild implausibilities too.

The Path is streaming on Hulu. The first two episodes of season two are available there now. New episodes of the 13-episode second season will debut on Wednesdays through April.

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