Religion, fanaticism, and the “prison” of faith is rich territory for television in this moment. HBO’s The Young Pope stars Jude Law as an arrogant, movie-star-handsome pontiff bent on restoring the Catholic church to its authoritarian roots, who might also be capable of working miracles. The Leftovers, which returns for its final season in April, has considered the role of organized religion in society with rational and emotional complexity. Even the A&E docuseries Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath has been exploring the psychological ramifications of being in, and leaving, an organization that prizes fealty over freedom.
In its first season, which debuted on Hulu in 2016, The Path had a little of all of the above: magical realism, the testing of belief, power struggles, seeming acts of God. It featured some extraordinary performances from Aaron Paul, Michelle Monaghan, and Hugh Dancy as the young and charismatic linchpins of a spiritual group based on airy New Age ideals and muscular resistance to outsiders. But the most interesting thing about the show was its ambiguous treatment of Meyerism, the fictional movement at its core. The Path’s creator, Jessica Goldberg, seemed undecided on whether the sect she’d imagined was a cult, a benign but insular community, or a positive force for social change. As the first ten episodes played out, framed around Eddie Lane’s (Paul) crisis of faith, the show resisted clarity, leaving Meyerism open to interpretation.
But season two, which returns on Wednesday with new installments released weekly, falls victim to the primary weakness of streaming shows: It doesn’t have enough story to tell. To make things worse, the season has been given an extra three episodes to parcel out its morsels of plot, making an already downtempo drama feel almost catatonic. It isn’t until the eighth episode that anything intriguing begins to develop, and that’s after considerable hours of dropped threads, distractions, and suspended characters. In its sophomore slump, The Path seems to have forgotten why it wanted us to believe in it in the first place.
Season one benefited from the obligation of introducing Meyerism and its believers, based on compounds in Peru, San Diego, and upstate New York. Founded by Dr. Steven Meyer and a small group of friends some time around the late ’60s, it was a movement based on vague, New Age-ish ideas about light and truth, and a legend in which Meyer climbed up a burning ladder to receive both from a mysterious spirit. There were some apparent similarities to Scientology: The organization has 13 “rungs” or levels up which believers can climb, apostates are shunned, members participate in recorded “unburdening” sessions in which they confess their misdeeds, and they use devices that appear to be similar to e-meters. The leader of the New York faction was a magnetic man named Cal (Dancy), whose fierce temper and insecurities led him to commit acts of physical violence, sexual indiscretions, and even murder.
Over ten episodes, The Path contrasted Cal’s increasing instability with the internal struggles of Eddie, whose wife, Sarah (Monaghan) grew up in Meyerism and was one of its strongest advocates. Unbeknown to all of them, an FBI agent, Abe Gaines (Rockmond Dunbar) also infiltrated the group to investigate its cultlike practices, while an ex-member, Alison (Sarah Jones) tried to find out why her husband had killed himself. The season ended with several cliffhangers: Sarah discovered that Cal had written the last three rungs of the movement himself, rather than having them dictated to him by Meyer; Eddie traveled to Peru to visit Meyer, who’d recently awoken from a coma; and Alison, against all odds, returned to the fold.
Season two picks up some of these threads, although Alison has disappeared, seemingly never to be spoken of again. It disposes of most of its crucial reveals in the first episode, and then focuses largely on Meyerism’s financial problems, with Sarah and Cal both struggling to co-lead the movement as the so-called “guardians of the light.” Most of the old storylines pick up right where they left off—Eddie’s isolation, Gaines’s cover as a new member, Cal’s relationship with Mary (Emma Greenwell)—but a handful of new ones nod faintly to current events. One of the biggest dramas, believe it or not, involves whether the organization can receive tax-exempt status, while another revolves around a community being poisoned by chemicals a corporation is pumping into their water. The show’s ultimate goal seems less to explore the paradigm of faith than to communicate how hard it is being a cult these days.
There are a handful of new characters: Leven Rambin plays Chloe Jones, an old friend of Eddie’s brother, and Melanie Griffith appears as the mother of a new member, while Kathleen Turner has another insultingly brief cameo as Cal’s alcoholic mother. But they can’t make up for the fact that the show seems to have lost its mojo. Where once Meyerism was treated with nuance, now it’s more nefarious in its practices, pursuing “growth” as blindly as any Nasdaq corporation and using dirt on members to manipulate them. Even the show’s creative choices feel more restrained, with few of the trippy, ayahuasca-induced moments that made season one so inventive, and its “miracles” so persuasive.
There are moments when The Path’s counterintuitive treatment of religion shines through, like when scenes of Eddie attending a support group for ex-cult members are juxtaposed with Meyerist prayer meetings, and when Gaines’s FBI boss insists that Meyerism is mumbo-jumbo but believing a virgin bore a child is perfectly rational. Monaghan is stellar as Sarah, while Dancy sinks deeper into Cal’s weaknesses. But for the most part, the second season slowpokes its way toward a predictable conclusion, having no fun at all along the way.
In that, it exemplifies the burden of streaming shows, forced to grind out hours of content to hook new viewers without the material to pad it out. There’s nothing in either season of The Path that couldn’t be achieved in six episodes; shows like Amazon’s Fleabag and Starz’s The Girlfriend Experience have proven that experimenting with shorter episodes can lead to taut, focused, masterful television. Hulu’s experiments with delivery, too, seem particularly ill-planned in this case: The Path by its nature seems to reward binging episodes to get to the payoff at the end, but its week-by-week release means many of the throwaway plot developments could get lost.
But the biggest problem seems to be the idea, espoused by Netflix’s Ted Sarandos, that the whole first season of a streaming show is essentially a pilot, and that the payoff comes afterward. For one thing, it requires viewers to invest time and energy in a season for an ending that might not deliver. For another, it prompts shows to think more about dramatic conclusions and cliffhangers than doing the more vital work of being consistently entertaining. In this case, The Path was sometimes dazzling when it was figuring itself out; now, with the end so obviously in sight, it’s much harder to have faith that the journey will be worth it.