Jessica Goldberg On Her Cultish New Hulu Series, The Path

Photo: Marcus Ingram/WireImage.
When Jessica Goldberg is going through something difficult in her life, she tends to start writing. It's what she does in order to make sense of things that don't often make sense — to create something that can hopefully put all her pain into perspective. Four years ago, after losing her father to cancer and ending her 10-year marriage, Goldberg started writing the television series The Path.

The show — her first —which debuts on Hulu March 30, chronicles the cult-like Meyerist Movement and its followers. This includes the movement's unofficial, but very ambitious leader, Cal Roberts (Hugh Dancy) and lifelong devotee Sarah Lane (Michelle Monaghan). Sarah's husband, Eddie (Aaron Paul), found solace in the movement after his brother's suicide, and is now experiencing a crisis of faith after seeing something he definitely shouldn't have.

Goldberg, who wrote for the NBC drama Parenthood, doesn't consider herself a religious person. But, growing up in Woodstock, NY, she says she was surrounded by all kinds of spirituality. "Woodstock is a community that has many alternate religions and a lot of seekers," she told Refinery29 while sipping red wine at the Manhattan bar Casellula. "So I definitely grew up around people looking for the meaning of life."

'I ended up doing love stories or teen movies,' Goldberg says, chalking this up to the industry assumption that, being a female writer, those are the stories she can tell best.

These people who look for something outside of themselves piqued Goldberg's interest in writing about faith and what it means to be a believer — even in the toughest of times. "We all have some hole in our life, and people fill it in all different ways," Goldberg says. "But religion has held up through time as one of the most fulfilling ways to [fill that void]. That question of what it's filling, though, is what's interesting to me."

Goldberg grew up in a secular Jewish home and admits that, during various low points in life, she feels the emptiness of not having grown up with religion. "I mean, I’m mostly fine to walk through life without," she says. "But there have been moments where I feel profoundly the want of faith that’s deeper than what I do every day.

"But," Goldberg says, " I guess writing is sort of my church in the end."
Photo: Courtesy of Hulu.
Growing up, Goldberg knew she wanted to be a writer, but she didn't imagine it would be for television. Her family didn't even own a TV until she was in the fourth grade. That's why she was more interested in reading Russian novels and listening to music, which was easy, thanks to her record shop-owning parents. After her dad passed away, Goldberg says she shipped "like 4,000 records" to her house in California, where she lives with her 8-year-old daughter.

It also didn't hurt that her childhood neighbors happened to be members of The Band, whose kids she hung around with. "I grew up in that community of musicians and music and folk singers like Woody Guthrie, that folk tale is very romantic to me," she says. "And I think that’s a religion in a way, that wanderer looking for something more."

Goldberg has done her fair share of wandering, starting as a playwright before writing films. Her 2014 directorial debut was Refuge, starring Krysten Ritter. The movie is an adaptation of Goldberg's 2008 play of the same name, about a woman who raises her two siblings after her parents abandon all three of them. But being a screenwriter for hire wasn't always that fulfilling a job.

"I ended up doing love stories or teen movies," Goldberg says, chalking this up to being a female writer, and the industry assumption that those are the stories she can tell best. "So the wonderful thing about TV is I can tell adult stories. Telling stories about things that I, like other people, are going through in their lives," she says. "I feel like I got to do that on Parenthood, and we get to do that [on The Path], which makes me happy."

She thanks her agent for bringing this happiness into her life. He is the one who actually suggested she start writing for television — mostly, as a way for her to get out of her house after the divorce. "The pajama thing had gotten extreme," Goldberg says. The job also introduced her to Parenthood and Friday Night Lights creator Jason Katims, who is the executive producer of The Path.

It was working with Katims, whom Goldberg calls her "mentor," that made her want to write something for herself — something that got at this idea of faith and love and how they intertwine. "I feel like one thing Jason believes in," she says, "is no matter what story you’re telling, you want the emotions to be true. You want the characters to be true."

The honesty of her characters is what Katims says drew him to Goldberg's work in the first place. "There’s a quality about Jess’s writing. It’s very emotionally complex and honest — it creeps up on you," Katims wrote in an email to Refinery29. "What stood out to me was that [The Path] in one way was about this cult, but to me it was really about a family entering into this very scary and challenging moment."
Photo: Courtesy of Hulu.
It wasn't a hard story for Goldberg to tell, since her own life was thrown for a loop after the unexpected death of her father from brain cancer. "He went to the supermarket with my mother and he said, 'I see spots, I’m seeing spots,' and three months later, he was dead," she says. "It was such a shock. I didn’t know that could happen. After, you wonder, Am I going to be normal again? And then you are."

But getting back to normal took time for Goldberg, who found herself mourning the loss of her dad while at the same time grieving the dissolution of her marriage to actor Hamish Linklater. The combination of events forced her to look beyond herself and try to understand why this all had happened.

She started Jungian analysis, a method created by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, which takes a closer look at your dreams and interprets them for meaning. One dream about her daughter darting in and out of traffic, she was told, meant that she needed to allow herself to have more fun. It was advice she knew she should take, but she was apprehensive. "Fun, for me, is pretty lame," Goldberg says. "But it moved me to think about not being so terrified of parts of myself."

Not being so afraid led Goldberg to start formulating an idea she had been toying with for months after losing her dad and her husband. "I had a bunch of images, and I knew I wanted it to be about a marriage," Goldberg says. "And I had that Plato’s cave story from, like, freshman college class."

The story from Plato's Republic is often interpreted as an allegory for human ignorance and people who are unable or unwilling to seek truth and wisdom in their own life. In Goldberg's case, Plato's story would become part of a powerful sermon Cal gives his followers that sets the tone for the show's biggest question: Is the Meyerist Movement real, and does it really matter?

I do think with any marriage the metaphor is, if you look in the cracks you’ll see the dirt.

Jessica Goldberg
To make answering that question even harder, Goldberg spent time creating an actual religious movement, complete with its own bible called The Ladder and a dictionary, which includes a term for non-followers, "I.S." or "Ignorant Systemite." The production team even created the Eye, a symbol of Meyerism and a constant reminder that you are being watched. The wood-carved image pops up in nearly every scene of the show. "Everyone has bags and mugs and jewelry," Goldberg says. "My mother's house right now is full of Eye swag."

Goldberg's fake movement is one that combines Eastern religion with Judeo-Christian values, something she was even more interested in after a friend of hers, at 42 years old, decided to become a Jesuit priest. She says Paul's Eddie, whom she calls the "Christ-like figure" of the story, was definitely inspired by the New Testament.

There's also a touch of mysticism thrown in for good measure, inspired by Goldberg's time hiking the Inca Trail in Peru. The leader of the Meyerists is believed to have also hiked the trail to Machu Picchu, where he had the revelation that a man-made apocalypse is imminent and we have to save ourselves.

It's the reason she's quick to fend off comparisons to Scientology. Yes, there are similarities: They're both fringe religious movements that have been criticized for being cults. Both faiths also focus on rising within: Scientologists increase in OT, while the Meyerist Movement is all about climbing the ladder to enlightenment. The difference between them, though, is that the Meyerist Movement's creation story somehow seems more grounded in reality than L. Ron Hubbard's mythology about a galactic overlord named Xenu.

For Hugh Dancy, that realness was an important factor in why he signed on to the show only weeks after his last TV project, Hannibal, was cancelled. "There was the sense that Jessica and her writers really put a lot of time and thought into what it meant to these characters to have that faith or put that need in faith," Dancy told Refinery29 over the phone. "You need that, that underpinning in the whole show for what they do. Because if you’re not taking that seriously, it’s not going to stand up."
Photo: Courtesy of Hulu.
The Path's oft-repeated soundbite is that it's about a cult, but for Goldberg, it's always been a story about the people who follow this movement. Turns out, they're not that different from any of us: They're flawed, they're human, and they're struggling to be better. "She didn’t come at it from the perspective of 'I’m writing about a cult,'" Katims told Refinery29. "She approached it as writing a story about a family at a crossroads, about a husband with a crisis of faith, and a wife whose belief system doesn’t allow for her husband’s doubts. So the characters hook you emotionally. You care about them. All of them."

While writing The Path, Goldberg says she was thinking about shows, like The Sopranos or Transparent, that are about families in more extreme circumstances. That eccentric framework helps add something new to the typical family drama. These characters feel like people you know, which isn't surprising, since Goldberg was thinking of herself as she wrote them.

"I went in feeling like Eddie and Sara were two parts of me," she says, explaining that Sarah was the part of herself that wanted to cling to something, while Eddie was the part that was filled with existential doubt. "You know, as a mother, as a daughter, as a sister, I’m such a Sarah," she says. "The writer in me is an Eddie."

Eddie is on a journey to find answers that will likely change his life forever, and could possibly end his marriage. "I do think with any marriage the metaphor is, if you look in the cracks you’ll see the dirt," Goldberg says, calling his journey "heartbreaking," but one he has to take. It doesn't sound too unlike Goldberg's own journey. "If I hadn’t had gotten divorced and felt, not only that I had to get out of the house, but that I needed to make my own money, I don't think I would have taken a TV job," she says. "I don't think I would have written this. It was for myself."

After dealing with so much tragedy, Goldberg was able to bounce back. But instead of just going back to normal, she found something better: herself.

"At the risk of being totally corny and spiritual, there’s something miraculous about getting here, and I'm still sort of surprised by it," Goldberg says. "So just every time I get a cut, it’s shocking. Being on set with these actors saying these things you wrote, and then getting the episode, is shocking. Just to be doing what you love to do is shocking in life, isn't it?"

Especially when you didn't even know you loved doing it in the first place.

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