Hulu's new original drama The Path follows the fictional Meyerist movement, a growing organization with a compound in upstate New York, many other hubs located around the country, and a founder who — unbeknownst to devoted followers — is currently dying at a shaman-and-ayahuasca retreat in Peru. Creator Jessica Goldberg made up Meyerism and its core beliefs, principles, and practices for the show. She looked to many existing religions, movements, and other spiritual belief systems to develop Meyerism's tenets. Perhaps you'll be able to spot where some Meyerist practices and beliefs come from as I describe them. Maybe you'll also start to have doubts about the movement's supposedly pure intentions. (Beware: mild spoilers follow.) “It’s similar to some of those hippie commune values, but basically, Meyerists believe that Dr. Stephen Meyer had a vision of a man-made apocalypse that’s coming, which humans would bring on ourselves from global warming, terrorism, and our misuse of the planet and each other," Goldberg tells Refinery29. "Meyer believed that there was a ladder that was given to him. [The ladder] is a group of spiritual exercises that you do in order to eventually be reunited in this [heavenly] garden. It’s a little bit Eastern, and yet it has a bit of a cult-y thing.” Aaron Paul, who stars in and produces The Path, has his own definition. “I would define it as a movement [that’s] very family-oriented,” he says. “It’s all about community and trust. It’s about living a life of transparency, and slowly and surely, you’ll work your way up the ladder, rung by rung. The people in the movement believe that once you eventually make it to the 13th rung, you will become pure energy and light, and you will live in the heavenly garden. That’s the end game.” No one knows exactly what happens when you reach the garden, though, because Dr. Meyer has yet to write about the final three rungs of the ladder. “I think you might just transform?” Paul says, guessing. “We haven’t gotten there yet, because the rungs haven’t been written.” So in the meantime, they’re all just practicing with blind faith.
The Meyerists continue to attend meetings — which are called gatherings and very much resemble religious services led by a preacher — and strive to climb the ladder, with levels designated by terms such as 8R and 10R. Only three people have reached 10R status, the highest rung that’s been written thus far. These include Cal Roberts (Hugh Dancy). Sarah Lane (Michelle Monaghan), a prominent figure who was born into Meyerism and married an outsider (Eddie, played by Paul), is rapidly ascending. Eddie is only 6R, which means his wife can't even discuss certain privileged Meyerist information with him. It makes for a weird relationship dynamic. Sarah’s parents were among the first people to join the Meyerist movement when Dr. Meyer started it in the '70s. Cal’s parents joined later. At the time, Cal was just 5 years old, and he has always considered Dr. Meyer a surrogate father, especially after Cal's parents left the movement. Now that Dr. Meyer is dying (a fact only those who have achieved 10R status know), megalomaniacal Cal is fighting to become the new leader of the group. He’s extremely manipulative, in the way that most cult leaders are, and will even resort to violence to keep members in the fold. “When I set out to write the show, I wanted to explore this question of how you take a religion from a first generation to a second generation, and that seems to be the test. These cults sort of revolve around one deeply charismatic individual, and when that person is gone, is the religion over?” Goldberg asks. “I think what they’re preaching is a beautiful thing. The people in control of the movement, that’s what’s scary,” Paul says. “A lot of people’s egos [are] coming into play. They’re power-hungry. At the center of it all, the Meyerists are just preaching, ‘Be a good person. Be transparent. Unburden whatever you may be holding in'... We always joke around on set, saying, ‘I can absolutely buy into what they’re selling.’ It’s just that we [as actors and viewers] have the privilege of looking behind the velvet curtain and seeing the people holding the strings.” The movement expands through what believers call “outreach.” This includes going into disaster-stricken areas — even before FEMA — and bringing vulnerable, weak survivors to the compound. At the beginning of the first episode, we see a trailer park in Ringe, NH, that’s been destroyed by a tornado. The Meyerists arrive and pick up Mary Cox (Emma Greenwell), an addict who, we later learn, has been sexually exploited by her father since the age of 11. She’s the exact type of person on whom the Meyerists prey.
This all sounds familiar, right? A movement founded on the writings of a leader who is in the process of shuffling off this mortal coil. Now, another charismatic person who’s attained a high level in the movement is trying to step into his place. Constant talk about achieving clarity (you know, going clear) and personal enlightenment or truth. The Meyerists recruit people who look weak and lost in public places, like the streets of New York City. They even use machines — placing electrodes on their heads, chests, and arms — to monitor their internal energy. If your Scientology alarm bells are going off, you’re not alone. Ever since Hulu announced production of The Path (which was originally called The Way), Jessica Goldberg has been fielding questions about Meyerism’s similarities to Scientology. She even wrote an op-ed in The Hollywood Reporter to address the issue. Indeed, Cal does seem very much like David Miscavige, who took over as the leader of the Church of Scientology after founder L. Ron Hubbard’s death. And Goldberg does acknowledge in her story for THR some of the similarities between the two belief systems: "There is often a term for those who leave [Scientology]: 'apostates' or 'suppressive persons.' The Meyerists call people who don't believe 'ignorant systemites' and those who turn their back on the religion 'deniers.'" But Goldberg insists Meyerism isn't based entirely on Scientology — even though she knows the comparisons are bound to continue. “I think that’ll arise anyway because it’s the most, I don’t know if the word is popular, but the most known ‘new’ religion," she tells us. "But there are actually thousands of these new movements. [Scientology] just caught on. It has lots of celebrities, and people are fascinated with it, so they’re definitely going to draw that parallel [to Meyerism].” “But we did find that there are many religions that have levels — like this idea of the ladder that we have,” she continues. “In Scientology, they have the E-meter, and we have a Meyer machine. They’re different in that ours is supposed to be more common with other Eastern religions. It’s sort of electrostimulation that’s like doing acupuncture on yourself. Theirs is like a lie-detector test. The function [on The Path] is very different, but the idea of using a machine, I think, is fun. It’s also TV, so there has to be some weird, interesting stuff.” Goldberg doesn’t intend for the Meyerist movement depicted in The Path to be a direct analog of Scientology, nor is the show a condemnation of religion at all. Instead, it probes the structure of a belief system and how that can mutate from idealist origins to more mind-controlling ones. Specifically, The Path looks at how something can turn from an ecologically-oriented commune to a cult.
Of course, no one within the movement will say it’s a cult. “Because no one in a cult believes that they’re in a cult!” Paul says, laughing. “Let’s be honest. It’s a cult. It’s only from an outsider’s perspective that [you’re] able to see that it’s a cult. The people that are drinking the Kool-Aid — and, like, what happened in Waco — they think they’re going to another life together. But in reality, they’re just killing themselves. They’re trapped and brainwashed. Some movements are larger than others, so they’re not really considered cults anymore. They’re considered a way of life.” And it’s hard for members to turn their backs on this way of life. On The Path, Eddie suffers a crisis of faith that may ultimately cost him his relationship with Sarah, a devout worshipper. His teenage son Hawk (Kyle Allen), falls in love with an I.S. (ignorant systemite, a.k.a. non-believer). Hawk, too, must decide whether being ostracized by his mother and entire extended family is worth following his burgeoning feelings for a heathen — as well as a suspicion that the ladder and heavenly garden might be complete bullshit. Paul sees obvious comparisons between the struggle The Path’s characters are going through and those he’s witnessed in real life. “I have a couple of friends that are in Scientology now that do not buy into it whatsoever, but they still go through the day-to-day Scientology routine because they don’t want to lose their family," he says. "They know if they say something, they will never talk to their parents again... I grew up in a very religious household. Some of my friends’ families completely turned their backs on them because they don’t buy into the religion anymore, or because they’re gay. Their whole entire family, including siblings, won’t speak to them... It’s just so intense and so sad. It’s really scary.” The Path isn’t the first series to take on fringe religious movements. Shows like Big Love (in which Paul also appeared), Cult, and Aquarius all explore communities built around shared beliefs — usually with a charismatic leader at the helm — operating outside of mainstream society. What draws us to these shows is the same thing that draws us to exposés about Scientology, such as Going Clear. These stories pique our curiosity about our own personal natures and what we’re searching for (are we even searching for something?). Would it be easier to surrender that search to someone else offering easy answers? Would I be susceptible to a cult’s indoctrination and brainwashing? What sort of people are? Do I know any of them? Are there always going to be believers and non-believers when it comes to any type of religion? Can a believer love a non-believer? What if the believer is brainwashed? Can he or she be un-brainwashed? What will remain of that person afterward? It feels much safer to watch this play out on a screen than it would in real life. “I found that when we started studying religion in order to make one, at the base of most religions are beautiful, incredibly moving ideas, and it’s usually a person that messes it all up,” Goldberg says. “I feel that anything that won't allow you to doubt is problematic. I feel that [way] about some religions that are called religions.” That should probably give you something to think about. But in the meantime, would you like to take a free stress test?
The Path premieres March 30 on Hulu. New episodes are added weekly on Wednesdays.