Jessica Goldberg, who created Hulu's new dramaThe Path, says there were two questions she wanted to explore in the show's first season: 1) How do religious movements survive? And 2) Can people stay in a faith that they don't believe in - or, as Goldberg puts it, "One of my writers said she used to go to church for the doughnuts. Can you keep going for the doughnuts?"
On The Path, which is executive-produced by Goldberg and Jason Katims (both Parenthood alums), the first question is explored through the character of Cal (Hugh Dancy), a charismatic member of the Meyerist movement who's taken on a leadership role after learning an upsetting truth about the movement's leader.
"Cal is at the point of trying to take something from being a cult [on] the fringes to the mainstream, to the point where people have to call it something else," Dancy tells TVGuide.com. "Most small movements, cults — whatever you want to call them — they just don't manage that transition. They last for one generation, and then whoever set them up dies or goes away, does something else, and then they just all fade away. [But] every so often, through the right combination of circumstances and personalities, the thing can survive, and then it tends to explode. That's true of world religions as well."
The second question falls on the shoulders of Eddie (Aaron Paul), a member of the movement who's just come back from Peru, where he's been undergoing training to attain the "6R level" of the movement's Ladder. (Members of the Meyerist movement believe that if they ascend The Ladder, they will be saved during the End Times - which, according to Cal, are fast approaching.) Eddie's wife Sarah (Michelle Monaghan) notices he's been distant upon coming back, and is convinced it's because he cheated on her - aka "transgressed" - with one of the women on the retreat. (Also complicating things is the fact that Cal's still carrying a torch for Sarah, who confides in him about her suspicions regarding Eddie's alleged infidelity.)
But the real reason behind Eddie's strange behavior, depending on your point of view, is even worse: On his retreat, a vision made him see the truth about Meyerism and, as a result, he's starting to have doubts about the movement - which are only reinforced when he starts doing a little independent research on his return.
"[Cal] knows that something's up, but I actually think that he hasn't even begun to consider that Eddie's faith might be wobbling," Dancy says. "Weirdly, that's kind of the last place that he gets to. To us, it's very obvious, but to them, it's a given that you believe. But I think in a way, Cal just goes straight to the thing that he's most scared about, which is the secrets that he's guarding."
The average television viewer my find it hard to empathize with characters who are, on paper, basically cult members. But perhaps the most striking thing about The Path is how relatable its characters are as they search for the sense of community and belonging that their belief system provides.
Goldberg says the idea the show began to germinate after she experienced her own "crisis of faith." "It was probably more of an existential crisis," she says. "I had lost my dad and gotten divorced within a year, and felt very sort of at a loss. I guess I just started thinking about what that is, what that experience is that many people seem to go through, where suddenly they lose faith in the world around them."
Adds Dancy: "You see why those people are there, and you see what's appealing about it, and even beautiful about it."
And while there are certainly creepy elements to the Meyerist movement, the group's overall goals seem to be altruistic. (The show opens with members on a disaster relief mission in a small New Hampshire town, helping victims whose homes have been destroyed by a tornado.)
"We wanted to set about creating a faith that had a really sort of positive dream at its core," Goldberg says. "I think the misconception with cults is like, they're all sort of backwoods people raping people and married to 12-year-old girls. I did not want that. I wanted the dream that people have of an authentic life with meaning."
Even Cal, the show's villain on the surface, is more nuanced than he appears - though Dancy's sly performance infuses everything Cal says or does with a sense of foreboding.
"In quotes, he would be the 'bad guy,'" Goldberg says of Cal. "And yet ... I believe he wants to do good and he's sort of his own worst enemy sometimes. ... I would say his biggest weakness is wanting to be somebody special."
"Well-intentioned is a very good way of putting it," Dancy adds about his character. "Before the first episode, he's received a piece of information which is ... a very foundational blow to his belief and everything he's built his life around. ... So, he has [made] the decision to essentially suck it up and deal, absorb this thing and not share it with anybody, and just move forward and do what needs to be done to preserve the movement, which in turn means preserving himself. Because without it, there's a very, very frightening, dark place inside him that he doesn't want to let out, doesn't want to go back to. ... That's kind of where I see him as coming from, and that is well-intentioned, and it's very solitary, and it's a very difficult place to be."
Which brings us back to the original question Goldberg started out with.
"I had done so much research about cults when I started the project. Usually they center around a charismatic leader. And really, what sort of ensures that they'll go on is whether they can move to a second generation," she says. "Somebody's ego ... gets in the way sometimes. It's the same in the Catholic Church. Someone's illness or someone's hubris or someone's egomania is what can destroy something that actually has a very beautiful core. That's sort of what we were trying to do here. ... Can [Cal] take this religion into its second generation, or will his demons get the better of him?"
The first two episodes of The Path premiere on Hulu on Wednesday, with subsequent episodes released weekly. Check out a trailer here: