Thursday, April 7, 2016

A Clearly Marked Trail: The First Episode of The Path

Michelle Monaghan and Aaron Paul in The Path.

“In the beginning, I sort of just made up stuff,” said The Path’s showrunner, Jessica Goldberg, in a interview about the invention of the TV show’s fictionalized religion, Meyerism. A hodgepodge of various religions and belief systems, Meyerism is at the heart of the drama in the Goldberg’s first television series which launched Wednesday April 6th on Hulu. While American Hulu subscribers can take in all 10 episodes of The Path right away, here in Canada we’re forced to walk the sacred ancient path of weekly installments. The series’ pilot, “What the Fire Throws,” aired last Thursday April 7th on Showcase and will be followed by tonight’s second episode titled, “The Era of the Ladder.” While the pilot was amusing enough, Goldberg’s aforementioned approach to screenwriting shows in this largely predictable first episode.

Following a colourful yet strangely off-putting credits sequence, “What the Fire Throws” opens on a scene of destruction. After a couple minutes of quizzical staring from the audience (is this a war zone? is the show set in some apocalyptic near future?), it becomes apparent that a natural disaster has struck, leaving many lost, injured, and devastated. A mother holds her child and sobs, a scantily-clad blond waif scours the wreckage for food and water; suddenly, several vans pull up to the scene. Young “crunchy-granola” people in matching T-shirts pour out and administer aid, tending to the sick, offering water, and then, unsettlingly, ushering the victims into vans with the promise that they’re taking them to a safe place. Such is our first glimpse of the Meyer Movement’s followers in action. They are helpful but suspicious, wolves in sheep’s clothing preying on the innocent. This should tell you everything you need to know about The Path but, just in case you missed it, there’s at least 40 minutes left to hammer the point home.

The tornado survivors are mostly background noise supporting the pilot’s plot of a man questioning his faith. Eddie Lane (Aaron Paul of Breaking Bad) is a married father of two. Brought into the Meyer Movement at a young age after the death of his brother, he is following in the spiritual footsteps of his wife Sarah who, born into the religion, naturally surpasses him in the cult’s spiritual hierarchy. Sarah (Michelle Monaghan) is an “8R,” on the eighth and currently top rung of the movement’s “ladder,” a metaphor for its upward trajectory toward “The Light,” whatever that means. Comparatively, Jesse Pinkman Eddie is still in the shallow end, having just returned from a mandatory Peruvian spiritual retreat that cements his designation as a “6R.” While the forced drug usage and cultural appropriation Eddie encountered during his time in Peru didn’t seem to bother him, he’s returned to The Movement’s upstate New York haven seemingly rattled and behaving erratically, much to the annoyance of his wife. Sarah suspects her husband is having an affair  but the only thing Eddie is seeing behind his wife’s back is common sense and reality.

Hugh Dancy in The Path.

The cast might save this one. Although I rib Aaron Paul for being “Jesse Pinkman in _____” every time I see him in any role other than his unforgettable performance in Breaking Bad, Paul works for this role. He has a great capacity for playing unremarkable men set on edge by external forces. Eddie is paranoid, conspiratorial, and not terribly smart but he is trying in vain to make sense of the world around him and do the right thing notably, all qualities that made his Breaking Bad alter ego the emotional heart of the series. That said, I struggle to believe Aaron Paul could be the father of a 15-year-old son (played by 21-year-old Heath Ledger clone, Kyle Allen, who has had minimal screen time thus far). Paul has undoubtedly matured as a performer but, so far, it seems he might be a little bit out of his depth. On the subject of Breaking Bad comparisons, while Monaghan is captivating and a much more convincing mother figure, she also appears to be spawned from the same cookie-cutter wife shape as early-season Skylar White: clever, strong, covertly independent, but muddying situations by jumping prematurely to inaccurate conclusions. Sarah’s amateur detective work, as she pursues her troubled husband, comes off as farcical and frustrating. By letting us in on Eddie’s secret while Sarah is left wondering, The Path sets her up to be alienated from the audience. Sarah is challenging to relate to but Monaghan’s proven talent and range (True Detective, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) might be enough to save the character.

Of course, no voyeuristic look into the internal workings of a dubious religion would be complete without a love triangle. Enter Cal Roberts (Hugh Dancy, Hannibal), de facto leader of The Movement. While Meyerism’s L. Ron Hubbard figure, Dr. Steven Meyer, is in seclusion translating the last two rungs of the spiritual ladder from divine sources unknown, Cal has been charged with leading the flock, dodging questions, and turning Plato’s Allegory of the Cave into a hokey religious sermon to the delight of his adoring fans/followers in the interim. In an astonishingly transparent piece of expository dialogue upon Cal’s much anticipated return to New York following a three-year stint in San Francisco, it’s revealed that Sarah and Cal used to date until Sarah broke his heart and dumped him for Eddie. On the surface, Sarah, Eddie, and Cal all seem to have maintained a close friendship in spite of these circumstances but the show is quick to point out that Cal is still a bachelor, sending one big, obvious wink in the audience’s direction that suggests something untoward is about to go down. All writing issues aside, Dancy makes the show. Unlike Aaron Paul’s seemingly permanent case of “Pinkmanism,” Dancy is a chameleon of a performer: he can be anything, any time, and it always works. His pastor character, complete with pastor haircut, is simultaneously warm and terrifying, wholesome enough to carry a Nalgene wherever he goes while also being the type of Patrick Bateman figure that does chin-ups in his office daily without breaking a sweat. Dancy’s Cal Roberts appears as the lone unpredictable factor in The Path’s pilot. In a story that seems largely straightforward upon first inspection, figuring out what exactly this character’s deal is seems like it’ll be the hook that keeps audiences tuning in.

The end of the episode is unlikely to surprise critical audiences. I mean, could it be that the made up cult that has demonstrated questionable ethical choices already is maybe not as wholesome as it claims to be? Is there something dangerous to be said about blind, unquestioning faith? Hard to say, I know.

In spite of the predictable rudimentary plot “What the Fire Throws” presents to the audience, its potential as a character drama merits a second chance. I won't hold my breath on Meyerism emerging as the world's one true religion any time soon but the collective strengths of the show's cast may be just enough to turn this clearly marked trail into a compelling look at the interplay between faith and human nature.

– Danny McMurray has a B.A. in English Language and Literature with a minor in Anthropology from the University of Western Ontario. She is particularly enthusiastic about science fiction, horror movies, feminism, video games, books, opera, and good espresso – all of which she can find in spades in her home base of Toronto, Ontario. 

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