This essay contains light spoilers from the first two episodes of The Path.
Usually, I pinpoint the loss of my faith in the Christian God (and his son, and the Holy Ghost) on the year my mother died, when I was 15-years-old. But it actually started a few years sooner. Like Aaron Paul’s character in Hulu’s new drama The Path, I got an inclination about something I experienced while practicing my religion, and I could never quite let it go.
Right after Sunday School, I must have been about 12 or 13, I approached our teacher (Sister Fisher, I believe) at Union Baptist Church in Cambridge, to ask her a question that had been weighing on me all morning: Why did Jesus absolutely have to die? I needed to know. If he was the Son of God, and also God, why couldn’t he come up with a less, well, horrible way to prove his love and save our souls? Why couldn’t he have worked with God to forgive us of our sins in some other way?
And I’ll never forget what she told me.
She looked me dead in the eyes and said, “You know what, Shannon? When you die and you go up to Heaven, that’s when you’ll get your answer.”
I nodded, waiting for more.
Finally, she added, “In that exact moment when you get to Heaven, all of your questions will be answered.”
That was the beginning. I knew Sister Fisher was lying to me, in the Church, though I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why. It took me a while to realize that she didn’t know the answer, or she didn’t know how to answer me, but she occupied a space where she couldn’t say that. She couldn’t say, “I don’t know,” or “I’m not sure, but let me investigate and get back to you.” And it wasn’t her fault. Part of the problem with so many religions—and movements—is that you’re not allowed to ask difficult questions and you’re not allowed to say you don’t have the answer, especially if you’ve been put in a position of leadership and power. So those of us with questions—big and small—will soon find ourselves looking elsewhere for answers.
And the same thing occurred when I had questions about my mother. How in the world, could a loving God, ignore hundreds of thousands of prayers I’d offered up in the time since she was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer? After all, as a former ward of the state, I was on my third mother (birth, foster, adoptive)— it had to be a special kind of God who saw fit to take away the first mother who chose me, and committed to that choice. What kind of God? I often asked (though, admittedly, with more expletives). And no one offered up a satisfactory answer—in fact that very question (expletives or no) is considered to be an act of blasphemy in and of itself.
And this is why I loved the first two episodes of The Path. Aaron Paul is playing Eddie, and Eddie has questions. And this means that Eddie is in big trouble. He goes on a trip to Peru that is, in accordance with the Meyerist movement, supposed to bring him closer to the Truth and the Light—those gods of the movement. Instead, he sees something that he can’t quite shake off, something that suggests the leaders of the movement are lying to the believers.
Of course, like most people faced with a crisis of faith, he tells no one. But he begins by asking small questions. In the first episode, “What the Fire Throws,” he asks Hugh Dancy’s character, Cal—the head of the movement—how long, precisely, it will take their messiah-like figure Dr. Meyer to finish the “work” he’s totally, definitely been doing in Peru. An entire group of believers, including his wife (a fantastic Michelle Monaghan as Sarah) sits in shock over the sheer audacity of his asking such a question. The question invites a certain logic into their system, and the belief seems to be that logic and faith cannot coexist. And of course Cal pulls a Sister Fisher, and answers the question, without answering a damn thing—but in such a way that the faithful are wholly satisfied.
There are multiple other scenarios throughout the first two episodes, where small questions are introduced and their complications are rejected, in a way, by the movement. In “The Era of the Ladder,” Sarah and Eddie’s son wants to help a cute girl at school with a family problem. How does the movement feel about that? The answer’s not so simple, and in attempting to make it a black and white issue, both parents fail to adequately prepare him for what happens.
The biggest mistake people will make, I fear, will be to consider the show a story about a cult, or even merely a critique of organized religions. One very clear message sent is that Meyerism is not a religion, but a movement. In this way, the group and their followers come to represent political movements and other social groups as well—all of which invites other, equally compelling interpretations. What questions do you have to suppress, The Path asks, to vote in an election, for one candidate over another? If you believe in a particular social movement, is there space to interrogate that movement, while participating in it? And what are the dangers of challenging such a movement from the outside? I’m especially interested in seeing how the FBI storyline plays into all this—the writers were very careful to highlight the bureaucracy involved in one agent wanting to open up an investigation, and getting the following response when he noted that the Meyerists were first on the scene: “No one got to Ringe before FEMA.” For some people in power, it’s more important to pretend a particular movement doesn’t even exist, rather than interrogate it and its effects on a group of people (in this case, those who were rescued after the tornado). What dangers lie in a willful ignorance that seeks to disavow the power of one particular group of people?
If The Path continues to develop the storylines it presented in these first two installments, we’ll be able to better understand the show as a critique on an entire society where individual thought itself is deemed radical. It’s exciting to think that the relationship between religious thought, our political system and an educational system that pretends to exist outside of both, might be challenged by this fascinating (and, sidenote, incredibly sexy) new series. For those of us who’ve been championing series like Transparent, The Leftovers and Orange is the New Black, The Path is a welcome addition to a far-too-slim selection of shows daring to tackle questions of faith.
Shannon M. Houston is a Staff Writer and the TV Editor for Paste, as well as a script consultant on Season Three of Transparent. This New York-based freelancer probably has more babies than you, but that’s okay; you can still be friends. She welcomes almost all follows on Twitter.