Remember that episode of Mad Men, where Don hallucinates about killing a woman? It caught me off guard for a moment; it’s such a well-made scene that it seems, for just a few seconds, that Don Draper has finally gone off the deep end and murdered an old flame. But of course, he hasn’t. It’s interesting to think about why it could have happened—why it’s not completely unfeasible for Draper to kill a woman with his bare hands. But it can’t happen. Don Draper can be a lot of things—a lover, a fighter, a cheater; he can be charismatic, brilliant and he can be bad—but he can’t be an actual killer.
Hugh Dancy’s Cal on The Path is certainly not meant to be a Don Draper. He’s the leader of the fictional Meyerist movement, and he’s meant to represent certain male leaders in religious institutions and/or cults. He’s no anti-hero, but in the early episodes, he was a fascinating character who wasn’t easily pegged down. At the start of The Path, Cal plays well as the face of the movement, and as a certain ideal man in Sarah’s eyes. As her ex-boyfriend, there’s an easygoing flirtation between the two of them, all of which helps to further pit him against Aaron Paul’s Eddie. And of course, Eddie’s crisis of faith—and his visions while on the spiritual retreat in Peru—require us to question the movement along with him, and to question Cal’s supposed anointing as the leader, as well.
Over the course of those first few episodes, we are also invited to the darker side of Cal’s world. He is a violent alcoholic, but we understand that much of his anger (and his substance abuse) stems from a troubled childhood. In “A Homecoming,” he visits his mother and we get the sense that—even if it eventually turns out that there is no “Ladder,” and the movement is just another institution determined to control its believers—Cal will not be presented as a mere villain. Even the improper sexual relationship he has with Mary is somewhat complicated by the fact that he’s visibly, physically struggling with their interactions. Of course, in the end, Mary is the one who suffers the most. But it’s not quite enough to dismiss Cal—who is so clearly troubled, and suffering—as the big bad. We’re still interested in finding out more about him, and how he’s come to be where he is, both emotionally and spiritually.
But in the latest episodes, there are some major developments that make it difficult to be as invested in Cal. In “Refugees,” he finally goes too far, and commits actual murder. Silas shows up and tells Cal that it’s over—the movement, his leadership—it’s time to close up shop on the whole thing. And in a fit of rage, Cal shoves a cracked pot into his neck, and ends his life.
The murder of Silas serves to, possibly, destroy two things that The Path had going for it—1.) the Meyerist movement as a somewhat legitimate and also incredibly interesting premise, and 2.) Cal as a strange, troubling character still capable of a nuanced exposition.
Following “Refugees,” we see Cal traumatized by what he’s done in the most recent episode, “The Shore.” While this could prove to be somewhat helpful in maintaining a humanizing aspect of his development, it doesn’t help that we also watch him dig a hole, and bury the body. This episode also marks his and Sarah’s first physical transgression. Eddie is on his walk with Hawk, and Sarah has a moment of weakness. Had Cal not become so monstrous in the last few episodes, we might have found ourselves, actually, curious about a possible rekindling of their relationship. In many ways, Cal and Sarah make more sense together than Sarah and Eddie, but it’s hard to be curious about Cal getting close to anyone, now that we’ve seen just how destructive he is—how far he will go to remain in control.
And although, for some viewers, it might have always been obvious that the Meyerist movement was pure fiction turned to dogma, I enjoyed the ambiguity of it all. With Silas’ announcement, not only is Cal further villianized (he’s got an even heftier set of lies to keep up with), but a character like Sarah—and the other believers—loses substance. We have basically been told that their belief is completely unfounded, and their lives are a lie. This makes it harder for The Path to play as a critique of organized religion and other belief systems, because the curtain has been so vehemently pulled back.
Of course, this may all be a part of the show’s grand plan. Even if Cal is past redemption, The Path remains a compelling watch, and we’ll have to keep tuning in to see if the next (and final) two episodes of the season find a way to build on the promises of those early episodes. It’s possible that The Path simply isn’t going to be what I was expecting. And if that’s the case, I’m still holding out hope that it remains this strange show, with strange characters that we can still connect with, as the series continues to evolve.
Shannon M. Houston is a Staff Writer and the TV Editor for Paste. 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.