Earlier this year, when The Path showrunner Jessica Goldberg spoke at the Television Critics Association's winter press tour, she promised that her new Hulu series was definitely not at all about Scientology.
Having now watched several episodes of The Path, I can promise you — it is definitely about Scientology.
It's also not about Scientology, to be fair: it's about Meyerism, a fictitious cult — err, movement — with compounds and centers in places like upstate New York and Peru. And Goldberg is wise to verbally distance herself from Scientology, perhaps the most litigious faith group in the world.
But if you've read up on the group, you might recognize some eerie similarities while watching The Path.
Ex-Scientologists often speak candidly about the pushback they would receive if they questioned the teachings of L. Ron Hubbard or the inner workings of the Church. Likewise, the first episode of The Path demonstrates how strongly this issue manifests in Meyerism as well. The show centers on Eddie (Aaron Paul), a husband and father who begins to question his faith after he experiences a disturbing vision. He keeps his questions a secret from his family and other Meyerists, however — what would they do to him if they knew he had doubt?
In Scientology, followers strive to cross the Bridge to Total Freedom, the process that separates them from enlightenment. A near-identical process exists in Meyerism — but instead, it's called the Ladder.
Members of Scientology and Meyerism label themselves based on what level they have achieved in their process to enlightenment. In Scientology, these are Operating Thetan levels, OT I through OT VIII, with as-yet unreleased levels allegedly to follow. In Meyerism, they're called Rungs — 1R through 10R are complete, and founder Stephen Meyer (Keir Dullea) is hard at work on transcribing the new rungs. (Or is he?)
After Scientologist founder L. Ron Hubbard died, his second-in-command, David Miscavige, took charge and led the Church into a more dangerous direction than ever before. Cal Roberts (Hugh Dancy), the man behind the Meyerist founder, seems poised to do the same as soon as he can.
"Everyone has pain, Mary," Eddie's wife Sarah (Michelle Monaghan) tells new recruit Mary (Emma Greenwell) early in the series. "We just try not to carry it with us." The idea of distancing oneself from one's history and trauma isn't unique to Meyerism — it's the reality of Scientology as well.
Scientologists can be easy to spot, because they're often out and about, proselytizing to the uninitiated about the cause. This is because many Scientologists actually work for the Church. Similarly, throughout the first episodes of The Path, we see that many residents of the Meyerist compound work there in addition to living there. Could this be a tactic to prevent defection?
A 2008 survey estimated that about 25,000 people in the United States identify as Scientologists, though the number of members is greater when populations in other countries are taken into account. We never find out how many members of Meyerism are out in the world, but we know that, like Scientology, they are small — and quickly growing.
So as not to sound entirely negative, let's remember that even the most fringe religious groups have contributed good to the world: Both Scientology and Meyerism place an emphasis on international humanitarian relief. Scientologists advertise their volunteer missions while The Path opens with Meyerist volunteers saving innocent people from tornado wreckage. Then again, doing good doesn't necessarily mean that Scientologists and Meyerists look kindly on those outside of their movements...
... because both groups also have names for the uninitiated and the threats they pose. In Scientology, there's a great deal of talk about Supressive Persons, or SPs. In The Path, Meyerists fear Ignorant Systemites, or ISs.
Many ex-Scientologists report being harassed, followed and threatened after their departures. We see this play out among the Meyerists as well: Alison (Sarah Jones) is a former member who left after her husband died mysteriously, and she lives in hiding knowing that the Meyerists are watching her closely.
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