As depicted in the first season of The Path, the members of the fictitious Meyerist Movement were a straightforward bunch. Under the interim leadership of the extremely charismatic and secretly self-loathing Cal (Hugh Dancy), individuals such as Hank and Gab Armstrong (Peter Friedman and Deirdre O’Connell) more or less served as blissful blank slates, representative of the organization at its best and most loyal. As a result, it fell almost entirely to Eddie Lane (Aaron Paul) to question the religion and to Cal to embody every one of Eddie’s sinister suspicions, including but not limited to Cal’s feelings for Eddie’s wife, Sarah (Michelle Monaghan). The series seemed less interested in tackling religion than in presenting a familiar family drama, with the Lanes being torn apart by differing desires.
The show’s second season wisely places the focus predominantly on the religion and adds shades to the once black-and-white struggle between Cal, Eddie, and Sarah. This is accomplished through a tidy bit of role reversal. Sarah’s elevation alongside Cal as “Co-Guardian of the Light” gives her the opportunity to make the same sort of mistakes for which she once criticized the leader. The decision simultaneously humanizes Cal, who’s as flawed and redeemable as Sarah and the rest of the flock, people torn between perfection and corruption. This alteration in dynamics and newfound independence also serves to focus more on the needs and desires of the show’s secondary characters. Instead of a top-down power struggle, The Path charts the bottom-up journey of each individual in search of happiness at any cost.
Sarah’s brother, Russel (Patch Darragh), once seemed like a harmless hippie, strumming away on his guitar, but once Cal elevates Sarah to Co-Guardian of the Light, Russel’s deep-seated sibling rivalry becomes more visible, his every action a cry for the approval of their parents. Even Abe (Rockmond Dunbar), depicted last season as an unflappable F.B.I. agent driven to embed himself within the movement so as to expose what he believes are its malicious practices, now finds himself having both a spiritual and personal awakening, thanks largely to the kindness of the community and the temptations of Russel’s lonely, oft-ignored wife, Nicole (Ali Ahn).
While these character moments are patiently earned, The Path isn’t nearly as deft processing its real-world analogues, particularly a subplot about an upstate town suffering from a poisoned water supply and a political cover-up. The series all but name-checks Flint, Michigan, banking on in-the-know viewers to fill in the many blanks surrounding that storyline; the whole plotline is ultimately used only to artificially drive a deeper wedge between the increasingly “woke” Hawk (Kyle Allen) and his parents, Eddie and Sarah.
Thanks to Cal’s tireless efforts to expand his cult, the series no longer takes place solely within the Meyerists’ isolated, upstate New York compound, but within the temptation-filled environ of New York City. Eddie, who’s been kicked out of the movement and labeled a “denier,” allows the series to explore what it must feel like to attempt to reintegrate into the wider world and, after nearly 20 years of groupthink, to once again have to make his own decisions. Aaron Paul is absolutely haunting throughout, all sunken eyes and simmering rage, lurching from a support group to an old flame (Levin Rambin) with the sort of unsteady gait of a man at sea for the first time, and grasping at anything that might somehow bring him closer to his children.
When it comes to character drama, The Path hews toward naturalism. But it isn’t shy about toying with religious symbology, and these moments demonstrate a visual richness that helps to better highlight the addictive allure of what the Meyerists call “the light.” Major moments are often predicated upon magical acts, whether it’s Hawk levitating (or at least believing himself to be) mid-meditation, or the way in which Sarah resorts to blackmail—a character turn that’s foreshadowed in an early scene in which she literally turns down a darker path while driving, mowing down a deer.
In one of the show’s most riveting scenes, Eddie is abruptly overtaken by a premonition, the world around him changing in tune with a distorted version of the Beach Boys’s “God Only Knows.” The Path’s first season tended to restrict such mystical visions to ayahuasca-guided awakenings, but season two doubles down on stigmata and other ominous signs; one episode ends with a visceral spray of black blood from the body of a butchered cow.
There are more than a few undercooked moments throughout the show’s second season that result from characters suddenly dropping in or out of the plot, like militant Kodiak (James Remar) and original Meyerist Bill (Brian Stokes Mitchell). Even with the hasty resolution of some storylines, the season’s last few episodes still end up feeling overstuffed. They never, however, feel aimless. While the characters may confess to one another that “None of us know what’s true,” while Cal and Sarah may drop their façades and struggle with their flagging beliefs the moment they step off the stage of the World Faith Conference, The Path itself has a very clear road in mind.