Jessica Goldberg is not the type of person who stays down for long. Her journey to creating Hulu’s The Path has been a story of destruction, creation, and ultimately finding a new frame for her pain. The show depicts the lives of the followers of a controversial New Age spiritual movement, Meyerism. Eddie (Aaron Paul), haunted by his brother’s suicide, finds solace in the group’s teachings — until he is confronted with its darker side. The many complexities of the show — complete with its own bible, teachings and roots in history — do not feel like the product of a linear evolution. Goldberg is at the heart of this intricate, brutal honesty. Raised in the midst of the famed spiritual community of Woodstock, NY in the ’70s, she was certainly not foreign to the motivations of religion. However, a major life detour is what truly spurred the screenwriter to create spiritual boundaries of her own. After the sudden death of her father and the dissolution of her marriage, Goldberg became fascinated with putting her pain in perspective. Creating a religion from nothing has involved far-flung perspectives, countless hours of research and collaboration. Now in its second season, The Path has proven Goldberg to be a world creator worth watching.
So Season 2 is out already.
I’m so excited!
Is it exciting or nerve-racking?
Both, but I'm trying to mostly just be psyched. We worked really hard. I loved the season and I'm really excited for people to see it. But of course, it’s like you have this in-utero project for a year. Then you have to put it in the world. That's really always horrible.
I know you’re originally a playwright, but tell me a little bit about how you’ve gotten to this place with this TV show.
Well, I actually wanted to be a novelist. I went to NYU, and discovered playwriting, theater, loved it, fell in love. I wrote plays for many years. I haven’t in years now, but still that’s a big love. So I was in New York. I had plays in theaters. I've had a couple plays out here, but it feels like a long time ago now. For a while I did both. I wrote movies and then plays, and then about, like, seven years ago or so I was getting divorced and took a TV job. And it was so smart.
You went into TV on a whim? And about seven years ago — that’s a really good time to get into it!
It was like the best time because right after that everybody wanted to work in television. I had written plays and written movies, and then I had this great agent, and he was like, “Jessica, you need to get out of your house. You should get a TV job.” It was right when things were changing and I wasn't sure — but it was the best thing.
So what was your first job in TV?
It was on a show on NBC called Deception. Then I went to Parenthood and that really changed my life.
How did you then go from Parenthood to The Path? That’s quite a jump!
I worked for Jason [Katims] for two years on Parenthood; he's the executive producer and I was sort of struggling. At that point I had worked on Deception, then I did that woman's next show called Camp. Then I hadn't written on my own in a while. I was struggling. My life had changed so drastically. I was like, “What am I going to say? What do I have to say?” I shut the door and didn’t pick up the phone. I was still in deep grief from my divorce and my dad had died, and just wrote this thing, on spec, in a room.
Were you previously interested in the topic of cults?
It's so odd. You know, everything is sort of mysterious, but I was thinking about religion a lot just because of the world. Then I was thinking about what it is to totally lose faith and have your life just sort of be upended in that way. And then I was like, “I kind of want to write something like Plato’s Cave meets The Matrix.” Just a bunch of weird ideas and I don't know how exactly one thing led to another. But I just started with this marriage that was falling apart, in which one person had stopped believing. I just sort of made it more literal.
What I think is really interesting is your personal side of it, but then also the fact that we're watching it in a time when people really are seeking answers — either for themselves or trying to understand others that have this faith.
Because ISIS was a really big deal. Scientology was a big deal. I grew up in Woodstock, so I was always really sort of mesmerized by alternative movements and people. It's very countercultural and I always sort of found that seductive.
Kind of New Age-like new belief.
Yeah, just people who wore beads and cool clothes and hung out together. It had an underbelly, but there was that sense of community.
With New Age stuff, there is something that's kind of freeing about not having that old historical tradition that, say, Catholicism has. I guess it’s a bit more dangerous because there aren’t those structured checks and balances built in, but I can see why it’s appealing.
Yes, although I love old churches. I really just love all that stuff, and I find it really terrifying and beautiful and comforting — a range of emotions. Then, after my dad died, I went to Jerusalem. Just being in that sort of hot bed of belief was so intense.
So did any of your plays mine any of these systems of belief?
No. You know, my plays were mostly about really — I mean, they were almost the opposite. They were about kids with nothing to do, directionless kids. So it's funny that I ended up here.
One thing I'm interested in about you as a female writer, particularly with The Path, is that in each episode there's the sort of equal sense of vulnerability and strength. I guess it’s maybe what you can feel when you walk into an old church — excited, but also sort of scared. You keep that tension really well through the personal relationships and through the belief, or the nonbelief, and all the questions. Do you think being a female had anything to do with that?
It's interesting. I think of myself as a very female thinker. I don't know what that means exactly, but sensitive, definitely. I have a daughter and I certainly sort of feel this thing with Michelle [Monaghan’s] character. While she can be very punishing, I just loved that character. It's funny to me how [the character] Cal can masturbate on someone and he can kill someone, but people judge Michelle so much more harshly. I'll read on Twitter and people say, "I hate her." But they love him. It's so crazy. It's really interesting how the double standard is for them.
Is there a character that you particularly love or relate to? Would you say it’s Michelle Monaghan’s character?
I sort of feel like now I love them all, but in the beginning, she and Eddie were different parts of me, probably. She's sort of the, “Alright, let’s go, let’s keep going. This is what we're doing. This is how it works.” And, he's the more like, “Well, I don’t know.”
I think what's great about it is that you really like both of them. Then you sort of see almost this one person who’s both pursuing faith but also has real doubt. What has been your experience of being a female showrunner?
It's been amazing. My partner Jason, he's such a deeply respectful human being. It's all about who your collaborators are, really, and I had had instances where I felt my — I don't know if it was just being a female, but also being greener and so new at it all. But in this experience I've felt deeply respected. I think that that came from sort of having him as a guide. Then our line producer is a woman. We work with a lot of women. Aaron [Paul] and Hugh [Dancy] are like two deeply respectful men, of women. I mean, I would be curious, if it's a unique situation, but we certainly are like in our own little culty bubble of “everyone's pretty awesome.”
Who are the women in TV that you look up to?
This woman that I worked with who had done Friday Night Lights with Jason. Her name was Liz Heldens. There's just a bunch of these people that are like, “Just get back up there and make another show.”
Do you think that's kind of what it takes?
The one thing about TV and film, it's just like the populism where it’s, “Oh, people wanted these stories. They are interested in these stories.” And, it's been very exciting. Our show is a little less female specific, it’s not as gender focused.
I find that compelling, watching it, knowing that you've written it. I don't think I would have been able to tell necessarily that there was a female creator behind it, apart from the fact that the female characters are probably better developed than a lot of instances when a man writes them. They're more complex and seem to have the freedom to be more severe because a woman wrote them.
I often feel nervous about that. We're working in religion, which is notoriously sexist, so you want to tell that Cal has power in that way, but you don't want to do that thing that you've seen a million times, of a leader who's getting 10 blow jobs. It's sort of a hard line to tell the stories that were the right story for the show.
It's interesting to see how we view these female characters because a writer is probably going to know they'll get a backlash.
I definitely know we have a little self-consciousness about what we do, as women. And Michelle wants to do it. She's just like, “Kill me. I want to be dark. Bring it on.” Yeah, she's definitely like, “I don't want to just be a wife and mother. Give me some real guts.”
And her character does like to kind of keep pushing the family in that direction. It's just really great to see that on screen. I'm curious, has your position on religion and faith changed?
I certainly know a lot more about it. We’ve done so much research of many religions when we were sort of coming up with the tenets of Meyerism. I feel similarly — probably more moved and turned off at the same time.
I guess knowing how big the evangelical vote was for Trump has made a lot of people I know — that have no faith or a different faith — have more of a desire to understand that side of Christianity. It’s difficult, though, to look into it very deeply without a preconceived idea of what you think and what you expect to find.
We tried to sort of say we're going to look at religion as if we love it. We're not going to be judgmental and we're not going to make believers look like freaks. We're going to try to find the beauty. You know, actually evangelical Christianity is one of the roads we've looked the least into. I mean, now it might be interesting if we get to keep going, to have a sort of angle towards that as it takes on multiple generations.
It's such an interesting time. I have a feeling faith and more stuff like this will come into the mainstream. Have you sensed that since coming out with the show?
Well, it's funny because there was nothing really and now when I talk to people they say — I mean, I haven't seen a lot of it, but apparently there is more and more.
So, what was the response when you took The Path out to the networks?
They were very skeptical.
Really? Because of touching religious stuff?
It wasn't something that had been done, and people are very nervous about Scientology. There was a lot of fear around the subject matter. But we got lucky with Hulu, and then when actors aren't afraid, they want to do it. That helped a lot.
The casting is great. When you were creating The Path, did you feel like you had a message in it, or did you sort of see it as just entertainment?
I feel very moved by the episodes that, to me, really push the borders of what we believe. The one where Eddie sees his brother on the beach. He goes on this walk and they go to a homeless shelter. Obviously we have to be entertaining and we get notes about being entertaining. But I do hope to maintain a deepening exploration of what faith means to people — if there's any message in it. Which is to not judge it, but to just explore it.
I was reading a book recently that explores the idea that it's impossible to not have a faith. Atheism takes faith. Even scientists have to have faith in science. So, we have a faith in something. It just might not be a God figure.
Absolutely, oh I feel that way about, like, certainly writing. Just like I think when I wanted to be a playwright, like you would go to the theater once in a while and have that quick collective experience with these people. And, that's like a certain kind of house of worship in a way. There was a catharsis that's happening. There's empathy, there's trying to have a deeper understanding of how other human beings live.
There are a few documentaries out about cults and the journeys people go on, and at what point they kind of have to morph into something different or just stop. Does this start happening in Season 2?
Eddie is in the secular world, and that's a really interesting tension. Michelle, who was sort of the zealot last year, is in a position of leadership and understanding the gray area of that. It really challenges her faith a lot, which has been fun for that character that was so principled last year. Then [Kaili Vernon’s character] Kelly, at least for a lot of the season, is really trying to repent and find something true again. So we really shifted all the dynamics. And the one biggest change is where I sort of felt like last year you could watch the show and think there was no God. This year, there may be.
So you start to understand why the characters keep going?
Just that maybe there's something behind it all.
What have the actors said about their journeys through it? Because it's a heavy thing.
It is a heavy thing. I think it's so interesting. Aaron is the funniest, warmest guy and he plays this deeply tortured human being. Michelle, I think really wanted to do it because she felt like it's harder for women to have material where they're complicated. They're all just very smart. They read every script. They're very collaborative with me.
Is it a collaboration?
There is a lot of collaboration. I mean it's pretty awesome. We've really found a groove now with all that.
But it would be a hard show — not necessarily hard, but it'd probably be different if it wasn't collaborative because it's purely personal, that kind of material.
Even last year in between seasons all three of those actors came into our writers’ room separately. We took a lot of ideas from them. You know, because they're in their character and then they’re kind of like, “I would like to see my character do this.” I think being in a character, sometimes you have senses of where a character might go and it's really useful.
What sort of research did you do? I know that you actually wrote the Meyerism bible.
The bible, yeah. Well, you know we read a lot of different books, saw that documentary, but it’s really gleaned from a bunch of different things. It's interesting, too, because the time America most sought, was sort of like the ’60s–’70s counterculture. It'll be interesting now, in this new regime, if more movements are born. What happens out of this.
Even just looking at the women’s march, it felt like people were there with some contradictory feelings about what was just going on around them. Or they didn't necessarily agree with some of the messages some people had. But they could still be there.
Yeah, I have been thinking about that because at first there was like a lot of, “It’s already failed.” I'm like, let everyone get out there and collectively grieve or collectively have some sort of response. I think that's what ended up happening and it was so beautiful. I was really nervous about how everyone just blamed each other after Hillary [Clinton] lost. Like, "It's because of this." But I think that the product of [the women’s march] was about a collective. It could be whatever.
One more question for the younger people who want to eventually get into the industry: What sort of advice or words of wisdom do you have?