Update: this article contains spoilers for only the first season of The Path. Apparently the show is now on its third season.
I’m stunned to say I’ve seen every episode of Hulu’s bizarre cult drama The Path. It’s somewhere between a guilty pleasure and an amusing frustration, ten episodes of Scientology-mocking melodrama starring a cast of actors from your favorite shows: Michelle Monaghan of True Detective, Aaron Paul of Breaking Bad, and Hugh Dancy of Hannibal.
As I watched the first several episodes, I found myself distracted by Hugh Dancy’s character Cal Roberts, the up-and-coming charismatic leader of the Meyerist Movement. Who does he remind me of, I wanted to know. And then it occurred to, somewhere in the middle of the season: his character resembled Glenn Howerton’s Dennis Reynolds from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. In fact, I have become convinced that Hugh Dancy is intentionally modeling his acting on Howerton’s depiction of Dennis Reynolds, and that the writers of The Path may have been inspired by Always Sunny.
Dennis Reynolds and Cal Roberts have similar appearance and mannerism.
Their facial expressions are over-the-top. They enunciate like madmen. They give dramatic speeches. They even dress similar. I am also not the only person to notice these similarities. This thread on the subreddit for The Path is dedicated to the similarities between these two dramatic men.
Both men seem to be holding a lot in. As Dennis says: “and although I seem relaxed, I’m actually incredibly tense at all times.
Dennis and Cal are both cult leaders with delusions of grandeur.
In the finale of Always Sunny‘s tenth season, Dennis starts a cult called “Ass Kickers United” for the purpose of manipulating Mac (Rob McElhenney). It becomes an exercise in delusion, power, and exploitation, playing on its members weaknesses. Mac and Charlie become devoted members without realizing that Dennis is the secret master behind the entire thing.
“You need years of practice to even sniff my talent for manipulation,” he tells Dee and Frank. “Now if you’ll excuse me, there’s a cult that needs a charismatic leader.”
The comparison to Cal is almost too obvious. Cal is the David Miscavige of The Meyerist Movement in The Path. As the founder of Meyerism lays dying, Cal creates rules, wields power, and toys with his followers like they’re pawns.
As the storylines of The Path escalate, Cal declares himself the new leader and decides to start creating new rules and beliefs for Meyerism. This echoes the cult founded by Dennis, who ultimately admits that the entire thing is his own invention. “The whole thing is made up. I made it up.”
Dennis and Cal are both wounded by self-doubt, addiction, and weakness.
“I am a golden god,” Dennis is known to proclaim. But, as mentioned above, this self-admiration is built on fragility and weakness. When rejected by women – something that happens with regularity – Dennis is known to break down, uttering “I am sexually attractive” as he weeps.
Cal’s weaknesses and insecurities manifest themselves in slightly different – but equally destructive – ways. His inappropriate behavior includes drinking to excess, losing his temper, killing a guy, lying to everyone about various thing, and deciding that he is the anointed leader of Meyerism, all to the dismay of the other prominent Meyerists.
Both Cal and Dennis use The D.E.N.N.I.S. System
Dennis Reynolds is known for his tactics of manipulation and his inflated ego, but if there is one example of his debauched nature that stands above the rest, it is The D.E.N.N.I.S System. This system, explained in the fifth season, is his method for wooing, seducing, and abandoning all of his female conquests.
It has six steps, practiced by Dennis on Always Sunny… and repeated by Cal Roberts on The Path.
In the opening scene, drug addict and prostitute Mary Cox (Emma Greenwell) first sees the charismatic leader Cal as he arrives at the aftermath of a tornado that tore through her trailer park. He demonstrates value to her in three ways:
- saving Mary (and others) from the wreckage of the tornado, providing them with food, water, shelter, medicine, and cult indoctrination
- refusing her sexual advances
- returning to the trailer park so that he can find her abusive father and beat him up, with Mary watching.
The episode ends with him having successfully demonstrated to her that he is a good guy, while refusing her physically.
In the second episode, Cal no longer rebukes Mary physically. They engage physically… but with the later steps of the system already hinted at. He nudges her toward fellow cult member Sean, suggesting they would make a good couple (which also sets him up for the fourth step.)
Dennis’s system involves the nurturing of dependence by protecting his romantic interest (or victim) from some outside danger, including having her car towed or making her fear a “fictional angry neighbor.”
In The Path, that danger comes in the form of Mary’s father. Cal’s attack against him left him in the hospital, and the father begins to lurk outside the gates of the cult’s camp.
As Dennis say, “Pull back, guys. Pull back.”
In Dennis’s method, neglecting emotionally involves no longer being there to protect her against the threats from before. Cal’s method is similar, although he does this by encouraging Mary’s relationship with Sean, then sending Sean away (leading Mary to start a third relationship, with a woman who runs the infirmary), then bringing Sean back and encouraging them to get married.
“She’ll start getting really mixed up,” Dennis tells his friends as he explains the method. Mixed-up is exactly what Mary becomes, through her troubled dynamic with Cal. “Find someone else to fuck with,” Mary tells him in the seventh episode. “I’m sure you’ve got plenty of options.”
“I want to tell you that the reason I was distant was I was afraid you’d break my heart,” Dennis tells his romantic conquests, when he returns to manipulate during the fifth step of his method.
In the finale of The Path‘s first season, “The Miracle,” Cal and Mary spend the night together. After encouraging her to get married to Sean in the penultimate episode, they once again “engage physically.” But does that mean they are together now?
Of course they aren’t together now. The day after Mary spends the night with Cal, she marries Sean. Cal performs the Meyerist wedding ceremony, suggesting he is severing all his romance with Mary. Or is he?
“I’m trying to re-Dennis this chick!”
As we see in “The D.E.N.N.I.S. System,” Dennis’s system isn’t flawless. He attempts to “re-Dennis” a woman, realizing he wasn’t satisfied after finishing the sixth step.
We can only assume Cal will do the same. Like Dennis, he is a damaged man who can never be satisfied.
Both men are killers.
Cal Roberts commits one murder in The Path, an act of violence that sends him on a spiral through darkness.
Dennis may or may not have murdered, with examples including the subtextual suggestion that he killed a man named Brian LeFevre and his trunk full of duct tape, zip ties, and gloves.
“I am untethered and my rage knows no bounds” – Dennis Reynolds
There is one distinct difference between these two characters: Dennis is a tragic narcissist in a comedy, while Cal Roberts is a tragic narcissist in a drama. But both men are cautionary tales, harbingers of what men can become when we get lost in ourselves.
We can cry for Cal Roberts or laugh at Dennis Reynolds, but both contain the same message: do not let this happen to you.