Imagine a band of refugees, pushed from their homes in the face of religious persecution, searching for someplace to carve a “promised land” from the wild, craggy landscape of North America. Together they build cabins and dam rivers, buoyed by their conviction that they’re doing sacred work. But these pilgrims — in their zeal and ambition — drastically underestimate the people already inhabiting the land they’ve come to colonize.
When this error becomes inescapably clear, they immediately elect to steamroll their opposition.Intent on manifesting their destiny, the commune leaders recklessly compromise their ideals. Negotiation and middle ground are ignored in favor of might. An ideological, physical, and biological war is waged. Evil is excused as a “means to an end.” The persecuted become persecutors.
Before long, the honey-tinted visions of utopia are lost forever.
The tale I’m retelling is, of course, the story of the Puritans arriving at what would later become the United States. But it does double duty as a plot synopsis for Netflix’s Wild, Wild Country –– the six-part documentary miniseries about the religious guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, his arrival in the state of Oregon, the attempt by his acolytes to wrest control of sparsely populated Wasco County away from the farmers and ranchers living there, and his ultimate expulsion from the country after pleading guilty to immigration violations.
The fact that Wild, Wild Country feels like a microcosm of the foundation of our nation is due to the very nature of the story itself (and its telling). It’s a creation myth that morphs into a tale of a fallen utopia and, as such, could also easily be analogized to any number of things — the history of British colonialism; sacred texts of the three Abrahamic religions; the rise and fall of ’60s counterculture; the books Animal Farm, The Beach, and Lord of the Flies; the movie Avatar; and the foundation of just about every spiritual sect in human history. Our endless fascination with these archetypal stories is that they strike the same notes over and over, with unique details layered atop the basic “paradise built; paradise lost” structure.
To Wild, Wild Country‘s credit, it never points out its universal themes for the audience. Instead, the series relates its plot details without sentimentalizing. No one — not even the revered guru at the heart of the story — comes off as a saint. But no one comes off as pure evil, either. Are the ranchers of Wasco County homesteaders protecting their community or bigoted hicks? Is the Bhagwan a conduit for enlightenment or a master manipulator? Is his consigliere, Ma Anand Sheela, a fierce revolutionary facing bigotry or a power monger, ready to kill in order to retain control?
You could play out this exercise all day with the various characters from Wild, Wild Country. The Bhagwan’s lawyer, the state attorney general, the zealous media, the local police… none are perfect and all are punished.
In his review of Lady Bird, Vince Mancini marveled at how the movie’s specificity helped its message feel universal. By being particular with the details, it actually forged a deeper sense of audience involvement than the same movie with a more muddled point of view ever could have. So it goes with Wild, Wild Country. Its focus on the specifics of the Bhagwan’s failed utopia in Oregon creates endless connection points with the audience and leaves them free to draw their own “this show is a direct metaphor for _________!” conclusions.