“Cults” provides a short but insightful look at the history, allure and potential danger of charismatic leaders and their indoctrination.
This recap of Explained (Netflix) Season 2, Episode 1, “Cults”, contains spoilers. You can check out our thoughts on the previous season by clicking these words.
The point of Explained (Netflix) — and its spin-off, The Mind, Explained — is to take a broad topic and present an exploration of it in bite-sized, digestible chunks. The episodes run about the length of an average sitcom episode. They all combine expert testimony, archival footage, and simple hand-drawn animations to make their points. And the points are typically good ones. This isn’t a documentary series for wannabe experts trying to glean every possible nugget of information about a specific topic; it’s for laymen hoping to be given a brief overview of what something is and why it matters. Explained Season 2 debuted today with its first episode focusing on the idea of cults and how the internet is fostering a new breed of remote leaders with access to a previously unimaginable number of manipulable followers.
Not to get all doom and gloom about matters, obviously. But “Cults”, in laying out the blueprints for not just how a cult operates — with a charismatic leader at the forefront and various systems of indoctrination and exploitation keeping the masses in check — but also how social and political turbulence drive the disenfranchised towards alternate sources of meaning and community, it makes an easy connection to our current deeply-divided always-online culture.
The correlation is compelling, as are some of the deeply disturbing images and videos of prominent cults and their attendant tragedies throughout history, including the infamous Jonestown mass suicide. But Explained Season 2, Episode 1 doesn’t linger on the images of hundreds of corpses in Guyana any more than it does on flowcharts and diagrams which spell out perhaps the more compelling reality of his cult leaders ensnare and continue to exert control over the vulnerable. It’s a sobering, thankfully brief analysis of how susceptible people can be to the false promise of belonging to something bigger than ourselves.
Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.