Entertainment

Netflix's 'Wild Wild Country' Series Reveals the Shocking Rise of a Cult Leader

wild wild country
Netflix

Documenting cults shares more with medical pathology than you might expect. What you find after examining them en masse is that cults and their leaders are not unique, nor do they spontaneously generate out of the ether in particular circumstances that can't be predicted or explained. Instead, they indiscriminately infect people across different times and places, producing similar causes, symptoms, and trajectories: There's a charismatic leader who offers an alternative to mainstream life; disaffected members of society flock to this charisma and what they believe is the first community of its kind; as the cult's followers grow in number, a compound or isolated commune becomes a home base for the group; conflict with locals and/or authorities ensues; and eventually, the conflict leads to a final confrontation that can end in death or prosecution.

This is the trajectory that unfolds dutifully in Wild Wild Country, a Netflix original docuseries directed by Chapman and Maclain Way. Like the duo's previous documentary, The Battered Bastards of BaseballWild Wild Country sheds light on a little-remembered slice of Oregon history; this time their subject is the Rajneeshee movement that took over a ranch outside the small town of Antelope, in the north-central part of the state, and turned it into an city called Rajneeshpuram. Eventually, the group perpetrated the first recorded bioterror attack in the U.S., along with several counts of immigration violations, and spurred a federal case that created the largest wiretap operation in American history.

"I'm not special in any sense," Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (better known as Osho), the leader of the Rajneeshee, says in archival footage during the first episode of the six-part series. He's right, in a way, though he doesn't actually believe his proclamation.

ma anand sheela
Ma Anand Sheela | Netflix

Wild Wild Country, which is produced by new Netflix signees Mark and Jay Duplass, spends minimal time on Osho's beginnings in India before diving into the heart of the story as it unspools in Wasco County, Oregon. Imagine living in Antelope, a town of 40, in 1981 when unannounced hordes of people all dressed in red started roaming through your town, espousing free love and nude sunbathing. The newcomers didn't exactly get along with the townsfolk, to say the least. The invasion also came close on the heels of the Jonestown mass suicide incident, which took the lives of nearly a thousand of Jim Jones' followers in Guyana, raising concerns that Osho's people might be up to something similar.

What quickly develops, however, is a battle that plays out as a cunning legal strategy spearheaded by the real mastermind of the Rajneeshee community, Ma Anand Sheela, Osho's right-hand woman. Sheela had a reputation as a firebrand and catalyst for the community's initiatives, and made a national name for herself thanks to her media savvy, which included a 60 Minutes interview in which she responded to locals' complaints by saying, "Tough titties" (she was a kind of presage of the "hot take" style that eventually came to dominate cable TV). The Rajneeshee had decided to buy up land and houses in Antelope -- legally, it must be remembered -- and the townspeople find that they're faced with a series of offers they can't refuse. Ironically, the principles of American representative government quickly turned over control of Antelope to the Rajneeshee as they voted for council members, set up restaurants, and even established a police force.

osho
Netflix

The fact that the directors snagged Sheela as a talking head is the series' biggest strength, and she hasn't lost any of the trademark brazenness (many call it arrogance) that made Osho and the Rajneeshee an international sensation. Widespread news coverage the saga garnered at the time also contributes a bevy of archival footage that paints an almost real-time account of events, but this trove of footage, while valuable, restricts the scope of the documentary to a familiar tennis match of talking heads and news footage. Granted, the appeal of Wild, Wild Country is the spotlight it shines on a history most Americans had no idea existed, but what does it offer besides a face-value account of that history? 

Not much, unfortunately, though the show remains compelling enough as it turns into an armed conflict -- and for some viewers, the "I had no idea this happened!" appeal is enough. Still, it's a story that continues to replicate itself over and over across America: New populations with different cultures, beliefs, or races move into regions with established residents resistant to changing their habitual way of life. When a bomb goes off in an Osho-owned Portland hotel, for example, it's difficult not to think of the current spate of bombings in Texas. The Pacific Northwest is certainly no stranger to armed standoffs, either, with the recent occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge fresh in the public consciousness, in addition to the region's long-standing reputation as a haven for white nationalists

Eventually, the traditional cult trajectory continues with intervention by the authorities -- in particular, Attorney General Dave Frohnmayer -- who decide to make the case that the Rajneeshee's involvement in public affairs amounted to a conflict between church and state. Where things get really interesting, however, is when the Rajneeshee, in an attempt to gain control of the Wasco County government, decide to suppress voter turnout by contaminating salad bars with salmonella. It's the kind of wild scheme that would only sound plausible in the context of cultish groupthink, but the effect was that 751 people, including several government officials, were sickened, which still goes down as the first and largest bioterrorist attack in American history. Fortunately, no one died, though Sheela and another Rajneeshee official went to jail for their role in the attacks.

Like most of Netflix's recent fare, however, Wild Wild Country is a case of too much and not enough. To this day, Osho is still an important figure in the Westernized version of Eastern spirituality, the kind of spirituality rampant on Instagram posts and spread throughout wellness warrior communities, but Osho's persistent global influence is confined to a few minutes of the final episode. The conventions of documentary filmmaking go unchallenged through what feels like a long, long six-part series that probably could have functioned as a tight feature-length documentary. While a few Antelope residents and other key players, including Osho's lawyer, offer interesting tidbits about what is undeniably an outrageous, unexplored chapter of American history, the fact that the filmmakers leave dangling Sheela's suggestion that Osho (who died at age 58 in 1990) may have been poisoned by his inner circle is emblematic of the loose ends the series leaves untied.

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Anthony Schneck is an entertainment editor at Thrillist. Follow him @AnthonySchneck.