Review: Wild Wild Country

Wild Wild Country is the story of the catastrophic culture clash between the people of Antelope, Oregon and the Rajneeshee religious group in the early 1980s. It starts wild and gets wilder, the six episodes including a story about liquefying beavers that will haunt my nightmares, interviews with the people responsible for the first major bio terror attack on American soil and an unflinching look at institutionalized racism. That last is underlined by the final gut punch, delivered in the closing minutes of the series, which needs to be seen rather than spoiled. But when you see it, you’ll realize just how much the color of the people who moved to Antelope, as well as their faith, had to do with what happened next.

Wild Wild Country is gripping, confounding and exasperating usually simultaneously. At times Maclain Way and Chapman Way, the directors, seem to deliberately re frame context or delay it in order to make these extraordinary events fit a conventional thriller model. What starts off exploring the construction of Rajneeshpuram (Or Rancho Rajneesh to go full cognitive dissonance) quickly splits into multiple narratives. We get the surviving townsfolk,  none of whom are likable. We get prominent Rajneeshees of the time including the endlessly smiling Sunny, the constantly horrified Jane Stork and Ma Anand Sheela. First seen (In unneeded slow mo) in the present day, Sheela is a steely eyed figure whose first words are about crowns and guillotines. As we learn more about her, we see her arrogance is if not justified then certainly in context even as we see the charming, driven, combative leader she became  in the face of blunt distrust and hostility from the townsfolk.

And then, we find out some of the things she did. And that were done in her name. We find out why Jane Stork is endlessly horrified. We find out Sheela’s, lawful, impressive plan to stuff the ballot at local elections. We see an endless parade of stern and anonymous men in suits talking about the threat the Rajneeshees represented. There’s a bombing with no victims. A mass drugging. A mass poisoning. It’s possible beavers were infected with disease, blended into liquid and poured into the town water table.  It’s certain that thousands of people were put under completely illegal surveillance. Horror on horror, revelation on revelation and the directors provide context and evidence for perhaps 1.5 things in 3.

That’s a serious weakness especially in later episodes. The circumstances of Sheela’s departure and just why a funeral for Rajneeshism was held is just one example. It’s almost like the series is one of its own players: desperate to get the upper hand at the same time as claiming they’re the only ones not gaming the system.

It’s especially ironic then that the other major weakness is that there’s no one especially sympathetic. The townsfolk, especially post the 2016 election, are the worst excesses of flyover state written large. It’s impossible not to roll your eyes when a rancher compares the whole thing to a football game and impossible not to feel nauseous when you see the Edmund Burke quote on the ‘memorial’ to events.

The Rajneeshees fare a little better but not much. Sheela is the same steely figure she is in archive footage, just as driven, just as unapologetic. You disagree with her constantly but in a series all about the strong personalities her’s is the only one you can feel. When it comes to her initial response to the townspeople’s overt hostility, that’s understandable. When it comes to election fraud, assassination attempts and bio terrorism, it’s horrific.

Swami Prem Niren is compelling too but for all the wrong reasons. A lawyer turned devotee whose resemblance to Stephen King is genuinely disconcerting he’s a man, as my friend Jon Schiefer pointed out, perpetually trapped in a logic loop. His training is entirely rational. His defining belief nothing of the sort. That leads to countless instances where he laughs a little too slowly, where the lawyer internal edit screen combines with the dichotomy he can never solve to present him as someone trying very hard to look normal and never quite managing it.

Other cult members echo that same dichotomy. Sunny is a cheerful, eloquent figure who fails to see how a group that perpetrated election fraud, mass poisoning on two occasions and attempted murder is bad. Jane Stork, whose actions for the group are truly disturbing, is a maddening combination of regretful and self-centred. None of them are sympathetic. None of the stories are tidy and while that’s the point, it makes the show as grueling to watch as it is compelling .Even a recent Vanity Fair interview with the producers either denies closure or hand waves away elements that could have changed and sharpened the series drastically.

If you can deal with that, this is essential viewing. It’s a series, like the townsfolk and the Rajneeshees, that continually gets in it’s own way but cut through the artifice and this story is engrossing. terrifying and  unlike anything else I’ve seen so far this year.

Wild Wild Country is on Netflix now.

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