We don’t usually offer TV reviews here but I’m making an exception here for a series I’ve been watching on Netflix called “Wild, Wild Country.” This is a six-part series which looks at a very strange series of events that took place in Oregon in the early 1980s. To summarize very briefly, an Indian guru named Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh with the help of his young secretary Ma Anand Sheela moved their entire Ashram from India to a massive ranch in rural Oregon. The nearest town had just 40 residents all of whom felt their community had been invaded by thousands of strange cultists. From NPR:
As the series documents, the Rajneeshees set up a community in rural Oregon that almost instantly wound up in land-use battles with neighbors, then bigger battles with the county, then even bigger battles with the state and federal governments. Members were ultimately charged with a variety of crimes, and Rajneesh himself was deported.
It’s an often bizarre story that is, like any good yarn, full of twists and unforgettable characters. And at first, you may find yourself waiting for a reveal: Is the group dangerous and manipulative, run by a man who takes money from followers and buys himself Rolls-Royces? Or are the Rajneeshees a minority religion, feared and disparaged for simply being different, subjected at times to sketchy legal decisions that, say, a mainstream Christian group would not have been?
The answers, based on the documentary, seem to be: yes. And yes.
The series does try, probably a bit too hard to be fair to the cult. Sheela and a lawyer who joined the commune get a lot of camera time to defend their point of view, but as the story rolls on, there’s eventually nothing anyone can really say in the group’s defense. By the time you get to episode four, one of the converts is describing how she attempted to kill another member of the cult with a poison syringe at Sheela’s request. It’s incredible what some people will do when cut off from the real world.
In the first couple episodes, you do get the impression that the locals’ distaste for the Rajneeshees had a specific religious component. Maybe if the Rajneeshees had been the innocent doves they claimed to be, this might even have been a story about small-town prejudice. That’s certainly what the cult claimed at the time, i.e. you hate us because we’re different.
Except they weren’t just different. In the end, Sheela turned out to be every bad thing the locals feared and more. We’re not talking about dirty politics, we’re talking attempted murder of authorities and the use of crude biological weapons on the local population. Sheela left abruptly after an attempt to take over county politics failed and Bhagwan announced she was part of a fascist group acted without his knowledge. She wound up in jail for a few years. He was eventually deported.
What’s most interesting about the series, at least to me, is how current some of it seems. What the Rajneeshees wanted was a safe space where adults could behave as irresponsible children free from the criticism of the outside world. But maintaining that bubble required the leadership to be absolutely ruthless toward outsiders (and some insiders).
It’s not a pretty picture, but if you’re looking for something to binge-watch, consider this show. It’s not light entertainment, but it is an interesting study in how power corrupts and how seemingly average people can go completely off the rails in the wrong environment.