If I were to tell you that a formidable religious cult from India established a city on over 60,000 acres of land in Oregon in the early ‘80s, attempted to take over an entire county, probably poisoned everyone unfortunate enough to have visited a local salad bar and fornicated with such orgiastic fervor that it kept the neighboring townspeople up at night, you’d probably think I was making shit up. Fortunately for me (and you), however, the makers of Wild Wild Country, a fascinating new six-episode Netflix docuseries, have rescued this stranger-than-fiction story from the dustbin of history and fashioned it into must-see TV.
Like other cults of this nature, the tale of the Rajneeshees begins with a mystical, enigmatic, egomaniacal leader, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, who strove to create a “new man” in harmony with one another and nature (as such a leader is wont to do). After amassing a multitude of followers in India, he had his brazen, undaunted young personal secretary, Ma Anand Sheela, venture to America to find a promise land of sorts, where they could build a commune and set an example for the world they hoped to one day populate. The location Sheela found occupied thousands of acres near Antelope, Oregon, a tiny, sparsely populated ranching town in Wasco County. Given the Rajneeshees’ ability to attract upper-crust intellectuals—unlike some other Eastern religions, the Bhagwan did not renounce American materialism—Sheela and her comrades were able to design and construct a highly efficient city, capable of housing thousands of their followers, complete with an airport, boutiques, A-frame houses and a banking system. It was called Rajneeshpuram. And for approximately four years, until a fracturing in the leadership and several high profile legal cases brought it crashing down, the city served as the de facto homeland for what the film estimates were, at one time, 500,000 Rajneeshees around the world.
The directors, Chaplain and Maclain Way, unfurl their story over six hours with a level-headedness not typically afforded to cults of this nature, making good use of over 300 hours-worth of footage, as well as present-day interviews with prominent Rajneeshees, including Ma Anand Sheela and the Bhagwan’s personal lawyer, Swami Prem Niren (né Philip J. Toelkes), surviving townsfolk of Antelope and the lawyers and politicians responsible for the Rajneeshees’ demise. Cast in dim light, and interspersed with cinematic, overcast shots of sprawling Oregon country, the interviewees take on the air of characters in a Western. The foreboding guitar score, which, at times, feels like the melancholic fizzling out of an epic rock song, along with the eponymous folk tune, imbues the series with a sort of cowboy-ballad loneliness.
And, in essence, the story is an urgently American one, a tale of the American West wrapped up in the Rajneeshees’ traditional red robes. The series will trick you into thinking it's going to be one thing, then by episode three, another—by the conclusion, you may not know what to think, or how exactly to feel about what you just saw. Suffice it to say, the high ground a viewer can usually relish when watching something about a crazy cult is much less solid here.
Certainly, the Rajneeshees attempted takeover of Wasco County, involving poisoned salad bars, death threats, immigration fraud, wiretapping, voter fraud and a heavily armed makeshift militia, was a hostile one. But the directors are more sympathetic to the Rajneeshees than one might expect, in ways surprising and discomfiting; Sheela, and particularly the Bhagwan’s lawyer, Toelkes, are allowed a chance to plead their case, with impassioned coherence. At least at the beginning, the occupation of the Rajneeshees was notable not for an insurrectionary bent but for its compliant legality; Sheela and her acolytes cunningly used the constitution—the freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, an invocation of gun-toting, don’t-tread-on-me-esque rhetoric—against the republic in which it was created. As much as Wild Wild Country is about the making of a fanatical cult, it’s also about the sometimes-fallacious nature of the American rule of law—about who really gets to be treated as one of us, and who doesn’t.