If you’ve ever wandered onto a Tumblr devoted to The Vampire Diaries, Supernatural, or many other CW shows, you know that fans can be rabid. Cult takes that fandom to a whole new level.
It’s a TV show about a TV show with obsessed viewers who search for clues in every episode, spend time in cafes chatting — virtually and aloud — about its twists and their theories, and even dress like the characters. The show within a show is about cult leader and his loyal, murderous followers. The show outside the show parallels this with its addicted fan base.
The premiere is a lot take in, mostly because as you get to know the characters, it can be difficult to tell which version of the show you’re watching — the show or the show within the show.
We’re the cults in America
The episode opens with a documentary entitled Cults in America. Though it has a ‘60s vibe (maybe it’s the film strip effects), it was first posted online in 2009. Billy Grimm (Robert Knepper) talks about his followers. “They come because they want to belong — to be a part of the unconditional love, the acceptance I offer,” he tells the documentarian as he sits on a couch outdoors. With his close-cropped hair and leather vest, he’s the cult’s dear leader.
In present day, two LAPD detectives, Kelly Collins (Alona Tal) and Paz (Kadeem Hardison), head for a desolate cabin in the woods as they discuss Billy. One of his victims kept repeating a phrase, Paz says, jumbling the words. “Well, hey. These things just snap right off,” Kelly corrects. “With Billy every word means something.” She was once a follower of the cult leader, and Kelly thinks he wants her in the woods tonight.
The cops recognize a car from Billy’s compound when they arrive at the cabin. Using flashlights, they explore the words covering the walls — scribblings from Billy’s followers. Seeing a pair of eyes peering out from behind the wall prompts Kelly to tear into the plaster, revealing a man. It’s her sister’s husband. Kelly frantically asks Douglas about Meadow’s and Andy’s whereabouts, but all he says is, “Well, hey. These things just snap right off.” Then he dies.
The first Cult’s the deepest
As the episode ends, people mumble their shock that Douglas is dead. It turns out we’ve been watching Cult — the show within the show. Also watching? A group of people gathered at a cafe called fan_dom_ain. Nate (James Pizzinato) sits typing on a laptop, pouring over a jam-packed notebook before he exclaims to a woman named Merriam that he’s reached the next level. As he slides a CD into the computer, she asks, “You can reach them?” A waitress gives them the side eye.
On the Cult set, Skye (Jessica Lucas) tells associate producer Peter Grey (Ben Hollingsworth) how much she loves her job as a research assistant. However, she’s concerned about some creepy fan sites where a few of the users seem genuinely frightened — of Cult and of other fans. “We’re just a TV show,” Peter says, dismissing her.
Next, we meet Jeff (Matt Davis), a journalist with some conspiracy theories. He’s Nate’s brother, and he gets a call from his freaked-out sibling. They agree to meet a diner — someplace public — and the two have a quick expositional chat. Nate’s a 20-year-old screw-up, while Jeff took on the responsibility of caring for his brother when their parents died.
O brother, where art thou?
Nate makes more eye-contact with a waitress (a different one) before saying, “I made contact with them last night, and I think they’re after me now.” Aliens? No. Drug dealers? Nope. It’s all about Cult. Jeff is skeptical, and Nate starts to panic when he sees a red car through the diner’s window. He hands his brother a pair of 3-D glasses, and Jeff leaves, annoyed at his brother’s ramblings.
Later, at a gas station, Jeff sees a commercial for Cult, which doesn’t seem to impress him. Then Nate calls him from a static-y phone, saying, “Well, hey. These things just snap right off.” The call gets dropped.
It rattles him enough to visit his brother. At Nate’s apartment, Jeff finds a blood-stained chair and an episode of Cult on the TV screen. A bunch of police show up, and find Nate’s stash. “This is not about drugs,” Jeff insists, but he isn’t quite ready to bring the TV show theory into it. Jeff sneaks the cell phone from Nate’s desk before settling down to watch the episode of Cult left playing on the TV.
In the episode, Kelly visits Billy Grimm. “You came to me at 17. … You were obsessed with me then and you’re obsessed with me now,” he tells her. The LAPD detective accuses the cult leader of stealing her family, but he blames it on his countless followers. Then he gives her a pair of 3-D glasses. (Hey! Jeff has a pair of those.) “You never know when something like these might come in handy,” he whispers creepily into her ear.
Back on the Cult set, the CW president, Marc, and Peter are talking about the show’s numbers. While Marc thinks it needs some tweaks — despite its passionate fan base — Peter tells him that it’s Steven Rae’s vision. Moments later, Jeff shows up, talking to Cult’s publicist. He also wants a word with Steven Rae — the show’s reclusive creator. Suddenly, a woman comes up to the publicist, informing her that Jeff no longer works for The Washington Post.
Neither woman is interested in Jeff’s story about his missing brother, but he manages to evade them, running into the man who plays Billy Grimm. Jeff’s not quite starstruck, but he is rattled. Skye, who’s overheard Jeff talking about Nate, decides to help him out.
“Who’s Meadow?” Skye asks as she scrolls through Nate’s phone. All the recent calls and texts are from her. Then Skye points out that on the show Cult, Meadow — Kelly’s sister — is also missing.
Skye takes Jeff to the fan_dom_ain, explaining that Cult is a unique show with a legion of hardcore fans. “They believe there are messages coded within the show,” she tells him as they stare at a serial killer-esque board on the wall of the cafe, covered in pieces of paper and photos. Jeff finds a picture of his brother dressed like Billy Grimm.
As Skye looks for role-playing sites, Jeff watches an episode of the show on the cafe’s TV. In the show, Kelly is asking a man named Joey what he’s done with her sister and nephew. He tells her to go to a shed. “You need to look beyond what’s right in front of you,” Joey says when Kelly explains that she’s been there. Then Joey grits his teeth, says he doesn’t want Billy to be mad at him, and shoots himself in the head.
Life imitates art
Meanwhile, Skye’s found a role-playing event that’s taking place as they speak. On the drive, she tells Jeff her father, a local news reporter, disappeared when she was in high school. “He was working on a story about union corruption,” she explains. No one has any idea what happened to him. They both have loved ones who are missing.
The event is taking place at a location Cult once used for filming. A bunch of people burst through the door and drive away when Skye and Jeff arrive. Merriam is inside, sobbing. She tells Jeff that Nate isn’t alright. “They’ll be coming for me next,” she says. When Jeff asks her who she’s talking about, she replays the exact scene he just watched on TV with Joey — the line about things snapping off, the self-inflicted gunshot, and all.
The detective who came to inspect Nate’s apartment, Sakelik, shows up at the crime scene. According to the dead woman’s husband, Merriam never watched TV. “Maybe he watched too,” Skye whispers to Jeff. “There’s a connection between this show and what just happened,” Jeff insists to the detective. But she’s not having it. She outs him in front of Skye, explaining that Jeff got fired from The Washington Post for fabricating a story that sent six DC cops to jail. They were actually guilty, but Jeff invented his source.
Back at Nate’s apartment, Jeff looks for clues. He starts with Episode 14 of Cult. In the show, a woman and a little boy get kidnapped. Then he fast forwards to the scene after the one where Joey dies. Kelly is the shed he told her about and puts on the 3-D glasses, revealing three squares and a door handle. Inside the hidden room, Kelly’s nephew, Andy, is alive in a box. There’s also a CD taped to it.
Jeff stops the show and looks again at Nate’s desk. He finds his brother’s Cult notebook, full of scribblings on the show. Tucked behind a drawing of the brothers is a CD.
Cult films a scene where Kelly and Paz find a dripping body in a barrel. She’s convinced it’s not Billy’s handiwork. A crowd of fans watches the Hollywood magic, including the waitress from fan_dom_ain cafe. Skye gets a call from Jeff and agrees to meet him.
Detective Sakelik and her partner, Zavala, find a body in the dumpster. It turns out the blood found in Nate’s apartment wasn’t his, and they’re wondering if it belonged to this victim — who’s wearing a Cult t-shirt. She also suspects Jeff is connected.
Computer worm hole
Jeff hands the disc over to Skye. Before doing anything, he asks what happens to Kelly on the show when she slips a similar CD into her computer. Skye tells him that it uploads all her personal information and “It lets Billy Grimm’s people totally hook into her life.” Fair warning. But writer and creator Steven Rae hasn’t told anyone what happens next. “You’ll never get to Steven,” Skye says. “Watch me,” Jeff replies and puts in the disc.
A series of images flash on the screen, many of Billy Grimm. Then Jeff puts on the 3-D glasses. He types “Well, hey. These things just snap right off” into the laptop. “Whatever it’s gonna do, let it,” Jeff says. The phone rings.
It’s Nate. “You put in the disc,” his brother says. “Walk away. Whatever you do, do not try to find me,” Nate begs. Jeff’s driver’s license suddenly appears on the computer screen, followed by Billy Grimm repeating, “You’re next.”
As Detective Sakelik reaches for something in her car, the sleeve of her coat gets pushed back, revealing a Cult tattoo on her forearm. What does she wear in the summer to hide that?
The CW president, Marc, gets jumped by some Cult fans, including the waitress from earlier. They throw him in the red car that Nate and Jeff saw outside of the diner and drive away.