Manifest destiny

The Rajneeshees and the Bhagwan in “Wild Wild Country”

Indulge me, if you will, by reading the next paragraph with the gleeful socialite inflection and roller-coaster cadence of Tulsa native Bill Hader’s beloved "Saturday Night Live" character, Stefon.

Wasco County’s hottest new cult is called Rajneeshpuram. It’s got everything: ritual orgies, wiretaps, bioterrorism—even Nike CEO Bill Bowerman.

That’s the hook to the Duplass brothers’ original documentary series for Netflix’s "Wild Wild Country," a six-episode foray into a relatively recent bit of overlooked American history concerning experimental communities, the cult of personality, and good-old manifest destiny.

Here’s the setup. An orange-clad mass of neo-hippies known as the Rajneeshees bring international attention to rural Oregon in the early 1980s when they build a 64,000-acre commune next door to Antelope, a sleepy town of cattle ranchers and pearl-clutching retirees.

Led by Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and flush with cash from their homemade publishing empire, the Rajneeshees quickly transform a rocky tract of inhospitable Oregon landscape into a fabulous, thriving utopia. But the culture war with their conservative neighbors soon turns criminal. The Bhagwan’s lieutenant, Ma Anand Sheela, leads a campaign of harassment, sabotage, and social control that should cement her throne in the recent true-crime TV canon. Steven Avery, bow down.

Naturally, power struggle ensues. Alliances are drawn. Rivalries emerge. Access to the Bhagwan becomes commodity. Before long, Rajneesh leaders are rigging countywide elections, plotting assassinations, and fending off the feds. Much of it is caught on tape by their in-house film crew, who roll on everything from the Bhagwan’s teachings (relatively innocuous progressive boilerplate by today’s standards) to graphic meditative sessions featuring orgiastic free expression.

This stunning access and a surplus of modern-day interviews stuffs "Wild Wild Country" full of parallels to the American origin mythos. Seeking religious freedom, a sect expands westward, pushing out the practitioners of the old way of life and raising an empire on good old-fashioned grit and determination. From a thousand feet up, the Rajneeshees don’t look so different from the Puritans.

In fact, late in the series, there’s a delicious irony when an Antelope resident complains to a cable news crew that she was pushed out of her own community, likely unaware that the surrounding county is named for a Native American tribe.  

Directors Chapman and Maclain Way nail the soundtrack: Canadian creeps Timber Timbre, Bill Callahan, and Bill Fay all lend a malevolent mood to the proceedings, but it’s Callahan’s song "Drover" that gets the starring role.

"Wild Wild Country" draws its title from "Drover," the opener to Apocalypse, which is full of uniquely American wanderers, fiends, and settlers who reap what they sow. It serves as a reminder that the Rajneeshees aren’t the first empire to crumble on this continent. They’re just the first to do it in matching orange clothes.

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