Spoilers Ahead for The Deep End
Over the past few years, almost a decade, we’ve been flooded with docu-series covering the ever-fascinating world of cults. When Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief came out in 2015, I watched with a morbid curiosity that, honestly, made me sick to my stomach. Only a few days after that viewing, however, I hunted down and watched the 2012 Paul Thomas Anderson film The Master. Both of these works, one documentary and the other “fiction,” are deeply affecting dissections of the people, and their psyches, who commit to a leader by giving up autonomy and their sense of self. It’s horrifying to witness this transformation, yet it’s endlessly intriguing.
What do these individuals see in this self sacrifice that would make this level of deferral worth it? How do the leaders of these sects separate themselves from their own morality and ignore the guilt of exploiting their followers for their own growth in power and wealth? What drives both parties to these two extremes? A good documentary or docu-series can break down these questions and, at the very least, make good arguments for both sides. In such NXIVM series like HBO’s The Vow and Starz’s Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult, you can at least understand the motives of each of the subjects, while also gaining a comprehensive understanding of the cult’s machinations. (Keith Raniere, while a monster who devastated people’s lives, will never fail to crack me up in his volleyball outfit and tiny, dinky, little ponytail.) But in this year’s Freeform docu-series on Hulu, The Deep End, the focus is more on the fallout between two key players: Teal Swan, leader and founder of The Teal Swan LLC and Teal Eye, and her long-time companion and Operations Manager, Blake Dyer. The dissolution between these two friends, and on-again-off-again lovers, is an interesting story in and of itself. But where The Deep End fails is in its belief that it’s also featuring a deep dive into the cult of Teal Eye. The two parts of the story (Teal and Blake’s fallout and the study of the cult) both deserved more than the four-episode runtime allows, leaving the end product feeling exceptionally shallow.
The Deep End is not the first study made about Teal and her teachings. There was a documentary film released in 2017 called Open Shadow: The Story of Teal Swan, and in 2018 a Gizmodo podcast, The Gateway, ran a six-part series following Teal’s self-help teachings. Teal herself has been documenting her own life and teachings on her YouTube channel as early as 2011. Suffice to say, there’s a plethora of Teal Swan info out in the universe. But outside of watching The Deep End and only a handful of her facebook/YouTube videos, and reading Teal’s exceedingly brief Wikipedia page, I have done no further research. But by watching The Deep End alone I should feel like I at least have a rudimentary understanding of Teal’s motives and backstory…but I still know next to nothing.
Teal’s trauma, while heartbreaking, is only a footnote in the greater story of The Deep End. In the series, she divulges that she was raped and abused by a family friend on and off for years, starting when she was only a child. This family friend was able to take advantage of her because he claimed he could help her better understand and deal with her “extrasensory powers” (reading auras, reading minds, channeling the dead, etc.), powers of which her family were super dismissive and doubted. The docu-series does well to never fully decide whether or not these powers are real, but it’s because the series itself is extremely disinterested in the powers as a whole. It’s as if any opportunity to get to know the series’ subjects better, on a deeper level, could interfere with the makers’ objectivity. Disappointing for a show with such interesting character studies. On Teal’s Wikipedia page, it states that she was the victim of ritualistic abuse by a satanic cult for over a decade…a piece of information that is completely washed over in The Deep End. Viewers are made aware that Teal has suffered great trauma and has been taken advantage of, as mentioned earlier, but when a character in the docu-series (a PI named Molly, hired by Teal and her team to invalidate accusations made against them) is set with the task to determine whether or not Teal is a cult-leader, it’s bewildering that the prior history of Teal being subjected to a cult’s practices doesn’t come up. Teal never tries to argue that she can’t be a cult-leader because she knows what cult-leaders look like, or that her sect isn’t a cult because nobody’s being subjected to torture against their will; it’s just a story-line that’s never uncovered. At almost every turn, the more intriguing story is just under the surface.
The Deep End also seems to think that in not fully exploring their subjects’ trauma, that this absolves them of being labeled as trauma porn. But in this avoidance, the series’ use of their characters’ stories seem to have little to no ultimate story-telling purpose, which makes the use of these testimonies even worse. Several of the subjects come forward with stories of past abuse, and these revelations are always used to illustrate how these people came to be connected to Teal. Graci, Teal’s personal assistant, shares stories of her traumatic childhood which involve sexual, psychological, and physical abuse; a former follower claims that he left Teal’s Inner Circle because he realized that Teal had been gaslighting him into believing that he had suffered sexual abuse by several members of his family; and we even see footage of a member of one of Teal’s many retreats being told that (through an exercise where other retreat members play act different scenarios from someone’s life in an attempt to uncover possible secrets and emotions from those events) that her parents may have been sexually abusing her brother (and maybe her too?).
All of these scenes of trauma revelation are very much used in a sensationalist manner. Like, isn’t this wild that all of this trauma is what bonds Teal’s Tribe? (I was frequently reminded of Bill Hader’s portrayal of Keith Morrison in the SNL Dateline sketches.) But the fact that the docu-series doesn’t care to follow up on how/who these people are outside of their connection to Teal, or even have Teal talk about how she came to know and care for these people, the use of their trauma within the series comes across exploitative and sensationalist. It certainly feels like trauma porn to me, and if that was part of the point of the series as a whole, I’d understand and accept it as such, but I think the makers’ lack of awareness on the matter seems at best sloppy, and at worst dangerous. They may have been using these subjects in order to better paint a picture of Teal, but in doing so they reduced them to pawns in the course of this docu-series.
After finishing the series, I became curious about the timeline of filming and the ultimate direction in which the makers wanted to travel. The main conflict within the series is the aforementioned fallout between Teal and her partner, Blake. Blake was Teal’s first friend when she escaped her cult captors, and he was the one who provided her shelter and helped her start her YouTube channel. They’ve both been in and out of relationships with other people throughout their friendship (including being in a relationship at one point themselves), but at the start of the documentary they were housemates who were just two of the cogs in Teal's Inner Circle. Blake: Teal’s oldest friend and deepest supporter. The docu-series crew spent three years with Teal and her followers, and what ends up becoming The Deep End is this unforeseen fallout (relative to the docu-series’ conception) between Teal and Blake. I’d have to assume that at the start of filming, their intention was to capture the fervor surrounding Teal, her team, and the followers who attend her symposiums and retreats. I can’t claim to definitively know if any on the crew would lean more on the side of drinking the Teal juice, or if they would lean more on the side of skepticism (although I’d more imagine them falling on the latter side). But if not for a German woman, named Juliana, coming to a retreat, forming a friendship with Blake, continuing that friendship long-distance before deciding to move to the US to start a relationship with Blake and join Teal’s Inner Circle, which leads to her ultimately being made out, by Teal, to be an enemy of the cause, prompting Blake to leave Teal Eye and pick Juliana over Teal…well, I’m not sure what the story of The Deep End *would* be. The makers were lucky enough to have this cataclysmic event happen while they were also living “under the Teal Eye,” but The Deep End suffers because the eventual narrative of the story is split in half between investigative cult study and the inter-personal spat between Blake and Teal, a woman who claims to have everything figured out but can’t handle it when her best friend gets a new girlfriend.
Very much like cult-leaders in general, The Deep End exudes a deep identity crisis. Narratively lost, they pepper their footage with trippy, kaleidoscope effects and focus too keenly on the overall style and vibe the series projects rather than focus on any one satisfying and unifying theme. One of Teal’s (at first hesitant) followers, Sabrina, rails against Teal saying something to the effect that she’s not buying into Teal’s healing system because all it is is rehashing past trauma, “healing” from the trauma, going back to real life (which for her is awful), coming back to another retreat and “healing” again, and suffering through other people’s trauma as well. She claims it’s a carousel of trauma, so to speak. This is an apt revelation, as Teal’s program does hinge on convincing followers that their trauma is so deep that they need her to heal, sometimes leading the follower to even fabricate more trauma than what was possibly there to begin with (mind you, I could find no documentation or information that says Teal is in any way, shape, or form certified to heal or coach anyone). The Deep End, if nothing else, acts the same as Teal in that after one episode ends, they tease that the next one will be more insightful, more comprehensive, and you (as the viewer) will understand more about Teal Eye. Well, I think I get it: Teal Swan is a cult-leader. But I could have just looked that up.
Bernadette graduated from DePauw University in 2011 with a Film Studies degree she’s not currently using. She constantly consumes television, film, and all things pop culture and will never be full. She doesn’t tweet much, but give her a follow @BeaGorman and see if that changes.