When the Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (later known as Osho) and a couple thousand of his devotees moved to Central Oregon in 1981 to found both a commune and the new age of global enlightenment, who would have thought their Utopian vision would result in armed mercenaries, bioterrorist attacks and assassination plots?
Their neighbors in the sleepy little town of Antelope had their suspicions. The universally acclaimed Netflix series Wild Wild Country charts how those suspicions boiled over into open hostility and, eventually, into a head-on confrontation with the highest levels of the United States government.
For viewers hoping to gain insight into Osho’s teachings, they would be better off looking elsewhere. There’s little talk of transcendence here. Wild Wild Country is all about power and personality.
The limited series, directed by Maclain and Chapman Way, offers an intimate look at this strange chapter in American history through archival footage and interviews with the people closest to the action, including residents of Antelope, U. S. government officials, and several instrumental members of the Rajneeshees, Osho’s followers.
One presence looms larger and perhaps more controversially than all of them: Ma Anand Sheela, Osho’s personal secretary for several years and the firebrand face of the Rajneeshpuram commune. Osho tasks Sheela with the preservation of the community, and she devotes herself to the job with a fervor that oscillates between religious zealot and Mafia boss. In carrying out her duties, she grows from a local irritant to a national provocateur to, ultimately, an international fugitive.
Despite her many, many reprehensible actions, viewers of Wild Wild Country will be hard-pressed not to admire Sheela a little too. She’s pugnacious. She’s charismatic. She’s imperturbably self-assured. There is much to like in someone you don’t really like, and the series’ greatest achievement is presenting this muddle of history as a muddle of sympathies.
For instance, when the Rajneeshees first move to Oregon, the locals there look at them askance as “weird” and “other.” For the folks of Antelope, used to their strictly American-brand Jesus, this guru stuff smacks a bit too much of hippy devil worship.
These rural prejudices are likely to put any liberal viewer ill at ease, but once the Rajneeshees take over Antelope, rename it Rajneesh, and line the streets with people in purple jumpsuits wielding assault rifles, one might start thinking those early sidelong glances were maybe not so misplaced.
The U. S. government doesn’t escape this episode entirely squeaky-clean either. Even with a formidable list of charges against Sheela, and some grave suspicions as well, the government has to trump up a flimsy immigration case against Osho and resort to some extralegal tactics to break his spirit and get him to return to India.
In this culture clash, everyone has their own righteous cause. Whether it be the rule of law, a way of life or a brighter future, Wild Wild Country is about how we rationalize our causes and the lengths to which we’ll go in order to defend them.
We all play the game; some just play it harder than others.
Out of the Box is a semi-regular column by VCReporter staff and contributors about television and streaming content.