Unlocking The Master Plan

How do you make a provocative movie about the founder of one of the most litigious organizations on the planet?  How deeply would you have to disguise your artistic intentions to tell hard truths?  In The Master, director Paul Thomas Anderson wades into the legends surrounding the birth of Scientology and may earn Oscars rather than lawsuits.   Now, that is true artistic genius.

L. Ron Hubbard’s ability to turn his cracked personal narrative into a mythic origins story is remarkable.  Yet, the hagiography on the official L. Ron Hubbard website may also unlock the laconic meaning of The Master.   Many have wondered why The Master follows the story of addled, alcoholic Navy vet Freddie Quell rather than the magnetic author/philosopher, Lancaster Dodd.   When a movie is called, The Master, then you expect to get his origin story, rather than the flailing’s of a shell shocked G.I. trying to reenter American society after serving in the Pacific.   In Scientology lore, Hubbard was a heroic Navy leader whose post war trauma and treatment in VA hospitals morphed into Dianetics.  But he may also have been an undistinguished lieutenant who suffered no more than an ulcer but claimed grand battles and a remarkable recovery.

So here is my provocative thesis:   Freddie Quell is Lancaster Dodd.   Not necessarily within the film, but within the larger story that Paul Thomas Anderson is daring to tell.   Maybe a better way to put it:  Freddie Quell plus Lancaster Dodd equals L. Ron Hubbard.   The dueling characters in The Master are actually two sides of the same fractured biography—the life and lies of L. Ron Hubbard.   The Master shows us how, only in America, could a wasted G.I. reinvent himself as a cowboy, commodore, scientist, and mystic.   As a master charlatan, Hubbard understood the power of imagery, which is why Scientology took root in Southern California.  It also suggests why Scientology has been so great at promoting stars and attracting celebrities like Tom Cruise and John Travolta.  It is also suggests why Scientology is so paranoid and litigious towards those who seek to peek behind the curtain.

In The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson shows us how a cult can arise through extravagant claims, brilliant storytelling, and careful image manipulation.  It is a cautionary tale, questioning all manner of grandstanding and absolutism (it could be about politics or science just as easily as religion).    Yet, it also celebrates a virtue rooted in a young country, still given to mythologizing.   Consider The Master as Extreme Makeover:  American Male Edition.

I have already written about why Paul Thomas Anderson might have chosen Scientology as a subject—as a native Angeleno, he is fascinated by all things Los Angeles.   Scientology is a distinct, homegrown Hollywood creation.   I’ve also meditated on the struggle that serves as the dramatic thrust of the film—the flesh versus the spirit.  For all of Lancaster Dodd’s grandstanding about past lives and overcoming our animalistic instincts, he seems closer and closer to falling into rage and addiction by the end of The Master.   And Freddie, despite all of his violent outbursts and unchecked sexual urges, seems almost healed, capable of living and loving again.   We think the film is about Freddie mastering his demons, but perhaps it is also about the paranoia just starting to unravel Lancaster Dodd, his wife, Peggy, and the Cause.   Or maybe The Master is about how frail, fallen Freddie Quell recovers enough to start one of the more imaginative (and diabolical) cults of the 20th century.

It is also easy to see The Master as a father/son story.   A surrogate Dad helps an orphaned vet master his addictions.   But it is also the pull of alcohol, particularly the most vile and overwhelming concoctions made from torpedo fuel, photographic chemicals, and paint thinner, that binds Freddie and Dodd together.    Freddie serves as Lancaster’s secret mixologist.   He is also his enforcer, the muscle that takes down all dissenters with his fists.   Yet, Freddie’s hidden talent, just hinted at in the film, is as a photographer.  He takes pictures.  And Lancaster is definitely a man in search of a biographer.  He needs someone to burnish the legend, to serve as a publicist and imagemaker.

The Master is awash in iconic images of American manhood, especially in and around World War II.    Paul Thomas Anderson has gone to great lengths to recreate the era—in sight and sound.  By shooting The Master in 65mm, he has snapped audiences back to the warm glow of celluloid, to the days of John Wayne and LIFE magazine.   From the soldier in the trenches brandishing a cigarette to the sailor on the high seas, through the cowboy taming the Wild West to the Wild One riding a motorcycle across open plains, PTA and his ace cinematographer, Mihai Malaimare, Jr., juxtapose idealized portraits against hard realities.   Freddie’s first post war job is to create gauzy, suburban portraits of parents and kids in prosperous, post World War II America.  Shut out from such peace and prosperity, Freddie snaps under the glare of studio lights.

He retreats to a farm, working amongst Filipinos, pursuing the American Dream.  The images in this section draw upon the Depression era photos of Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans.   The setting is dark, grainy, rooted in the land.   When Freddie hooch proves deadly, he must fly the scene of his crime.   This is the American soldier, on the run, an image we have almost never seen.

Freddie’s camera vanishes for most of the middle of the movie.  He’s engaged in daily struggles to keep his rage under control.   Only when he’s gotten to the far side of ‘processing,’ does he pull out his camera at the Cause’s meeting in Arizona.  Freddie captures Dodd as a cowboy, at home on the range.  Note the similarities to how L. Ron Hubbard presents himself comfortably wearing the hat.

Freddie also photographs the master at his desk, striking the authoritarian pose of author/thinker/scholar.   Dodd may or may not be an intellectual, but he certainly knows how to dress for the part.   He exudes confidence.  Through taking pictures, Freddie is slowly discovering his calling, his gift.   Beyond his fists and his fixes, Freddie might have a gift for telling stories, fictional stories, through film.   For me, it is Freddie as photographer that finally started to unlock the secret spine in Paul Thomas Anderson’s vexing story.

The Master had always been announced as a meditation on the life of L. Ron Hubbard. Yet, the finished film gives us almost no background on Hubbard or how he came to be a pulp fiction writer, best selling psychologist, and ultimately, founder of a New Religious Movement.   For some Paul Thomas Anderson fans, The Master has arrived as a let down.  For voracious critics of Scientology, The Master failed to deliver a knock out blow to an insidious cult.   But if filmgoers will simply consider the imagery driving the story and burrowing into our brains, we will see PTA’s true intentions.

Did you know that L. Ron Hubbard considered himself a photographer?   Check out the website.   The photographs of and by L. Ron Hubbard demonstrate how Freddie, the scattered seaman, could refashion himself as Dodd, the grandiose leader.   And look at how lighting and costume design come together to create a glowing image of Hubbard in his prime.   This is an enlightened man who deserves a huge following.


Did you also realize that L. Ron Hubbard also considered himself a seaman, maybe even a master mariner?  He served in the Navy during World War II.   In his self-mythologizing, Hubbard reimagined himself as a Commodore.   Scientology maintained an active fleet of vessels known as the Sea Org.   On the ocean, away from distractions, Scientologists engage in higher levels of training, known as Operating Thetan.   They even maintain naval codes of conduct and uniforms.

The Master contains so many shots of Freddie at sea, of the wake generated by a boat.   It is the key image anchoring the film together.   Look at L. Ron Hubbard’s official portraits, drawing upon the sea as a boundless horizon.

It is easy to watch The Master and equate Lancaster Dodd with L. Ron Hubbard.   But the imagery suggests quite clearly that Freddie Quell is L. Ron Hubbard.   Despite teaching his followers to abstain from all many of drink and drugs, Hubbard remained an active experimenter in countless pills and hallucinogens throughout his colorful life.   Like Dodd, he had quite an appetite for Freddie’s mind-altering substances.

I will now turn to the third act of The Master to explain why this interpretation (Freddie + Lancaster=Hubbard) makes sense.    Dodd poses a dramatic question that hovers over the entire movie, “Where have we met before?”  The Cause (and Scientologist) is all about exploring past lives.   It is about discovering who were in earlier eras and healing those painful memories.   When does Freddie start to master his past or at least control his emotions?   When he breaks free from Dodd and The Cause on a motorcycle.    It is the cinematic moment when the disciple takes the master’s teaching to its logical extreme.  Dodd looks awkward on a motorcycle, wearing rolled up blue jeans.  But the wiry Freddie fits comfortably into the role of Marlon Brando or James Dean–rebels for the Cause.  Freddie picks a point and vanishes, just like the master taught him.  From that moment on (the end of the second act), Freddie is changed person—more aware, more under control, ready to revisit his hometown, able to resist Dodd’s ovations.

A few strange things still happen.   While asleep in a movie theater, Freddie receives a phone call from Dodd.   How does Dodd find him?   How can a phone line reach into a movie theater?   Everything about the scene is strange and dreamlike.   Is this all imagined in Freddie’s head?  How can he even afford to take a boat to England to reunite with Dodd?

Freddie’s interaction with Peggy and Lancaster Dodd in England is equally off-kilter.   It is easy to see how the question of whether we must serve some master fits within the film.   But what should we make of Dodd’s goodbye song to Freddie, “Slow Boat to China”?   It is definitely a love song, a desire to sail into the sunset together.   It is about cutting through a heart of stone and enjoying a meandering trip “out on the briney.”   It could also be heard as a heavenly vision, an eternal journey or plea.    I’m still mulling over that dramatic choice.   The Master definitely demands a second viewing.

The film concludes with Freddie enjoying a playful sexual romp with a British lass, Winn Manchester.  For once, he doesn’t seem menacing.   Significantly, she is on top, perhaps experiencing her own sexual satisfaction.  Freddie might actually be ‘giving’ for the first time, a win/Winn situation.   The intense processing that Freddie endured under Dodd’s tutelage is now turned into a bit of seduction.   Has Freddie discovered the power of psychology to unlock pain or to summon a subtle power?    Is this final scene the birth of L. Ron Hubbard, master seducer?   Paul Thomas Anderson wisely lets the viewers decide.


WHIPLASH: What Price Glory?
About Craig Detweiler

Craig Detweiler is Professor of Communication and Director of the Center for Entertainment, Media and Culture at Pepperdine University. He is a filmmaker, author, and cultural commentator who has been featured on CNN, Fox News, NPR, ABC's Nightline and in The New York Times and Wall Street Journal. He blogs as "Doc Hollywood" for Patheos.com.

  • austntexan

    I thought Dodd might be the myth and Freddie the reality image of LRH. That doesn’t explain the ending of the film. Freddie’s escape could represent the death of LRH the man? I dont know. I did love the film though. The imagery, sound track, it all worked so well together.

  • Jon Gaskins

    I did not like the movie until reading this analysis. The acting and cinematogrophy were amazing, but the movie was dull and uncomfortable to watch.

  • Jared Egol

    I am not a fan of retroactively considering a film through a critically-written lens , unless the companion piece enhances my understanding and/or feeling in ways that the film initially transmitted to me. Personally, while your take on a bipartite Hubbard as both Dodd and Quell is informed, fascinating, and of benefit to those of us lacking even peripheral digestion of how LRH was, it was not the movie, but a subsumption into the broad pathos of PT Anderson as you understand him. A beauty of film analysis is that even if you present what you saw, that no one else did, then it may not inform the deeper meaning of the film, but the deeper meaning of its subject.

    I congratulate you for teaching me a lot about LRH that I didn’t know or care to know, but while I am certain PT Anderson knows all of what you sketched and more on the subject, it was sewn into this film in a way that made the meaning you found ultimately a gnostic pursuit, and an unbalanced, aesthetic indulgence to those forced to feed on the narrative at face value.
    I want to watch the film again to acquire what you have, but by reading this, I have. Thank you.

  • Jack

    Please, take the high-brow, “students of cinema” colored lens off. Maybe I’m just prudish, but if a film’s moment of redemption is strangers having casual sex, I will pass. Why do film reviews consistently gloss over the objectionable/offensive/awful aspects and images in this movie? Barbara Nicolosi’s review (at Church of the Masses blog, here in patheos) would serve average movie goers much, much better.

    • craigdetweiler

      That’s the beauty of Patheos, Jack. Plenty of reviews from very different lenses.

    • kidontherun

      Perhaps you’re the one wearing pre-judicial lenses, assuming that sex with someone only recently met could ever be anything but a negative experience. You’re the one dismissing the merit of a thoughtful film analysis, out of hand, due to your knee-jerk, conventional-morality based reactionary objection.

  • http://www.poptheology.com Ryan Parker

    Thanks for these insightful reflections on the film. I thought the iconic scene you referenced in the second part of your review with Freddie and Lancaster in jail really points to the notion that they are flip sides of the same person, two natures duking it out for superiority. Can’t wait to see this one again.

  • Peter

    Very strange to read this article about your wild thoughts about L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology. You realize that you don’t have any own experience with the subject, right? Because there is one important fact you miss, when you fail to think for yourself: Scientology works!
    You cannot get so many people enganged in Scientology, incl. respected persons like John Travolta and Tom Cruise, unless it works.
    You go on and on about how some little thing may or may not be correct, but as a Scientologist (and now I speak for myself, not other Scientologists) all I care for is if it works. And it does!
    As most people know, Scientology offers courses and spititual counseling, and what you fail to realize is that no one will take the next course or go to their next counseling session if they weren’t satisfied with the first one.
    Scientology sponsores the most successfull drug rehabilitation programs on Earth, Narconon. They also sponsors the most succesfull criminal rehabilitation programs, Criminon, the largets campaign for Human Rights, Youth for Human Rights, and one of the biggest disaster releif organizations, their own Scientology Voulenteer Ministers that co-orperate with organizations like International Red Cross and many other programs.
    To anyone reading this – I invite you to learn the truth and think for yourself: http://www.Scientology.org

  • Jeff

    WOW! I just finished the movie and came to this same conclusion. After a quick Google search I found your article. I am not hearing anyone else come to this same conclusion, although to me it now becomes rather obvious after the realization.

    • craigdetweiler

      Thanks for the affirmation, Jeff. I haven’t found many people buying into my theory, but with The Master finally out on DVD, it will be easier to study, dissect, and put to the test.

  • Dave

    I was confused and disappointed by my first view of the movie just a few days ago. It seemed to start strong, and then fizzle and fade out.

    But, after reading the biographical chapters of Hubbard in “Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief ” by Lawrence Wright I came to the same conclusion as you and am looking forward to watching the film again with that in mind. It was precisely around Wright’s description of Hubbard’s sexual life and his anxieties about that, that I recognized Freddie as Dodd’s “other half” – “perverse,” compulsively masturbatory, incapable of intimacy, and so on.

    Like I say, I’ve got to watch and think again, but that final montage of Freddie and Winn running up against the final shot of Freddie lying in the embrace of his sand figure makes me think that for all of his “perversity” Freddie/Dodd ultimately wished for a loving, soothing, healing embrace.

    Thanks for your insight. Your points and interpretations give me much more to consider about “The Master.”

  • phibbus

    That Dodd and Quell are two aspects of a single L. Ron Hubbard-inspired character is the interpretation I formed while watching the film, as well. It occurred to me from the point at which Freddie awakes aboard the yacht, and I found it was applicable to most scenes. I did know something about Hubbard’s life and Dianetics going in, however, and I’m not sure whether I would have made the same leap based solely on what is shown onscreen.

  • pickbrain

    I agree: Freddie + Lancaster=L. Ron.

  • Samus

    One of my favorite films, and I think you are correct. It seems to be a fragmented portrait of Hubbard. The only thing I would add is my suspicion about Peggy. She seems so important to Dodd’s motivation. The best example I can give is in the final scene between Freddie and Lancaster in England. Initially one doesn’t notice Peggy’s presence in the room when Freddie arrives. She has a shadowy, lurking aspect. Ever-present, she seems to have a huge impact on Dodd’s decision making and psyche overall. Perhaps, in a sense, Freddie + Lancaster + Peggy = L. Ron

  • Samus

    See all these official posters for the film: they all feature Lancaster, Freddie, and Peggy. They seem to reveal the importance of Peggy as an equal part of the portrait. In my mind it’s a 3-way fragmentation of Hubbard. Freddie the id, Dodd the ego, Peggy the super-ego. If unfamiliar with Freud’s model of the psyche check out this wikipedia page
    It’s perfectly in line with the film and the way these characters are represented. Thank you for your article Mr. Detweiler, great stuff!

    • Craig Detweiler

      Thanks for going deeper and pointing this out. I like how you’ve brought Peggy into the equation in this compelling and viable way.