'NCIS: New Orleans' Season 6 Episode 9 sees team take on cult leader; a look at dangerous narcissists demanding unconditional loyalty
‘Convicted’, the ninth episode of ‘NCIS: New Orleans’ Season 6 brought the story back to the death of Christoper Lasalle (Lucas Black) and especially to the man being accused of killing him, Eddie Barrett (Eddie Cahill). As we saw in the episode, Barrett is not the regular kind of dangerous, he is a cult leader who fosters “lost children”, brainwashes them and makes them do his bidding -- in this case, killing others and even sacrificing their own lives.
Barrett, in the show so far, has been shown to be a good-looking man with kind eyes and a sort of charisma that makes everyone like him, well everyone except the NCIS team. But they have their friend’s death to blame for that. And that is the thing about cult leaders: they have a mysterious effect on everyone around them.
But what makes a cult leader so powerful?
Dr. Janja Lalich, professor emerita of sociology at California State University, speaking to Refinery29, says regardless of the goals or nature of their cult, most cult leaders behave the way they do in order to cultivate and maintain a power imbalance. She argues narcissism is at the root of it: “They demand extreme loyalty.”
Alexandra Stein, who researches on the social psychology of ideological extremism, explains: “Totalism works because ordinary people -- at least those without prior knowledge of the controlling methods of totalism -- are subject to the coercive manipulations that leaders employ. If the situation is strong and isolating enough, without any clear escape route, then the average person can cave into the traumatizing pressures of brainwashing.”
She further adds the process of brainwashing "totalist systems" engage in “is one of psychological, coercive manipulation where the leader or group alternates terror with ‘love’.”
Psychiatrist Joe Navarro, who has studied the life, teachings, and behaviors of cult leaders like Jim Jones, Charles Manson, Bhagwan Rajneesh and many more, says all cult leaders have an “over-abundant belief that they were special, that they and they alone had the answers to problems, and that they had to be revered.” He adds that cult leaders demand perfect loyalty from followers, they overvalue themselves and devalue those around them, they are intolerant of criticism, and they do not like being questioned or challenged.
But why do people fall for cult leaders?
As California Institute of Technology psychologist Jon-Patrik Pedersen explains, it is the human longing for comfort that leads one to seek out people or things that can soothe fears and anxieties. But it’s not just that. Psychiatrist Mark Banschick points out that cult leaders employ mind and behavioral control techniques, in order to sever followers’ connections to the outside world -- methods that can actually deepen existing emotional insecurities, all the while encouraging them to be completely reliant on their cult for their needs.
Once a fear-based control is in place, it is quite difficult to break, says Stein. “The follower’s dissociation and disorganized emotional attachment to the leader or group makes it extremely difficult to look clearly at what is happening,” she writes. “In fact, any attempt to do so only creates more fear, causing further disorganized bonding to the group, to attempt to ease the stress.”
We see this phenomenon play out on ‘NCIS: New Orleans’ with Sue-Ann Hughes (Nancy Faust), the woman who was shot along with Lasalle. Hughes, despite overt evidence of Barrett’s intent to kill her, refuses to acknowledge the truth and has a seemingly unshakable faith in the man.
Barrett, perhaps, is the most complex villain the NCIS team has had to deal with so far. Only time will tell if they can get the better of him.
'NCIS: New Orleans' Season 6 airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. only on CBS.