It’s no secret that multilevel marketing (MLM) companies, from Mary Kay and Tupperware to LuLaRoe and Young Living Essential Oil, have long exploited the most vulnerable among us to line the pockets of the already wealthy. And still, MLMs are as popular as ever, even as we continue to learn about the insidious way in which these companies operate. Showtime’s recent series On Becoming a God in Central Florida offers a satirical look at the exploitative underbelly of these pyramid schemes: As the show’s fictitious leader of Founders American Merchandise (FAM) explains, MLMs don’t hawk products; they “sell people back their souls.”
On Becoming a God takes place in Orlando, Florida, during the post-Reaganomics recession of the early 1990s, and frames MLMs as a function of an economic dystopia. FAM is not only marketed to working-class families as an opportunity for financial advancement but also as an outlet for fostering the human connection that’s stretched thin by the exhaustion of working endlessly just to make ends meet. After all, FAM is more than just a catchy name; it’s a play on the importance of “family.” On Becoming a God is a dark comedy that often edges into magical realism as the characters grapple with the failure inherent to a MLM structure. But the show also offers a sharp critique of the broader capitalist system that harms us all as we race toward elusive wealth.
Struggling newlyweds Krystal (Kirsten Dunst) and Travis Stubbs (Alexander Skarsgård) begin hawking FAM home-goods products after they unexpectedly become pregnant. Travis hopes that his “entrepreneurship” will turn their family’s finances into fortune, just as FAM founder Obie Garbeau II (Ted Levine) was once able to do. In motivational tapes that Travis listens to over and over again, Garbeau employs the language of Christianity and American exceptionalism as part of his signature Garbeau System, intoning, “God almighty made this great nation so that you and your business could prosper.” The company encourages its sellers to embody the same rugged individualism as the Founding Fathers, whose names mark tiers in the FAM structure. Early in the pilot episode, Travis tries on tuxedos he can’t afford as he prepares to quit his J.O.B. (the acronym FAM uses to undermine the value of a traditional career).
Krystal, by contrast, is criticized by her female “upline”—the term for those on a higher pyramid level—for selling herself “as trashy, not sexy” and letting her choices ruin her husband’s opportunities. It’s clear that part of the FAM ethos involves capitalizing on the myth of the nuclear family, in which men are hoisted up as leaders with support and adoration from the unquestioning wives at their sides. Krystal, however, isn’t another cog in the machine: When she’s compared to the heavily made up Dolly Parton, she retorts, “Dolly Parton owns a rollercoaster park.” Krystal’s skepticism about FAM comes into full focus when Travis’s grueling FAM-selling schedule brings on a psychotic break that, in true Florida-man fashion, ends with him driving his car into a lake and promptly getting eaten by an alligator.
This leaves Krystal to support their young daughter on her minimum wage salary from a local water park, but it also helps her see the inherent scam at the center of FAM and realize that she might have the smarts to beat the system. Struggling to balance her grief and her anger about FAM’s role in her husband’s death, Krystal shoots and guts an alligator—resulting in a hefty poaching fine—and removes her braces with pliers because she can no longer afford orthodontic appointments. The final straw is her discovery of the immense debt (and massive stockpile of unsold FAM products) that Travis left behind. Despite her skepticism, Krystal is still an ideal seller for FAM. MLMs target women who, due to domestic and caretaking situations, often struggle to work traditional nine-to-fives.
The empowerment model of MLM is built on the allure of being your own boss, but, in reality, these companies wreak the most financial havoc on those with the least secure economic and social safety nets. But in a world where the illusion of wealth is as important as real markers of success, Krystal realizes she can self-mythologize her way to the top, selling herself as the “alligator widow.” It’s no surprise when the show reveals she had negligent parents and still rose to be a pageant queen: She has always known that her class status and gender offered few opportunities in a capitalist system, which forced her to either cheat or fake it—tactics that are central to rising in the MLM ranks. She hides her baby at work because she can’t afford childcare and disguises her housing foreclosure as a FAM-funded home renovation to maintain her image.
“We had a pyramid up on the board in the writer’s room that was Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, from ‘survival’ to ‘belonging’ to the things that human beings need to be able to self-actualize,” On Becoming a God’s showrunner Esta Spalding told IndieWire in September 2019. “And as we talked about Krystal’s moving up that pyramid and getting away from just survival, she’s having to decide whether to self-actualize as a true person or whether to self-actualize in the wealth of FAM to take the money and not be true to herself.” But despite having the necessary acting skills, Krystal soon realizes the limits of her economic mobility within the MLM system that favors only those who continue to recruit others. She must exploit her friends, most notably Ernie (Mel Rodriguez), who’s unable to connect with his wife and son following Travis’s death.
The empowerment model of MLM is built on the allure of being your own boss, but, in reality, these companies wreak the most financial havoc on those with the least secure economic and social safety nets.
Like many real-world MLMs, FAM provides a remedy for this sense of isolation and worthlessness, and Ernie finds purpose helping a community of Cuban immigrants who are struggling to build new lives in the United States. It’s telling that he meets these people in a church: Maybe FAM can provide the solace that religion sometimes fails to. When Ernie asks these new immigrants if they want “the American dream,” they respond with a resounding yes. But as Ernie buys more and more into the vision he’s selling—including an eerie scene in which he uses the empowerment language of FAM to try and stop a mass shooter—the relationship with his family worsens. His wife, Bets (Beth Ditto), points out that half of the FAM businesses will fail and asks, “Are you sure you’re doing good?” In response, he calls her a zero, the FAM word for someone who questions the method. Barrelling down the same path that cost Travis his life, Ernie refuses to listen to reason.
In these desperate attempts to reckon with the zero-sum game of FAM, characters lose touch with reality, turning every aspect of their lives into business opportunities and ruining the relationships that ground their humanity. Krystal begins dating her younger upline, Cody Bonar (Théodore Pellerin), but seems to only be interested in using him in the same way he used her and Travis. Their relationship takes on a BDSM kink element, and it’s the first moment in the show when Krystal is truly in control. But it’s doubtful that any real emotion exists in their relationship: When Cody proposes, he is unable to authentically express his feelings and relies on the cheesy lyrics of Marillion’s “Lavender.” Predictably, Krystal sells the engagement ring. It’s impossible not to sympathize with Krystal, even if her motivations are less than pure.
If her goal is to take back her autonomy—her soul—from FAM, she will never succeed. Even if she is able to leave the fold, she still must find a way to survive in a capitalist society that enabled the loose regulations and inequitable economic conditions that have let MLMs flourish with almost no oversight. In one damning episode, Krystal works her way into a high-stakes political fundraiser to confront Garbeau, and sees directly how legislative power and business corruption are intertwined—but it’s unclear whether she will be able to convince others to peek at what’s behind the curtain. MLMs can only function if their sellers believe in them; by contrast, the season closes out with Krystal coming to realize the value in constantly being underestimated as a single mother.
She clearly has the ruthless determination to outscam the ultimate scam, and unlike her more powerful peers, she is no longer swayed by FAM’s appeal: The darkest and most consequential revelation of the show so far might just be that she gave birth alone because her husband was too busy with FAM to be with her. We’ll have to wait until Season 2, which Showtime ordered shortly after the series premiere, to learn Krystal’s ultimate fate, but as MLMs continue to hold immense economic and cultural sway, it would be cathartic to see one woman take the whole system down.