By James Powers
One of the more persistent (and annoying) labels given to Jesus is that of political revolutionary. Especially lately, it’s trendy to claim that his primary purpose was to knock down tyrants and give power to the disenfranchised masses; that he was a member of the same club that includes Gandhi and Che and the barricade boys from Les Miserables. Not that political upheaval wasn’t part of his plan – but to treat that as the primary thing is to leave out, um, a whole lot of other stuff.
At first glance, Netflix’s new drama Messiah appears to flirt with this inaccurate (read: heretical) characterization. Set against a backdrop of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, CIA investigations, the US border crisis and riots in DC, a lot of the show’s conflict is firmly situated in political upheaval. But, as was the case 2,000 years ago, there’s a whole lot of other stuff going on as well. And in fact, Messiah turns out to be a surprisingly complex and often nerve-wracking exploration of the significance of faith – what it means for our relationships, culture, governments, and perhaps even souls.
As the show follows the story of an enigmatic young man who may or may not be somehow divine, one key question remains at the center of everything: “who is this guy, really?” Are we in fact looking at the second coming? Or are we just looking at someone who actually does fit one of the oodles of labels that have been thrown at Jesus over the centuries? Madman? Magician? Con artist? Terrorist? Perhaps even Antichrist?
The show opens in present-day Syria, where a charismatic but soft-spoken young man foretells – perhaps even brings? – a record-breaking sandstorm to the city of Damascus. Although the storm is terrifying, it also chokes out the ISIS forces laying siege to the city and makes them retreat. As a result, the young man quickly draws a crowd of devotees who see him as a prophet – perhaps Jesus himself returned.
Offering little more than the promise of destiny, this young man draws his new disciples out into the Syrian desert and, eventually, to the border of Israel. Which presents a serious problem – the arrival of a throng of largely Muslim refugees at the border of the Jewish nation-state sparks international tension, and catches the eye of both CIA agent Eva Geller and Israeli secret serviceman Aviram Dahan. He is apprehended by Aviram but then mysteriously escapes – only to suddenly reappear in Texas amid the wreckage of a tornado, where beleaguered pastor Felix Iguero’s church is the only building left standing. And here the show settles into its three main axes (albeit with various subplots): Eva’s investigation of the young demagogue, Aviram’s rather more personal pursuit of him, and Felix’s attempts to serve him.
For much of the show this young man is referred to as al-Masih, the Arabic equivalent of “Messiah” and the name given him by his followers. But in giving him this moniker, the show itself plants a seed of doubt, as it also brings to mind al-Masih ad-Dajjal, the Antichrist figure of Islamic tradition. Felix has a very strong opinion about which of the two al-Masih is. By contrast, neither Eva nor Aviram really care about the Christ vs. Antichrist question at first, being more concerned with al-Masih’s potential status as a terrorist and/or revolutionary. But soon the question of his identity gains a much bigger significance for both of them, as their individual encounters with al-Masih bring personal demons to the surface.
Further complicating things are, of course, the miracles that al-Masih apparently performs – many of which are very public. At the same time, it isn’t long before unsettling truths are turned up about his background, suggesting variously that he may in fact be a con-man, or delusional, or a terrorist. Or maybe all of the above. As time goes on, the convictions that Eva, Aviram and Felix separately have about al-Masih get more and more rattled. And this introduces another key question for viewers: do these tests of the characters’ different “faiths” cause them to reconsider their worldviews, or to instead double down on them?
Personally, I find both the show’s themes and its treatment of them to be very gripping. But it looks like I’m in a bit of a minority there. Or, well… sort of. Messiah dramatically illustrates the cliche that professional critics tend to have a different opinion from the rest of the public. At the time of this writing, the critics’ score for Messiah on Rotten Tomatoes is at a pretty dismal 37%, with many critics calling it bland and boring. Yet the audience score is at 90%. Those numbers represent averages from 15 critics’ ratings and 915 audience ratings, respectively. The really amusing thing is that, according to the cliche, it’s usually the public who complain about being bored, not the critics.
I’ll admit that some viewers will definitely find Messiah confusing and/or tedious, as its patchwork of many divergent plotlines isn’t particularly action-packed. And I mean, if the whole Jesus thing just isn’t interesting to you in the first place, the show will probably put you right to sleep. As one impatient critic put it, “it’s not that the show is bad, it’s just that what’s propelling its dramatic momentum generates shrugs from people who don’t find much conflict in whether someone is the second coming or not.” Personally, I don’t know what kind of person wouldn’t find that question compelling – I’d much sooner understand someone who just prefers their TV to have more fireworks to it. But you know, to each his own.
All of which is to say, Messiah will likely hook those who do want to engage with its questions, and who are okay with a thriller that eschews gunplay and car chases in favor of uncertainty and suspense. It’s not a sophisticated theological treatise, nor is it a Left Behind-styled eschatological fantasy, nor is it a cynical Hollywood parody of religion. It both challenges and affirms faith, and it looks at how skepticism can be both essential and unsustainable. Those who struggle, or have struggled, with the friction between those two may very well find an echo of themselves the many characters of Messiah who are attracted, baffled, consoled, frightened or frustrated by a mysterious young man from the desert.
About the Author
James Powers is a writer for the Impacting Culture Blog, currently earning his MBA in Film Producing at JPCatholic as a member of the class of 2019.
For all articles by James, click here.