This Messiah review contains no spoilers.
The past couple of years in pop culture have been filled to the brim with scammers and false idols, with everything from fake social media influencers and CEOs, to Russian disinformation campaigns, GoFundMe rip-offs, and whatever you want to call a whole lot of members of the current presidential administration.
So, in way, it feels like we’ve maybe always been headed toward a show like Netflix’s Messiah, which asks an age-old question in a very modern way, mixing religious themes and questions with modern elements like social media, deep fake videos and conspiracy theories.
After all, many of us, whether we believe or not, have probably wondered what it might be like if Jesus Christ returned to the world today. Messiah takes that to the next level, following the story of a mysterious man who might be something more, but told through everyone’s iPhone lenses and Instagram feeds. Is humanity live streaming the end times? Or falling for the greatest internet hoax ever made.
The series begins when a mysterious man begins to gain international attention for performing what appear to be miracles. Things like defeating ISIL by summoning a sandstorm, and leading his initial group of followers to freedom across a cruel desert. As his follower count grows, this man – whom some are already calling “Al-Masih” or “messiah” – attracts the interest of many, including regular folks, leaders of world governments and the CIA.
Messiah tells the story of Al-Masih through multiple perspectives, and the possible holy man himself is not one of them. This of course, makes tons of sense, as the minute the show let us into Al-Masih’s head it would have to pick a side regarding who, precisely he is. And it deeply doesn’t want to do that, since it’s having way too much fun making its viewers believe and doubt and believe again in turns.
And that’s actually a smart decision. The show is much more compelling for the fact that it doesn’t tell you what to believe one way or another, and generally lets viewers make up their own minds about whether the mysterious cult-like leader is miraculous or a myth. There is certainly evidence enough to make an argument either way, depending on how you interpret the story. Are Al-Masih’s supposed miracles real? Are they elaborate illusions? Is this man’s past the reason for his current behavior, or merely a footnote on the way to a different future? And does it matter whether he is or isn’t who he says he is, if his presence is changing people’s lives for good.
Messiah frames its story through the POVs of several secondary characters: A CIA agent determined to prove Al-Masih is a terrorist out to disrupt the global political order, a Palestinian refugee who is one of his earliest followers, a lost preacher who finds renewed purpose in his presence, and a sullen teenager who claims he saved her from a tornado, among others. These characters are all flawed, broken people in a variety of ways, who are each looking to fill some gaping lack in their own lives. It makes sense that they’d be drawn to a man like Al-Masih, for both good and ill.
To its credit, Messiah really isn’t about whether its lead character is the Second Coming of Jesus, a messenger from God, or a mental patient struggling with a god complex. Sure, that’s the question at the show’s center, and what’s ostensibly driving its narrative. But the real story is about the way that regular people react to the possibility of the divine in their lives. To the idea of a love that embraces and forgives them no matter they’ve done, to the reminder that one’s life need not forever be defined by the worst mistakes they’ve made. To the possibility that a different kind of life – one with meaning, where miracles might be real, is possible.
For some, that means uprooting their lives and caravanning around the United States after a virtual stranger with no ostensible plan. For others, that means a rejection of almost everything they’ve believed in to this point. Anna, a pastor’s wife, finds no peace in the potential arrival of the end times she’s theoretically spent her life preparing for. Her daughter, Rebecca, finds a reason to stay in the small town she always wanted to leave. Even the President of the United States ultimately questions what he’s been put on Earth to do.
However, Messiah’s not exactly a perfect messenger for its own themes, to put it mildly. The show is at least three episodes too long, spending untold amounts of time in its initial installments trying to simply explain who everyone is. It has several secondary characters too many, and there are a couple of subplots that feel like they exist just to fill out the series’ 10-episode order.
The Palestinian refugee story basically feels superfluous to needs as soon as Al-Masih reaches America, and the addition of a suicide bombing twist doesn’t help much. CNN journalist Miriam Keneally has almost zero depth as a character, and kind of only exists to be used by other figures on the canvas (the one interesting moment where you think she’s about to use a drunk source to break a big story goes nowhere).
And though Michelle Monaghan tries her best, her Eva is often let down by clunky writing, as though having the character insist repeatedly that she only sees the world in black and white, is an acceptable substitute for showing us why she may or may not actually feel that way – particularly by the season’s end.
But it’s awfully easy to believe in Messiah.
Particularly once you get past the slog that is the series’ first four episodes. The questions and scenarios it poses are thoughtful, compelling ones, and Mehdi Dehbi is a magnetic performer in what could, in lesser hands, be a joke of a leading role. The actor walks a fine line between chosen one and charlatan, giving you plenty of moments throughout the series that will have you wobbling about whether you think he’s a monster or a savior.
Messiah isn’t the show we probably all thought it was going to be. And that’s a good thing, in the end. If there’s ever been a time where we all need to feel, just for a moment, that we’re part of something bigger than ourselves, or get a reminder that we’re all connected, in spite of the things that divide us, it’s now. The messenger that delivers it may be kind of messy in places, but it’s worthwhile, all the same.