Forget the cynical reviews: The new ten-part Netflix series Messiah is definitely worth watching despite its constant F-bombs and one relatively explicit sex scene. It definitely succeeds in imagining what it would be like if Jesus Christ appeared today.
Created by the Australian writer and director Michael Petroni (The Rite and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader) and produced by the husband and wife team of Mark Burnett and Roma Downey (the forces behind Son of God and the Ben Hur remake), Messiah will baffle many, infuriate quite a few, but will leave all who watch it intrigued, pondering the issues it raises for weeks to come.
The series begins in media res, the plot ripped from today’s headlines.
A mysterious Muslim religious figure appears in the besieged Syrian capital of Damascus just as it is about to be attacked by the newly reorganized remnants of the Islamic State, the bloodthirsty fanatics who have terrorized much of the Middle East for years.
This mysterious figure, dressed in a yellow robe and bearing a striking resemblance to western portraits of Jesus Christ, yells out encouragement to the terrified residents of the city that God, Allah, will not abandon them but will rescue them from what appears to be their certain doom.
Sure enough, a rare but not-unprecedented desert sandstorm suddenly gathers strength above Damascus and, over a 30-day period, comes smashing down on the tanks and artillery pieces of the Islamic State fighters, utterly destroying them.
The crazy Muslim prophet is vindicated – and immediately begins drawing crowds.
He immediately leads them on a pilgrimage across the Syrian desert to an isolated outpost along Israel’s northern border where they, the Arabs, demand to be allowed in as refugees.
A saviour with blazing eyes
The first wonder of “Messiah” is the Iranian actor who plays the prophet, Mehdi Dehbi.
Dehbi brings to the role the blazing eyes and passionate intensity of someone daring to speak in the name of God – and yet with a knowing, thoroughly modern sensibility. This is a savior who understands social media, for example.
The Arabs following this figure into the desert chant al-Masih, al-Masih, which means, just as in Hebrew, the anointed or the Messiah.
The series is nothing if not ecumenical. Al-Masih appears to know and quote from the Muslim, Christian and Jewish scriptures, and preaches an End Times teaching of love and peace that seems to be a blend of all the major Abrahamic faiths. “History is over,” he says repeatedly.
In Muslim theology, Jesus, or Issa, the Son of Mary, was the last prophet before Mohammed and will return at the end of time in Damascus, dressed in a yellow robe, when a new age of peace will dawn.
However, Issa will have to do battle with another figure, Al-Masih ad-Dajjal, the false messiah or Antichrist – and the series is basically about which of these two figures the televised savior actually is.
Naturally, Western and Israeli intelligence agencies view the Muslim prophet with undisguised hostility.
As people worldwide harken to the prophet’s message of peace, the intelligence services worry, like Caiaphas did with Jesus, that the messiah might accidentally or deliberately trigger a war that could leave millions dead.
Two actors represent the global intelligence community: A CIA Middle East expert named Eva Geller (Michelle Monaghan) and an Israeli Shin Bet intelligence operative named Aviram Dahan (Tomer Sisley), an anguished divorced father who tortures Palestinians for his job and who, we learn, executed a 14-year-old Palestinian boy in revenge for the death of his own mother.
All these characters mean the series is a linguist’s dream. The characters move back and forth effortlessly between Arabic, Hebrew and English. What’s more, the series conveys very well the complexities of the Middle East conflicts.
Al-Masih is arrested outside the Israeli border and interrogated by the sadistic Aviram, unnerved by the fact that Al-Masih seems to know about his killing of the young Palestinian.
Yet despite constant electronic surveillance, the Muslim prophet somehow escapes from Israeli custody – and miraculously appears a day later in, of all places, a small town in Texas about to be overwhelmed by a tornado.
Like all of the seeming miracles in this series, this, too, is given a plausible explanation. Apparently, Al-Masih has helpers. After escaping from Israeli detention, he was flown by private jet to an airfield in Mexico and crossed the U.S. border by land – more proof, the CIA figures, that he is an international terrorist likely in league with Russia.
Once in Texas, thousands of Americans flock to the tiny town to see him – and eventually, aided by the desperate pastor of a broken-down Baptist church, a gigantic caravan of true believers drives to Washington, DC, for some kind of confrontation with the Powers That Be.
By this time, Al-Masih has so much media coverage that millions flow into the nation’s capital to hear his message, including the president of the United States, a devout Mormon (Dermot Mulroney).
The savior has a very simple request for the president: He wants the US to withdraw all of its military forces from everywhere all around the world. “You are a believer in the latter days, are you not,” he asks the first Mormon president. “Well, these are the latter days!”
Is This Not the Carpenter’s Son?
Eventually, the CIA is able to figure out who the purported savior figure actually is: an Iranian national who is the son of two professional con artists and street magicians.
What’s more, he appears to be a close friend with a Julian Assange-like professional hacker who has defected to Russia and who has published a book on “social disruption.” The CIA interviews Al-Masih’s brother and learns that he spent time in a mental institution, diagnosed as highly intelligent but suffering from, yes, a messiah complex.
Again, the New Testament echoes are unmistakable (“When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, ‘He is out of his mind,’” Mark 3:21).
Throughout the series, Al-Masih makes no claims about himself, only saying what God wants.
What the series conveys quite well is how a figure like this could draw crowds – and how these crowds could grow into a global movement that might indeed threaten the powers that be.
In fact, he could become so threatening that some people, such as the president’s Deep State chief of staff (a delightfully sinister Michael O’Neill), might decide that the world would be better off without messiahs, authentic or not.
This is as far as I can go without spoiling the series.
Naturally, the cynical media and professional critics mostly hate it, rating it just 33% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. The public, however, seems to enjoy Messiah immensely, with 91% voting it thumbs up.
I will say that the ending is frustrating.
On the one hand, the ending I thought was coming in one sense would be truer to the New Testament. On the other hand, the ending we actually got is ultimately truer to the New Testament. You’ll have to watch it – yes, all ten episodes – to find out what I mean.
But I guarantee you it will have you stewing, whether you believe in messiahs or not, for weeks to come.
Robert J. Hutchinson writes frequently on the intersection of politics and ideas. He is the author of Searching for Jesus: New Discoveries in the Quest for Jesus of Nazareth.