Messiah: Where faith and fame clash
Each of the 10 episodes of Netflix’s new controversial thriller are as inconsistent as the series as a whole. Sometimes it feels like an action movie, other times like an arthouse film that’s on the cusp of derailing.
In one episode it flirts with dispensing interesting critiques of geopolitics, in the next it gets bogged down in its own faux mysticism and the stresses that come with the risky decision to rely entirely on a single question: is Al-Masih or the Messiah (Mehdi Dehbi) the second coming of Christ, or a world-class charlatan?
Intrigue all around
The casting of Dehbi in the titular role is superb: he oozes charisma and has the face of a Middle Eastern Ken doll, making him precisely the sort of person people would follow into the desert or across the United States of America in a convoy of cars headed for an unknown destination — both of which happen as the show slowly (sometimes too slowly) unfurls its plot.
But even more interesting are CIA officer Eva Geller (Michelle Monaghan) and her Israeli counterpart Aviram Dahan (Tomer Sisley). Both of them are as enthralled by Al-Masih as they are sceptical, both have complicated pasts, and each of them believes their work is a calling of sorts and revere the organisations that employ them as though they’re holy orders.
At its heart, Messiah is really a look at fame in the 21st Century. It’s an examination of what you can achieve if you tap into people’s faith, harness their fears, embody their desires…
Meanwhile, in Texas
What kind of show that hints at a cult would be complete without a subplot set in Texas? Messiah’s concerns the Iguero family, a preacher named Felix (John Ortiz), his wife Anna (Melinda Page Hamilton), their restless and epileptic teenage daughter (Stefania LaVie Owen), and their millionaire televangelist father/father-in-law/grandfather Edmund DeGuilles (Beau Bridges).
Most of the action takes place in the small town of Dilley, where attendance for the Sunday sermon is dwindling, debts are piling up, and something needs to give, one way or another. Cue a natural disaster and some miraculous coincidence, and you’ve got a potentially strong parallel narrative for Al-Masih to slide into and irrevocably complicate.
The war of ideas
At its heart, Messiah is really a look at fame in the 21st Century. It’s an examination of what you can achieve if you tap into people’s faith, harness their fears, embody their desires, and astutely broadcast all of the above via social media and the breathless breaking-news cycle that sustains broadcast media.
The greatest failing of Messiah is that it keeps promising a tidy denouement, only to renege on that promise. This leaves it feeling like a network TV show of old, where open-endedness was a necessary evil in case of renewal. But it’s not a network TV show, and it ought to have a better sense of where it’s headed.
Perhaps there’ll be a second coming of the show and it’ll redeem itself. If not, the first season is sure to frustrate many viewers, but get them talking about Messiah’s more interesting narrative threads (and oh-so-dishy lead) nevertheless.