“For every soul there is a star,” says the Mideastern man with immaculately groomed facial hair. “You have to shed your burdens—the pain, the shame. Leave it all behind, strip it all away. Only then you can speak your truth.”
Anyone with a passing knowledge of the Bible and religion in the 21st century should be able to discern the words of a cult leader from the second coming of Christ. Yet, with its much-hyped ten-hour miniseries “Messiah,” Netflix attempts to sustain the drama by playing up how its central figure al-Masih (portrayed by Belgian-Tunisian actor Mehdi Dehbi) may be more than a charlatan spouting religious platitudes.
Intriguing end-times themes, impressive on-location cinematography—particularly scenes shot in Jordan—and a wealth of talent “Messiah” has in spades. Show creator Michael Petroni helmed ABC’s “Miracles,” while executive producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey offered a compelling, historically grounded take on the book of Acts in their past series “A.D.: The Bible Continues.”
Unfortunately, it’s all mostly wasted in “Messiah.” The series keeps raising questions rather than fully exploring the ideas at its core. Set against the backdrop of Mideast conflict, viewers encounter a modern-day miracle-working figure shrouded in mystery. Is he of divine origin? It hints at exploring eschatology, the study of the final destiny of humankind, from a lens that takes in threads from Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Intriguing stuff.
Yet by veering into unresolved subplots, critiques of U.S. foreign policy, and surface-level “coexist gospel” spiritual drivel, “Messiah” never quite fulfills its promises. In fact, the only answers viewers get after ten hours seem to be reversed in the final two minutes.
The End Is Nigh-Ish
For all its issues, “Messiah” hooks viewers with storylines ripped from current headlines, interesting characters, and sharp pacing (although viewers should be prepared to slog through a few episodes in the middle). It even references the October 2019 pull-out of U.S. troops from Syria.
While the series draws from Christian and Jewish eschatology, much of it leans towards Islam. An opening scene of a prophet (Dehbi) wearing a yellow robe preaching from the Quran in Syria’s capital of Damascus is a dead ringer for the Islamic messiah figure. He gains a few thousand followers and leads them into the desert, soon reaching Israel’s border. Vague references are made to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, with little context to help viewers navigate the complexity—a recurring issue.
This band of thousands led by a messiah figure attracts the attention of an Israeli intelligence officer then the CIA, personified by agent Eva Geller (Michelle Monaghan of “True Detective”). The Israeli and American agents spar throughout the series. Geller tracks the would-be messiah from Syria to Israel, from Texas to D.C. and beyond. Monaghan outshines the material given her character.
Both spies further the religious dialogue, as Shin Bet operative Dahan is atheist (“I want to prove to you that there is no God,” he says at one point) and his CIA counterpart an agnostic Jew. When finally interrogated by each, in different episodes, the messiah figure turns the tables and reveals their deepest secrets.
Viewers soon get the drift that attractive, self-medicating young people are flocking to this nondescript Middle Eastern man. Now we get to hear his message. “Stop clinging to what you think you understand about God,” preaches the man known as al-Masih. “Mankind is a rudderless boat. Cling to me.”
A Trip Through the Bible Belt (Sans the Bible)
While some Christians may be offended from the outset by any speculation about their savior without a biblical source, the genre has a rich history in faith circles. The “Joshua” series by Father Joseph Girzone imagined extrabiblical incidents, as did Anne Rice’s “Christ the Lord” novels. Recent gospel adaptation “The Chosen” also takes some liberties with the biblical text.
This Netflix series isn’t that. It incessantly preaches an all-religions-are-one gospel, which only muddies distinct belief systems and what might be learned through interfaith dialogue or conflict. “Messiah” even calls out the patron saint of modern syncretism, as Oprah Winfrey’s quote “You become what you believe” is seen multiple times on-screen.
A small-town Texas pastor (John Ortiz) first encounters the would-be messiah in the United States during a tornado, after which only his church survives. Due to news reports noting the bearded man’s miraculous exploits, spiritually hungry people trek to southern Texas. Meanwhile, because he crossed into the United States without a passport, the mysterious figure lands in a border detention facility.
“A border is an idea decided by the lucky,” says al-Masih during his interrogation. Beyond such talking points—and there are plenty—the series has little of substance to say about densely complex topics of immigration and refugee policies. Despite al-Masih being on watch lists of multiple intelligence agencies, a judge inexplicably grants him asylum.
The pastor chauffeurs al-Masih in a church van, and dozens join the road trip caravan. As they decide where to go, one shot lingers on a “Waco” road sign—a reference to the tragic 1993 incident where 79 people died in a conflict between federal authorities and a cult leader. Later, a gathering billed as a prayer meeting becomes a press conference with nary a prayer spoken. And an ad for al-Masih’s telecast debut has a popular Hillsong chorus as its background music.
Quite a lot to take in, isn’t it? One wishes producers found a throughline for the series and stuck with it.
The Real Trick Is Making You Believe
The caravan makes it to Washington, D.C., where the drama transitions from somewhat plausible to boldly ridiculous. The White House chief of staff (Michael O’Neill, promoted since his Secret Service career on “The West Wing”) emerges as the main antagonist. Multiple times during the series, viewers observe his “clandestine” meetings in Washington back alleys with questionable figures, such as a woman who propositions the messiah figure to frame him. The chief has no lackeys, really?
Even more laughable is when al-Masih and the U.S. president meet face-to-face. Tipping off his Iranian origins, the messiah figure says that “to bring about a thousand years of peace,” the president need take only one step: “Withdraw all American troops everywhere.” To be sure, there is no gospel where Christ goes to Rome and gives absurd foreign policy directives.
It makes the lead-up promotion of “Messiah” all the more puzzling. LightWorkers, a media outlet run by Downey that targets evangelicals and Catholics, described “Messiah” as: “Netflix’s new religious thriller [asks] the question: What would it look like if Jesus were to come back today?” Of its dozens of unanswered questions, that one barely registers.
Before the series ends, other hot-button topics get a shout-out, including the ethics of enhanced interrogation techniques, abortion and pregnancy care, the causes of urban violence, and how theology grapples with natural disasters. Perhaps this is to emphasize that the messiah may have answers to all the world’s problems, but it comes off as muddled.
To their credit, Netflix is seeking to engage questions of religion and spirituality. Rival streaming service Apple TV+ has chosen to ban mentions of religion or religious symbols on its shows, to avoid any potential offense. Attempting a big-budget socio-political drama that encompasses ideas from the world’s three primary monotheistic religions can be lauded as a bold step.
Yet the end result does not set the stage for respectful dialogue about ultimate questions, as devout believers of any background will find so much to dismantle in “Messiah” before any discussion. In the closing scenes, the atheist Shin Bet agent observes wryly: “America is like a silly schoolgirl. They won’t remember you in a week.” It might be for the better.
“Messiah” is rated TV-MA for frequent strong language, nudity, some sexual content, and graphic violence.