This is one of those show’s that it’s hard to properly discuss without venturing into spoiler territory, but let’s give it a go.
Netflix’s Messiah is a geopolitical drama that throws viewers into a roller coaster of belief and doubt about a character who emerges from the middle east and who may or may not be the Messiah (played by Mehdi Dehbi). The show’s theme is delicate to say the least, and it has already been banned in Jordan due to its portrayal of Islam. Naturally, the news of this only amplified the buzz around this latest offering by the streaming service.
Messiah comes with a cliché protagonist (female, Caucasian CIA agent with a ton of emotional damage, played by Michelle Monaghan) and a whole bunch of orientalist tropes that we’ve all seen before. And yet it has managed to get Netflix viewers raving, while simultaneously sparking criticism from many critics.
Messiah deviates from other productions of its kind in a number of ways, including its depiction of the show’s namesake himself as a middle eastern man. This defies the typical Hollywood portrayal of Jesus as a caucasian, which the western world so often adheres to (behold! this overwhelmingly white list of 25 films about Jesus). It also portrays Israeli agencies as being…somewhat questionable, which is rare for Hollywood depictions of the region (Other notable exceptions being 2005’s Munich and 2008’s Waltz with Bashir).
On the other hand, Nadine Sayegh writes for TRT that despite its “objectively exciting premise”, this latest offering from Netflix is “little more than a reinforcement of naive American foreign policy”.
This is evident, she continues, in the fact that this Al-Masih, potentially a fraud and at worst, the antichrist, is frequently stated as being from Iran (and we know things are…tense… between The US and Iran). This despite him being fluent in Hebrew and Arabic, and not using a word of Farsi. She adds that the simultaneous use of Hebrew and Arabic in the show create a false sense of fluidity between languages and cultures “as if the colonised and the coloniser absorb into a single identity”.
Critiques of its orientalist qualities aside, the show is a provocative one, and yet it lacks the gratuitous violence and sexual themes that many series today resort to in order to hook an audience. Instead, it has cliff-hangers that will have you on the edge of your seat and a very attractive cast (which may be reason enough to watch it for some). The series is highly binge-able (I accidentally watched all ten episodes in 24 hours) and its themes are highly thought-provoking.
One of the big questions this show raises is whether miracles like walking on water, and healing the sick would be enough to convince people living in today’s society of the second coming. In a world of “fake news”, special effects, and scepticism, how easy would it be for someone to claim to be the messiah? And would people follow him out of real belief, or entertainment value? Stefano Reggebiani says about this that “to its credit, Messiah turns out to be not so much about whether al-Masih is Jesus returned or a charlatan, but rather about how people react when their belief systems are challenged.
The show also had me wondering if people would be as inclined to believe in a messiah who didn’t look like Mehdi Dehbi. Netflix cast the Belgian actor as al-Masih clearly aware that those cheekbones, lips, and eyes that stare deeply into your soul, would look good on the poster, but what if the messiah was not a beautiful snack of a man, and didn’t look as great on a magazine cover?
Post-binge contemplations aside, this show is intriguing whether you follow a particular religion or not. It includes themes that make for interesting dinner conversation, and perhaps even some juicy arguments. At no point in the show are we sure of the truth, and while that can be frustrating, it also demonstrates the success of the plot. The show’s cast performs well, and the characters are believable and multi-dimensional.
If nothing else, Messiah might even make you feel inclined to learn more about the history of the Abrahamic religions, or the Israel-Palestine conflict. Basically, you’ll come out of the show with SOMETHING, whether you love it or hate it (and it will be one or the other).
All things (cliché tropes, stereotypes, bingeability, and Mehdi Dehbi’s face) considered, this show is by no means perfect, but highly recommendable.
Essential Millennial rating: 3.5 out of 5 avocados.