Is he the messiah? Or is he a very naughty boy?
These are the animating questions of the 10-part Netflix drama Messiah, a political thriller built around the advent in Syria of a young preacher man (played with grace, charm and passion by Mehdi Dehbi).
He catches people’s attention by fearlessly urging them to set aside old divisions and listen to his message of peace, love and unity, which seems to incorporate the best of most of the main religions. This is very generous of him, considering he also possesses a set of cheekbones upon which he could hang a new and very self-centred one. For what I suspect are a variety of spiritual, aesthetic and carnal reasons, his following soon grows in numbers.
However, the CIA (particularly the agent Eva Geller – played by Michelle Monaghan – who is recently widowed and nursing a secret, possibly fatal, illness, because non-prophets are also interesting) is sceptical. Alongside assorted other cynical parties, the intelligence agency is not convinced that he is our saviour newly born to Earth. It runs him through its databases and finds no trace of him, but reckons he can only be either a con artist or a terrorist who has found a new way to bring about a war.
The latter view looks increasingly probable as our lord of the cheekbones leads a group of Muslim refugees out of Damascus, after (as they come to see it) conjuring a sandstorm that spikes the guns of Isis just as they are about to take the city, and up to the border of Israel.
He is arrested by the police and interrogated by Aviram (Tomer Sisley), a soldier in the Israeli army. The prophet seems to have unwarranted knowledge of his personal history. As a result, Aviram deletes the tape of their interview. This comes back to bite him when the high priest of the zygomatic arch pulls off his second apparent miracle and escapes from a locked cell overnight.
After only a brief pause at Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem – to preach the maxillofacial word and heal a boy shot in front of him by trigger-happy police excited to be closing in on their escapee – the prophet next appears in the US, seemingly having saved a pastor’s daughter from a tornado (and indirectly preventing the debt-ridden pastor from torching his church for the insurance). The seeds of another following are sown. Unsurprisingly, the CIA is no more keen on the home-soil outpost than it was on the original.
As the series goes on, the influence of social media and investigations into the potentially holy one’s motivations by old-fashioned “proper” journalists (represented by Jane Adams, playing a dogged CNN reporter called Miriam Keneally) add further layers of complexity. The whole thing is like Homeland, with a divine twist.
However, the twist may already have been spoiled. Muslim Arabic speakers have complained that one of the names the writers have used for Zygoman translates as something that gives away the ending; a hazard, these people say, of the writers borrowing names and iconography from a religion and a culture they don’t fully understand.
Whether this is the case, or an elaborate multiple bluff is in play, Messiah is potent stuff packed with fine performances. My feeling is that, even if the show’s creators had only a basic understanding of the relevant religious and cultural considerations, the mistake being asserted by viewers would be quite difficult to make. I hope that the people behind a multicultural series that deals with Jewish and Muslim conflict had the sense to hire all sorts of experts to protect sensitivities and highlight potential problems – but perhaps I am being overly optimistic.
Even in the earliest episodes, Messiah is capable of delivering gut punches – the flashback to Aviram holding a cloth over a boy’s face as he struggles for breath, for example – that surprise you into noticing how far you have been sucked in. Perhaps the fact that the show becomes so harrowing so fast, and is compelling throughout, is a sign that we are hardwired for hope – the man standing in front of me promises to end all human suffering – and programmed deeply to seek answers and invest in those who purport to provide them. I have no saviour to turn to, and if one appeared I would probably be among the very last converts, sitting canker-hearted as water jug after water jug was turned to wine. But I believe in television, and I believe in Netflix’s latest offering to us. Salvation from the outside world for at least 10 hours lies within.