Thinking about what would happen if Christ were to return (or come for the first time, depending on your faith) is always fertile ground for speculative drama. In Messiah, the sudden appearance of an apparent miracle worker in Damascus rouses international interest when he leads followers across the desert to the border of Israel after apparently summoning a sandstorm to drive Islamic State away.
Some of this path you can fill in for yourself. Dubbed Al-Masih, the man speaks little but makes sense when he does. He won’t perform miracles on demand but seems to know everything about the people he talks to. People are swayed to follow him without seeming to explain why. And the international situation ramps up steadily throughout, especially as each faith feels that this man is misquoting or misdirecting the tenants of their own dogma.
The angle Messiah takes is that of what international intelligence would make of such a man. After Al-Masih piques the interest of CIA operative Eva Geller (Michelle Monaghan, The Best Of Me) she makes it her mission to ensure his presence doesn’t destabilise the Middle East. Yet she is wrong-footed when he mysteriously appears in the small town of Dilley, Texas and is filmed saving a teenage daughter of a preacher from a twister.
Whilst you could map the plot out yourself given the concept, Messiah mostly works by filling itself with some compelling characters. Israeli Mossad operative Aviram Dahan (Tomer Sisley) delivers a brooding and pained performance as a man who has gone too far already and lost part of himself. Preacher Felix Iguero (John Ortiz) was on the verge of burning down his church before Al-Masih swept into his life. He finds new purpose but is it wise to pin all his faith in this apparent messiah? The yin and yang of these two characters help us question the evidence we are seeing, especially when Al-Masih (played with hypnotic calmness by Mehdi Dehbi) is so ambiguous.
What hits less well is Geller. A telling job interview scene sees her dismiss a candidate for not agreeing that truth is only black or white, and her dogged pursuit of Al-Masih is often a plot-driving device that lacks engagement. In order to offset this, she is thrown a bunch of side motivations. She has cancer. She is trying to conceive with the frozen sperm of her deceased husband. Her father has the start of Alzheimer’s. But by making her so hard-nosed, and by Monaghan playing the character with such constant monotone anger, little of her surrounding circumstances really stick.
In fact, Messiah is a show with no light relief at all. Not every show requires such a thing, of course, but the tone is so unwavering throughout that the mind can begin to wander. There is a very good subplot where refugee Jibril, an early devotee to Al-Masih, manages to accidentally inspire a Palestinian movement in the West Bank. Jibril is used to show how religion is manipulated to meet the ends of people on both sides of the spectrum, who both gloss over his actual message of ‘love to all’. Yet this is interwoven into the show so sporadically and is so divorced from the main proceedings that it flaps as a loose thread.
By taking the well worn ‘what would happen if the second coming were to occur’ idea and working it through an international intelligence angle, Messiah explores some good material about what a modern response would look like. Mehdi Dehbi’s performance as Al-Mesih is a huge draw for the show due to his smoldering piety. But even over the course of only 10 episodes, Messiah loses followers along the way so that, come the end, it will only be the devoted few that stick around for revelations.
Words by Michael Record