(Mild spoilers follow)
“History has ended.” The enigmatic figure at the center of Netflix’s Messiah repeats this phrase several times throughout the ten-episode first season. The question other characters in the show must wrestle with is whether or not to believe him. Eschatology (the theological study of the final events of human history or “end times”) is a huge gap in my cultural knowledge. I’m not religious, but like most Jamaicans, I was raised a Christian, and it was an important part of my upbringing. The rather staid Methodist church I attended never spent much time focused on the brimstone and fire of the book of Revelations, though. Even so, I know enough to grasp that the “end of history” portends Armageddon and a final judgment of humankind. There will be beasts and an all-consuming war to end all wars. I think whether or not you’ve ever believed these events will occur will affect your experience of Messiah.
End times are about death on a mass scale — the end of humanity. Death and people’s reactions to it shape the motivations of some of the central characters in Messiah. There is a gaping, person-shaped hole in their lives — one that sculpts their identities. The show opens with a boy asking his mother why someone was shot and killed, and she tries to explain a divine plan, while reassuring him he won’t be killed too. In the next scene, the boy, Jibril Medina (Sayyid El Alami), is a teenager and is alone as he buries his mother using rocks from the ruins of the bombed out building where he is interring her remains. The plan she told him of seems to have spared his life.
Jibril is in Damascus, Syria, which is under siege by ISIS. It is here that we first see the enigmatic man at the center of Messiah, wearing a golden tunic, and preaching to a crowd. Mehdi Dehbi is perfectly cast. He is beautiful and charismatic and has a quality that pulls you in from beyond the screen. He has a slight build, but something about his carriage and demeanor make it believable that there might be a great power coiled inside him waiting to be unleashed. “History has ended,” he tells the crowd that includes Jibril. He also tells them their enemies will be defeated. As he speaks, ISIS begins to bombard the city. A massive sandstorm gathers. It lasts 43 days and buries ISIS fighters, cutting them off from their supply chains. They are crushed. It is the kind of story that fills the texts of the Abrahamic religions. Did a divine figure summon the storm and defeat ISIS, or was it all a coincidence? These kinds of questions arise and are never really answered as the story unfolds. Messiah is about true believers, and true faith requires the existence of doubt others can’t overcome.
It is in the aftermath of ISIS’s defeat that the first believers gather around the man some begin to call Al-Masih. He leads a large group of Palestinian refugees from Damascus across the desert to the border with Israel, where they are denied entry. Jibril, who becomes his most loyal follower, is in the group. The standoff at the border garners international media coverage. It is here that the world is introduced to Al-Masih, and he draws the attention of another true believer, CIA agent, Eva Geller (Michelle Monaghan). Her certainty in the righteousness of her work is a weakness in the show, because there is no genuine counterbalance. She squabbles with the Israelis about America’s high-handedness, but the absolute disaster of America’s aggression and regime change policies in the region is never confronted. There is an element of propaganda running through that storyline.
As Eva tracks Al-Masih, whose following is growing, he surprises everyone by turning up in south Texas, and another miracle seems to occur. The town’s pastor Felix Iguero (John Ortiz) was in the midst of a spiritual crisis and his faith is rejuvenated. Felix becomes Al-Masih’s acolyte and leads a pilgrimage north. The Instagram account of Felix’s daughter, Rebecca (Stefania LaVie Owen) becomes the unofficial newsfeed for Al-Masih’s followers. Rebecca, like Jibril, catches his eye, and as the show progresses both teenagers have ascendant moments stemming directly from their belief in Al-Masih. When the pilgrimage comes to an abrupt end, Al-Masih performs a miracle straight out one of the most famous Bible stories. It is broadcast live, and the paroxysms spasm to engulf even the White House. There is a national existential crisis as everyone wrestles with what they saw. Was it real? Was it all an elaborate hoax? Is Al-Masih really the second coming or is he an incredibly brazen con man?
Eva believes the chaos Al-Masih is spreading is being deliberately seeded to cause international instability. And he is an agent of chaos. One of the things Dehbi plays brilliantly is Al-Masih’s elusiveness even in stillness. No one can pin him down. He never gives a straight answer. He has a silver tongue. He also knows things he shouldn’t and is adept at using that information to set anyone questioning him back on their heels. Even Eva’s unflappable competence is overturned when she confronts him. There is an element of the trickster god in Al-Masih. Throughout the show, he is derided as a blasphemer and a false god, but something is being danced around. In Islamic eschatology, Al-Masih Ad-Dajjal is akin to the Antichrist. The name Al-Masih is never directly attached to that meaning in the show, but in the yawning chasm of the unanswered question of who this man really is there is a second layer. Al-Masih having supernatural powers isn’t incontrovertible proof that he is the second coming of Jesus Christ. He could be the coming of something else. The season ends with Al-Masih seeming to perform the miracle of miracles. The only witness is established to be a habitual liar, so we are left with more questions as Al-Masih gathers more faithful followers. All we know is that he will continue his ascendancy.
I learned of the assassination of Iranian General Qassam Soleimani while taking a break from binge-watching Messiah, and it melded into that imaginary world somehow. Or perhaps the show bled into reality. The same thing happened with news of the devastating Australian fires. It does seem as if history is ending, as if the world might. The uncertainty of what will replace it all matches the anxiety of the fictional people I’d been watching wrestle with living in a world where Al-Masih exists. Humanity is facing an existential crisis that mirrors the conundrum a supernatural Al-Masih presents, except our Armageddon will be wholly the making of mortal men.
Originally published on my Patreon.