Given the faith-based leanings of Burnett and Downey, though, the is-he-or-isn’t-he dice do feel a little loaded. And by the time we see the man dubbed al-Masih (Belgian-Tunisian actor Mehdi Dehbi) walk on water all bets are off. Or are they? Maybe this faqir is just a faker.
Thankfully, there’s a sceptical counterpoint to the willing belief displayed by al-Masih’s followers from the Israeli border to the badlands of Texas to Washington DC and beyond. It comes in the form of CIA agent Eva Geller (Michelle Monaghan), who is the best thing about the series.
Eva is convinced al-Masih is out to disrupt the world rather than save it. “What better agent of chaos than a new messiah,” she asks a fellow agent.
Her digging suggests he’s not the son of God, merely a former Iranian student who spent a semester at a minor American university under the tutelage of Oscar Wallace, a man described by another spook as “an outspoken opponent of capitalism and proponent of civil disobedience”.
Worse still for those assigned the task of upholding American values, Wallace is now living in Russia. What the hell is going on here? Is he “running” al-Masih, as Eva suspects? Or is it something more complicated – or less so?
Messiah walks a tightrope, keeping the door open for non-believers by dangling the possibility that al-Masih is either a charlatan or a foreign agent. But it’s also determined to give the believers what they want – without necessarily throwing its lot in with any particular creed.
At one point, al-Masih is asked by a journalist if he is the Messiah. He responds: “I am here to bring about the world to come.”
Given the harbingers of chaos – dead fish washing up on a Florida beach moments before “unexplained” flooding, a suicide bombing in a West Bank mosque, tornadoes in Texas that destroy everything but the dilapidated church its pastor was about to burn to the ground – that could take secular form or godly. And given the US President (Dermot Mulroney) is a Christian whose faith hinges on salvation after the apocalypse (as if any Western country’s elected leader could think such a way!), conditions seem perfect either way.
It’s that even-chance bet that is the ace in Messiah’s sleeve. As one observer says of its titular character, “It doesn’t matter if he’s real – he’s good”.
Karl Quinn is a senior culture writer at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.