Look For The Signs


The Messengers is another supernatural mystery from a network, the CW, known for vampires, zombies, demons, angels, and other monsters that go bump in the night. I watched the first two episodes with the hope that maybe this show would mimic Supernatural, my long-time favorite that emphasizes moral ambiguity, the peril of good intentions, and the ease in which we can all become monstrous. The Winchester brothers, Sam and Dean, battle against evil in the form of vengeful ghosts, tricky demons, and strange creatures, so that the rest of us can carry on with our normal lives. Evil, however, becomes harder to identify as the seasons go on, and “the boys” try their best to do what’s right even if it threatens their lives. Even angels, Dean reminds us, can be dicks.

The complexity of Supernatural pushed me to give The Messengers a chance, so I did.

A meteorite hits the Earth, which results in a blast wave that temporarily kills a scientist, a teenage boy, a rogue federal agent, a single mom, and a preacher. They all come back to life, but they’re changed. Peter realizes that he has super-strength when a bully attacks him. Raul uncovers that he’s been set up by his fellow agents because he can hear their traitorous thoughts. Erin’s tears heal her daughter’s wounds. Joshua has visions of the future and an angry, vengeful God. He proceeds to preach against his father’s ministry of love and acceptance. On a televised broadcast, Joshua proclaims, “I’ve seen the face of God and it is a terrible thing to behold. The wheels of Revelation have started to turn.” Soon, angel’s wings appear behind each character in reflective surfaces.

Vera, the scientist and resident atheist, doesn’t know what to believe, and her gift has not manifested. She is obviously the weakest link because of her lack of faith, and she’s visited by The Man, who fell from the sky not a meteorite. He tells her that her missing son is alive and tries to tempt her into murdering a comatose nurse. If Vera commits this act, then he’ll find her son. The Man monologues: “You’ve experienced things today that you don’t understand. Nothing is random. Nothing is coincidence. You have an important part to play.”

As if saying “nothing is coincidence” was not quite enough, Peter, Vera, Joshua, Erin, and Raul all end up in Houston at the same hospital. Vera cannot bring herself to suffocate the comatose Rose. When Rose abruptly awakens from the coma, she provides explanations about what is happening in the hospital’s chapel. After all, she has the gift of understanding. This group of people are the messengers, the angels of the apocalypse. God, Rose notes dramatically, is angry at humans, and He’s giving the messengers a test to save all of humanity from the end of the world.

The Man is Lucifer, who has managed to fall from Heaven again. Rose calls him “an evil son of a bitch,” the show’s antagonist. Vera’s not buying it, and the second episode devolves into a tired debate between scientist and true believer. Joshua echoes Rose’s sentiments about God’s anger. He points to global warming, school shootings, and the financial crisis as signs of doomsday’s arrival. Vera counters with rational explanations of why these events occurred. I can’t help but wonder why these signs of the end are absent particularity. Is it safer to claim large general events than to pinpoint particular signs of the apocalypse? These three examples feel too easy because they lack biting social critique. We can agree that these are all bad things, so they must be signs, right?

Rose assures us, the viewers: “God shows us signs everyday.” Vera responds tritely with “I can believe only things I can see.” We glimpse their wings in a mirror. Look harder, The Messengers says, look harder for the signs.

When I watched these two episodes back to back earlier in the week, I was annoyed by this particular attempt at doomsday theology, hokey and familiar, a lightweight version of Left Behind for television audiences. The content lifted from the Book of Revelation but tweaked in such a way to be a supernatural mystery. The narrative arc proves to be different than Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins’s series of books, because the apocalypse can, perhaps, be prevented. The characters are actively seeking to avert the Rapture and the end of the world. Why doesn’t that make me feel better? I study doomsday theologies and visions that glory in the forthcoming end, in which the apocalypse becomes something that people eagerly await. I should find The Messengers’ insistence that the end can be staved off to be refreshing or novel. Yet, I don’t.

I watched this show after Freddie Gray’s funeral and protests that followed in Baltimore. I watched a show about a shallow rendering of the end of the world while yet another black man died at the hands of the police. Gray’s spine was severed, and white people want to talk of looting and violence against the police. A human being lost his life, and CNN reports gleefully on “riots.” I read along as other media outlets attempted to reckon with protests, violence, curfews, and systemic racism. Stacia Brown wrote lovingly about Baltimore, policing, and the funeral of Gray, and I watched a shitty apocalypse show. I struggled to write about fictional apocalypses when the worlds of individuals were ending.

Look for the signs. I scroll through Twitter. All I find is anguish and hurt and anger. #blacklivesmatter. Yes, they do. Look for the signs. As I ran this morning, I thought again of Gray and police brutality. Yet, another story attempts to make victim responsible for what happened rather than admit who is really culpable. Are you kidding me? My anger boils over, and I cry at my desk. Look for the signs. Apocalypse tales teach us to fear the wrong things. Their emphasis on signs all around us overlooks the the selectivity of the sign. The signs are limited by what we imagine a sign can be. The signs need to be big (like global warming), shocking (school shooting), or far-reaching (financial crisis). Or they are remarkably literal, like The Messengers’ church sign that reads “Need directions? Follow the signs.” Signs need to avoid race and gender so as to not upset television audiences. Televised religious judgment must not make us too uncomfortable.

The Messengers is supposed to be an entertaining take on that the often-trod terrain of good versus evil, and I despise the show for its lack of awareness and nuance. It warns us about things that we’ve already learned to fear. We still suffer the ramifications of financial crises. We place metal detectors in schools and ponder whether teachers should pack heat. We (slowly) realize the danger of global warming. These are the low-hanging fruit of signs. We don’t have to look far to find them, and they require no deep reflection about what remains broken.

LOOK FOR THE SIGNS. What signs do you see? What signs do you refuse to acknowledge? The narratives of the end fail us because they ignore the reality of violence, trauma, and death in our worlds. These stories don’t take into account what bodies we harm, maim, and kill and what bodies we do not. Bodies pile up, but we won’t see that they are a sign of racism, corruption, and violence in policing. This is the evidence we look at. If we don’t look, can we pretend it doesn’t exist?

God, I hope not.

Kelly J. Baker writes about the apocalypse, zombies, mental illness, trauma, and higher education. She's the author of The Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930, Grace Period: A Memoir in Pieces, Sexism Ed: Essays on Gender and Labor in Higher Education, and Final Girl: And Other Essays on Grief, Trauma, and Mental Illness, forthcoming Fall 2020. She's also the editor of Women in Higher Education, The National Teaching and Learning Forum, and Disability Acts. You can find her hanging around on Twitter @kelly_j_baker, tweeting about coffee, parenting, writing, and other shenanigans.