The thing about the teachings of Jesus Christ is that they’re all but impossible to follow. The man said you should cast aside everything to follow him, that you should give freely to both God and your neighbor, that you should be willing to just let every wrong perpetuated upon you go. These are ideas that don’t fit with the way we live, that are, at best, inconvenient and, at worst, the sorts of things others will take advantage of until you’re destitute. Taken literally, Jesus’ teachings are essentially a recipe to end up alone, on the street, broke. Naturally, of course, we spend all of our time looking for loopholes in what he said, at least if we want to be Christians. (Members of other religions don’t have this problem with Jesus, obviously, but every religion has some inconvenient teaching at its center.) But the stark reality of sitting down and reading the Bible is that if you’re going to be a follower of Christ, you’re going to have to give, more than you receive.
This is perhaps why the thing that ultimately drove me away from the modern church was “prosperity gospel.” I found the idea that if you prayed long and hard enough, or that if you lived the right kind of life, God would give you lots and lots of money absolutely loathsome. It didn’t square with any possible interpretation of the Bible that I could fathom, and it always seemed to be based on cherry-picking certain bits and pieces of the book that squared with that preacher’s hope that “being good” could equal “having lots of stuff.” There’s absolutely nothing wrong with having lots of stuff, obviously. I like having stuff, and it can make life a little more bearable. But I just couldn’t see the link between Christ’s fiery invocations to give up everything and follow him and praying hard for a new car. It was backward thinking, a way to not just justify having nice things but actually make them seem like virtues. I mean, buy a nice car, sure, but don’t feel the need to argue it makes you a better person.
The fifth episode of the second series of Rev.—one of the best episodes of TV I’ve ever seen—takes direct assault at these ideas. Well, I don’t know if “direct” is the best word, since the attack on these ideas is rather circuitous, but it does directly deal with just how hard it is to be charitable, with how even the slightest ounce of charity or even goodness will make you a mark for so, so many people, even if they’re people like Colin, who’s a basically good person and only steals candy bars from his beloved vicarage. It’s also about the ways that capitalism can become rigid, a self-perpetuating system that keeps certain people on the top and certain people on the bottom and certain people in the middle. But it’s not a screed against the rich, either, as it presents to us Marcus, a giant jerk who’s, nonetheless, human, then makes Adam the villain in that storyline. And, finally, it’s about the small tragedies of being a television character, about how when you’re stuck in a certain role (say, homeless crack addict), you can never get out of that role, at least if you live inside of a television show. (Or maybe even if you live in our reality.)
The episode is one of just two in the series’ whole run that isn’t credited to James Wood, instead credited to Fintan Ryan, who has a firm handle on the characters and what they might be up to. His Arch-deacon is appropriately great at puncturing Adam’s self-righteousness. His Adam is appropriately caught between emulating Christ and his own baser needs. His Alex is appropriately terrific at kind of being irritated with how Adam’s calling interferes with their marriage, and his Nigel is appropriately pompous and haughty. (I love when he says that the Gospel of Luke has “a great deal” about accountancy.)
But his Mick is different. Not wildly different. We can see the Mick we know in the contours of Jimmy Akingbola’s performance, who still fidgets and seems a little ill at ease around society. But this is a Mick who’s gone off drugs after a short stint in jail, and it shows. He’s a little more focused, a little more able to concentrate and more aware of what a wreck he was just a few short weeks ago. The problem is that the financial crisis has eroded the social safety net, leaving Mick with no place to turn. The argument usually leveled in this event is that churches and charities can pick up the slack where the government can’t, and that’s sometimes the case. But it’s not the case at St. Saviour’s, where the collections are so meager that Adam has to frequently bolster them with up to half his stipend. This is why he hasn’t felt guilty at all about stealing a little bit here and a little bit there to help pay for things around the house, that is, he hasn’t felt guilty until Nigel and the Arch-deacon point out the potential consequences of what could happen to him, which include being fired at best and jail time at worst. Once that money’s in the collection plate, it’s God’s, no longer Adam’s. So when Adam searches for somewhere for Mick to go, he can’t find anywhere. The hostel he eventually does find has its funding yanked at the last minute. Everybody’s short.
So instead of shunting his acts of charity off on someone else, Adam takes Mick in. At first, it’s just for the two days it will take until Mick can get to the hostel, but it soon seems as if it will stretch on indefinitely. And what happens then? Do you just turn the man out on the street again? Do you tell him to go back to the one other place he can stay—the crack dealer? While all of this is going on, Adam’s also dealing with the church accounts’ 150-pound deficit. It’s a believable amount of money: just small enough to be what has added up over a year of taking small bits here and there; just large enough that he wouldn’t immediately have it on hand. It’s also increasingly the only thing he can think about—not Mick, not Adam and Alex’s attempts to get pregnant, not anything like that. All of which is why when he and Marcus go out drinking together, Adam’s all too happy to nip the cash he needs when the inebriated banker slips off to buy drugs. He did ask God for money, after all.
It bounces back on him, of course, as these things have a way of doing. Mick finally leaves, taking Adam’s TV with him. Yet he and Alex are so relieved to have him gone that they finally have the uninhibited sex they’ve been unable to have with all of the schedules and mathematics inherent in trying to conceive a child when you’ve been having trouble. In a good episode of Rev., things bounce off of each other in ways that thematically resonate but also in ways that hint at the sorts of grace that underlie the universe. You don’t have to believe in God to believe in that grace, either. You just have to believe in people having some sense of decency, in the fact that our actions reverberate in ways we’ll never quite understand. Adam does both very good and very bad things in this episode, and both lead to places where he’s haunted by his actions. But he gets to keep his job, and he and Alex might get their child, and Marcus turns from alcoholism, and everything just might work out.
Unless, of course, you’re Mick, who sells the TV and gets more crack and is using the old petrol can con again in the episode’s heartbreaking final scene, one you know has to be coming (because you’ve watched television before) but also wish to ward away as much as possible. Yet Ryan and director Peter Cattaneo take their sweet time bringing it around, until you hear the bell ring, and know just what’s coming. That’s the problem with charity: You might be able to help one person. You might even be able to save their life (though it’s not likely). But you can never help everybody. To actually do as Jesus said and give everything you have to the poor is theoretically possible, but then you’d be poor yourself. And that’s not the way any of us wants to live our lives. So we hope that by being good enough, we’ll be given material things, instead of rewards in Heaven. Or we try to find justifications, to reverse-engineer a theology that equates possessions with goodness. Eventually, we see the people lying out there on the streets, alone and sick, and we just start seeing through them, until we’re surrounded by ghosts we make by choice.
- It should be noted that Marcus is played by the fantastic Richard E. Grant, who played the alcoholic Withnail in the terrific film Withnail & I.
- A lovely little scene I couldn’t work into the main review: Mick reads the Bible and is genuinely enthralled at the notion that Jesus defeats death, that he rolls back a big rock and the light comes out. Would that it were that easy.
- Mick’s recounting of the story of Adam and Eve is very funny. I like his impression of God, especially.
- Another great scene: Mick asks Adam to help him pray, in order to remove the desire for crack, and Adam is distracted by the sound of the game show in the other room, answering the questions quietly. This is almost certainly what I would do.
- I hope you read my interview with Tom Hollander and James Wood, which went up Friday. They had a lot of interesting things to say about how they write episodes of the show, things that made me appreciate it even more.