Thursday, February 22, 2024

Reaction - The Chosen Season 4 Episodes 4-6

 Last weekend I had the opportunity to see The Chosen, Season 4 Episodes 4-6 in the theater. As with Episodes 1-3, I want to offer a mostly spoiler-free reaction, trying to limit my responses to what can be inferred from the trailer and a basic knowledge of the Gospels.

Also as before, you can find my review and analysis series here

There are a number of things we see in the trailer:

  • Jesus' disciples in a state of grief, and Jesus himself looking anguished
  • People celebrating, singing with instruments
  • Lazarus seeming to be in pain, as Jesus' voice-over intones, "Many things pass away."
  • Jesus and Gaius in a room together, conversing
  • Jesus asking Martha ("Martha, Martha,") to come and sit beside him
  • Judas discussing feelings of anger and frustration with his old business partner, but also affirming Jesus as the Messiah
  • Pharisees discussing a strategy involving Jesus, and that blood on one's hands is not necessarily wrong
  • Jesus discussing with his mother the incomprehension of people to his message, both among the religious leaders and his own followers
  • Jesus and the disciples (pointedly, Judas) walking with Roman soldiers and carrying armor, as Jesus' voice-over says, "They take offense when I show humility and deference to the powers of this world."
  • Jesus' mother Mary telling him, "They're only human," and Jesus pointing to himself: "Also human."
  • Pharisees throwing a stone in the Temple grounds

 One can reasonably infer that there will be scenes involving Mary, Martha, and Lazarus; at the very least, the passage in Luke 10:38-42, where Jesus specifically says, "Martha, Martha." Lazarus' death could also be in view. The end of Season Three seemed to indicate that Gaius would be the Roman official whose servant or son was healed without Jesus even going to his home (Luke 7:2-10; John 4:46-54), so this could be taking place. There is rising tension with the Pharisees and possibly a more overt conspiracy to kill Jesus. Jesus also has rising frustration with the inability of his disciples to understand his teachings, and with their short-sighted and earthly goals and aspirations. We can also see Judas starting down the path toward betrayal, while still affirming absolute belief in Jesus as Messiah.

My impressions are mixed, honestly. The acting and cinematography are superb, as always—really, getting better over time. The writing is still very good as well, but I am beginning to have quibbles that I can't ignore.

While the first three episodes each felt very self-contained, and the first two in particular seemed to be wrapping up plot lines from Season Three, Episodes 4-6 came across on a first viewing as being more muddy and intertwined. This is understandable; Season One had four separate plot lines all playing out over the course of the season, and many people found the various stories difficult to follow. But the best of the episodes also had a specific event that unified it, even if there were also separate plot lines also taking place. Maybe on repeated viewings I will recognize the unity of each episode; but my experience in the theater is a bit more blurred.

The actual problem I am having, however, relates to how much the show is now actually tracking the events we see in the Gospels. I'm sure that most of the fan base is thrilled that so many of the stories are identifiable, and it was inevitable that it would become this way, given the nature of the series. It's not that I have a problem with knowing the stories from the Bible; it's more that the way they are staged seems very different from how I would have imagined them. And not, to my mind, always in a positive way.

I don't want to get into specifics, but I am noticing in particular that events that I would have imagined taking place in private–where the story itself appears to be something that wouldn't have happened in public–are taking place out in the open, with background actors walking around and doing things, seemingly oblivious to what is going on. I might simply be wrong about how I had envisioned these scenes in the past, or maybe there's a case to be made that it doesn't matter. But it's hard not to get the feeling that now that The Chosen has a budget for background actors, they're just doing it because they can. (In fairness, some incidents in the early seasons seemed to be conveniently located "on the road," but really in a field in the middle of nowhere, where other people might have been expected to be walking by, but aren't.)

In some cases, it seems that Jesus and his band of followers should have attracted some attention when they seemingly don't. Even in the Temple complex, where Jesus specifically goes to preach a sermon, it's basically Jesus' own disciples who are paying attention to him, except for a couple of Pharisees, who later gather some more. In one shot, there are more who are listening, but one would have expected a significant crowd to be gathering, and there just isn't.

Another issue is that as we begin to see more identifiable Bible stories play out on screen, I'm getting a sense (admittedly subjective) that we're kind of ticking off boxes. "Did that one... did that one... did that one...." It's not that these stories aren't developed or prepared for; it's just that when they actually do happen, there doesn't seem to be a lot of thought put into exactly when and how they happen. Comparing some of these stories to, for example, the miraculous catch of fish, or the wedding at Cana, or the feeding of the 5000, it sometimes feels that we're getting a story out of the way, as opposed to really exploring what it may have been like. Obviously it's very difficult for me to defend this position without bringing up details, so we'll have to leave it here for now.

In some cases, the American Evangelical influence is too apparent. There is one particular story in which Jesus clearly commends one person and gently rebukes another. Much contemporary preaching tends to see these two people as equally valuable personality types. Here, the additional dialogue that The Chosen inserts (and which I usually applaud) seems to me to do exactly that--there's too much effort put into assuaging the feelings of the person the biblical Jesus rebukes, and even a mild swipe against the person that the biblical Jesus commends. And there's not enough developed in the backstory to explain why each person does what they do. Which is a shame, because that's ordinarily what The Chosen does so well.

But my quibbles aside, I really do like the overall direction of where the series is going. The aftermath of the Big Event that happened in Episode 3 is handled with wonderful finesse and honesty; everyone responds in a way that seems genuine and real, and the development of one particular disciple is hard to watch but necessary for where he will be later on. The rising tension with the Pharisees is portrayed believably, as is the internal politics involved (and the distress on Shmuel's face in the preview accurately depicts his growing disillusionment with the cynicism of it all). And Jesus' frustration with his disciples' misplaced ambitions and with their incomprehension at his Passion predictions is all convincing and moving.

At the end of Episode 6, it's easy to see where we're going in the immediate future. But The Chosen allows the disciples to be where they are in that moment, to not know what Jesus is about to do. This is The Chosen at its best. Letting us re-experience the events described in the gospels as though we didn't know what was going to happen next. Letting us view them with fresh eyes, and giving us greater understanding.

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