Spotlighting Student Work #14: Gently Saving the Universe

This weekend’s essay is about the FAMOUS detective Dirk Gently. Our author is the one and only Katie Worthington. Here’s a bit about Katie.

I have just moved to Auckland this year from a small town up North called Waipu. I am currently studying a Bachelor of Arts majoring in sociology and media. I want to focus on gender and sexuality and their representation in the media. I loved taking THEOREL 101 as an elective paper this year. I was not planning on doing anything with theology as I did not grow up with any religious ties. However, after talking to the people at the open day, I was intrigued by the subject. This paper combined well with my majors as it looked at the culture industry and Bible representations in media.

Read on, and remember–everything is connected.

The Holistic Messiah? Dirk Gently and the American Monomyth

Katie Worthington

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Crime shows often feature the American Monomyth where, through unique powers of deduction and group of loyal followers, an outside individual solves an impossible case. The television series, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (2016-2017), created by Max Landis, features the Messiah archetype through the character of Dirk Gently (Samuel Barnett) as he uses his powers of coincidence combined with faith in the universe to let individual aspects of a case, piece itself together. Lawrence and Shelton discuss the characteristics of a modern Messiah such as motivated by selfless zeal for justice, renouncement of sexuality, and the justification of violence (2002). The portrayal of Messiahs in television has evolved as each creator has added their spin on the Messiah archetype. Thus, Dirk’s character appears more relatable gaining empathy from a modern audience deviating from some Messiah traits. The Messiah figure is still relevant as they provide hope to the audience drawing on the human desire to be saved.

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That smile can save me any time

Dirk inhabits a selfless zeal for justice; however, he could also be described as a reluctant Messiah. Lawrence and Shelton describe this as one of the critical features of a monomythic superhero (47). Jesus fought for those who had been cast out from society. Jesus associates himself with those facing hardships, such as in Mark 1:29-34 where he cures many who were either sick or demon possessed. Jesus placed others above himself which translates into the American Monomyth. The American Monomyth describes the commodification of a Christ character in order to make them relevant in modern society (Lawrence & Jewett, 21). Religion is treated as a product to sell to the masses giving into the capitalism and consumerism of western society (Forbes, 13). This commodification leads to the production of the messiah Archetype within pop culture. Dirk presents his own selfless zeal for justice as he puts himself in harm’s way in order to solve the case and return the time machine to Patrick Spring. Examples of this in season one is the death maze in episode four and the climax of the series in episode seven where he gets shot with a crossbow numerous times pushing him to the brink of death. This scene is an example of Dirk being willing to suffer, and also raises themes of resurrection, another critical element of a modern Messiah.

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Fighting for justice and ruining shirts since 2016

While Dirk attempts to fight for justice for others, he can also be described as a reluctant Messiah. In episode two season one, Dirk reveals that he does not like following these cases but has to do them because it is the right thing. He tells Todd (Elijah Wood), “The cases I end up on if I do not solve them, no one does.” Dirk is aware of his situation and understands that he is working for an entity that is greater than himself. This highlights Dirk’s perseverance in helping Lydia and solving the murder of Patrick Spring. However, this description of the monomythic superhero is problematic as considers the world to either be good or evil (Lawrence & Jewett, 47). The American Monomyth oversimplifies the lines of good and evil to the point where the ‘good’ is the perspective told by the story. Jesus draws strict guidelines of morality in Matthew 5:17-48. These rules consider the world in black and white. Dirk, however, is not perfect. He unintentionally participates in several murders throughout the series as well as lies to his followers. However, since Dirk appears to be acting on behalf of fate, he is excused from these faults. In the perspective of the villains in the series, Gordon would be considered their Messiah, delivering them their justice. However, Landis creates the story from Dirk’s point of view as he eventually wins and his story gets told. This example demonstrates the problems behind a Messiah’s selfless zeal for justice as it depends on the perspective of the story. Dirk aims for justice for Lydia and Patrick, however, discards others in the process.

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The awesomeness that is Dirk, Todd, and Farrah

Another aspect of a modern Messiah that Dirk possesses is his renouncement of sexuality. There is no mention of Jesus’ sexual experiences in the Bible. Throughout the entirety of season one, Dirk also has no love interest. In the second season, Dirk enters a relationship with The Beast. This emphasises Dirk’s asexuality as he is an unwilling boyfriend in the arrangement. The Beast, who resembles a fairy tale creature, treats Dirk as a pet. Eventually, he escapes from the highly uncomfortable situation. However, this characteristic does not only include the renouncement of sexuality but the resistance of temptations. Here, one may argue that Dirk is not a Messiah. Matthew 4:1-11 describes Jesus’ resistance of temptation through the example of fasting for 40 days in the desert. Here, the devil tempts him with food and power, however, Jesus declines. Dirk consistently gives into his temptations and impulses as this a key aspect of solving the case holistically. Consequently, this ‘flaw’ makes Dirk appear more relatable to the audience. Dirk explains his process of solving a case as “interconnectedness” and “coincidence” as “once hired [he] is intrinsically connected to the specific case [which he] will eventually solve.” The crank Dirk steals from the Spring mansion can be viewed as either impulse or intuition as it later becomes relevant to the case. His extraordinary powers appear when he follows his impulses appearing to give in to every temptation.

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However, this is an element that has been created to make the character relatable and entertaining to modern audiences. Sjö describes the hegemonic masculinity portrayed through pop culture messiahs (179). Dirk strays away from this ideal through presenting his emotions making him appear to rush into temptations. This loss of control can be seen as a failure (Sjö, 180). Dirk’s emotional meltdowns not only ignites sympathy from the audience but also adds comedy to the show, drawing in the audience further. This could also be used to argue that Dirk does not embody a modern messiah as he fails to remain calm under pressure. But while he appears to be a clueless detective, Dirk does remain competent. For example, he breaks down in the death maze realising that his friend could die at any moment. This moment of empathy allows the audience to sympathise with the character thus investing in the pair’s survival. Dirk still can solve each room and successfully escape the maze. Dirk’s competence appears to be not of his choosing as it is a string of coincidences that help him solve the case. Dirk rebuts this himself when he states to Todd, “Just because you know you are playing a game doesn’t mean you don’t choose your moves.” Dirk also critique Todd’s “choices out of desperation” revealing he is much more in control than he first appears. Despite not being initially apparent, Dirk’s non-hegemonic portrayal of his masculinity still fits the mould of a modern Messiah as he remains competent throughout the series.

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Accept the flow of the universe! And pink plasters!

Dirk does not intentionally initiate violence, however, those surrounding him perform violent acts which are justified contributing to a characteristic of a modern Messiah. Lawrence and Shelton state a significant aspect of the American Monomyth is the justification of violence, claiming their fictional world contain a clear moral consciousness (48). This contrasts Jesus’ campaign for non-violent actions. In Matthew 26:52, Jesus states “all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” Dirk Gently does not personally inflict any violence on his enemies however his friends are justified in the murders they commit. Most notably, Bart (Fiona Dourif) is a holistic assassin, who throughout the series receives criticism for her “murder spree.” However, after each death, the victim’s background is revealed and we discover that they are often either murderers or kidnappers. Despite questioning within the series, the audience does not judge her because she kills, but instead focuses on whom she kills. Her violence is justified as these people present a physical manifestation of evil. This idea follows the strict guidelines of morality the television series can create. This fantasy fulfils people’s desires to simplify the world into good and evil, a place in which they live vicariously through the hero (Lawrence & Shelton, 48). The supporting characters display the moral ambiguities of the American Monomyth continuing to present Dirk as a modern Messiah.

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Yeah that looks pretty morally ambiguous

Overall, Dirk Gently embodies characteristics of a modern Messiah. The American Monomyth modernises the Christ figure in order to sell them to a sympathetic audience. This archetype has consumed the film and television industries as audiences can relate to the characters in their simplified world. While Dirk is a reluctant Messiah, he has a selfless zeal for justice, renounces sexuality and the violence surrounding him is justified. Dirk’s story depicts suffering and facing temptations thus, making him a complex character for the audience to relate. The storyline follows that of the American Monomyth as his extraordinary powers solve unusual cases. Dirk expresses emotions deviating from the Messiah Archetype to gain empathy from the audience. This highlights the relevance of a Messiah figure in pop culture as it provides relief from the ordinary world. Despite this deviance, Dirk remains competent under pressure fulfilling requirements of the American Monomyth. Consequently, Dirk can be described as a modern Messiah in pop culture.

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This is pretty much just the best image from the series. ❤

 

Bibliography

All references to the Biblical text are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. Created by Max Landis, 2016-2017.

Forbes, B. D. “Introduction.” Religion and Popular Culture in America, edited by Forbes, B. D., Mahan, J. H., University of California Press, 2005, pp1-20.

Lawrence, J. S., Jewett, R.. “The American Monomyth in the New Century.” The Myth of the American Superhero, Grand Rapids, Michigan: W.B. Eerdmans, 2002, pp 3-48.

Sjö, S. “Postmodern Messiahs: the changing saviours of contemporary popular culture.” Scripta Instituti Donneriani Aboensis, Vol. 21, 2009, Vol.21, pp.196-212.

 

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