The revolution will not be televised, but it seems that isn’t the case with Gnosis. And why not? I’ve discussed in the past how the coupling of movies and Gnosticism has provided groundbreaking chronicles — as well as some of today’s chief modern myths like The Matrix.
As above in film, as below in the boob tube, right?
Indeed, the “vast wasteland” has already granted some incredible Gnostic statements that are both artistic and popular. Having said that, we find less Gnosticism in television than in film. Why? Well, to meaningfully sustain a “false reality” narrative for more than two hours is not easy — taking large amounts of poise, imagination, and risk-taking (three characteristics the television industry is not known for).
But Gnostic television is there, as I will show you, and it’s increasingly revolutionary.
I will not be including these series or types of shows:
- Lauded series that dealt with Gnosticism but also drew from other wells of Esoterica. Some examples are The X-Files, The Twilight Zone, Black Mirror, and Star Trek (who can forget the episode “The Return of the Archons”?).
- Animated or Japanese Anime series like Æon Flux, Neon Genesis Evangelion, and Revolutionary Girl Utena (for another dedicated piece).
- Newer Gnostic television that I haven’t seen yet, such as Legion or Dark; these will have to wait too.
- The Gilmore Girls episode entitled “Nag Hammadi Is Where They Found the Gnostic Gospels.” The reason is that it has absolutely nothing to do with Gnosticism (go figure)!
So before you change the channel, with nary spoilers, here is the list of the best Gnostic television ever:
After more than 50 years since its broadcasting, The Prisoner remains a masterpiece and the ultimate cult show. This deconstruction of the spy genre depicts the fate of Number Six (Patrick McGoohan), a resigned and unnamed British agent who is kidnapped and imprisoned in a faked society called “the Village.”
Then shit gets surreal and then it’s all about the protagonist attempting to escape while at the same time fighting for both his identity and humanity.
Themes sound familiar, Simon Magus?
They certainly do to academics Mark Holwager and Valarie Ziegler. They wrote that The Prisoner “exemplifies the Gnostic myth of descent and return, depicting a hero who refuses to be fully embodied in the hateful world in which he is imprisoned, who insists (contrary to evidence) that he is from a truer world in a higher realm, and who risks everything to return to the beginning and reunite with his genuine self.
Holwager and Ziegler go further and argue how Number Six parallels the Gnostic protagonists found in such texts as The Gospel of Thomas and The Hymn of the Pearl.
The argument involves dissecting memorable scenes of the show, as this dialogue between Number 6 and the demiurgic Number 2:
Number 2: You’re being hostile again. What were you looking at?
Number 6: A light.
Number 2: A star.
Number 6: A boat.
Number 2: An insect.
Number 6: A plane.
Number 2: A flying fish.
Number 6: A man who belongs to my world.
Number 2: This is your world. I am your world. If you insist on living a dream, you may be taken for mad.
Number 6: I like my dream.
Number 2: Then you are mad.
For a deeper analysis of Gnosticism in The Prisoner, I recommend our interview with Ziegler. Beyond its Gnostic pedigree, The Prisoner is the type of breakthrough show that doesn’t come often.
I wouldn’t bother with the 2009 remake, though.
Rebooting Michael Crichton’s (already quasi-Gnostic) 1973 film seemed like an easy road to the Pleroma. But the HBO series is Gnosticism on steroids, an elegant yet visceral journey into places only Philip K. Dick or Cormac McCarthy don’t fear to tread. The show is a perfect, balanced combination of the “desert of the real” Western fare and philosophical sci-fi.
The issues of transhumanism, consciousness, and the nature of reality are deftly handled in the plot of a western-themed park catering to high-paying guests indulging their wildest fantasies. The guests, at first, have no fear of retaliation from the servant “hosts,” advanced androids who gradually awaken to their oppressed state.
I mentioned Westworld being Gnosticism on steroids. As an illustration, in Westworld, the Demiurge is split in three: Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins), Arnold/Bernard (Jeffrey Wright), and Man in Black (Ed Harris). Each of these Yaldi-Baldi agents, in their own way, holds a secret desire to liberate the hosts and bring down the park. This reminds me of a saying by Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel: “The real joy of God is to be defeated by man.”
(It should be mentioned that Harris takes on a third Demiurge role, his first two being in The Truman Show and Snowpiercer. Does his agent work from the Seventh Heaven?).
The main point is that Westworld provides a sophisticated Gnostic Gospel that includes the themes of remembering, liberation, and how little of separation exists between Archon and mortal.
As the article HBO’s Westworld is a Gnostic Parable summarizes:
So it is important that we don’t simply look on as an outsider on the artificial world of Westworld. The parable of Westworld is that we should all ponder Stubbs’ question to Delores: “Have you ever questioned your reality”. It’s a question that can be applied at various levels, from the philosophical/spiritual to science and history, through to the mundane modern worlds of politics and media. We are all living in illusions created and administered by various Demiurges and their Archons. We should do our best to search for knowledge in order that, bit by bit, we might wake to greater realities.
For years, I pushed back on those who told me of the Gnostic elements in Twin Peaks; the companion film Fire Walk with Me notwithstanding. I merely saw the show as magic realism Americana sautéed with Buddhism.
Then came season three, “The Return.”
David Lynch and Mark Frost fully rolled out a grand cosmology and expanded the mythos across both history and space. The occult product we got, to my pleasant surprise, was a Manichaean epic, the culmination being the visionary episode eight.
As with anything Lynch, describing in words what the eye consumes is almost an exercise in futility. But I do like what Robert Price said concerning the latest Twin Peaks in a Facebook post:
Laura is the Fallen Sophia. Cooper is the Redeemed Redeemer. Bob and the other globules vomited forth from the Demiurge are the evil Archons. The Giant is God. The Black Lodge is the material world. When one-armed Mike calls Cooper to “Wake up,” it is “the Call” from the Pleroma to the Redeemer who has forgotten his identity and mission which makes him come to his senses and return to the work of redemption. Remember the moment in Lynch’s Dune when Paul/Mu’abid = Dale) cries out to the heavens, “Father! The sleeper has awakened!”
Doesn’t get more Gnostic than that, Simon, and Lynch and Frost’s television classic is at the end of the day(s) unvarnished Gnosticism.
Or as another writer said:
This powerful sense of duality in David Lynch’s worlds — his willingness to allow even his “good” characters to do (or at least consider) awful things, as well as the faint promise of their redemption — is what makes Twin Peaks easier to understand through the lens of gnostic religion. Gnosis is knowing, and knowing includes an acquaintance with evil, cf. Adam and Eve.
Lynch’s Sethian tendencies, however, shouldn’t be that of a surprise. I argue in another article the Gnostic themes in Mulholland Drive.
Of course, I’m talking about season one.
As with Twin Peaks, the show begins with a girl’s murder and evolves into another Manichean drama: a cosmic fight of good versus evil, with the latter bragging an iron-grip on the cosmos. In the middle of this battle, we have the protagonist Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) — a true Gnostic revealer by his disdain for the material, reliance on mystic intuitions, and warrior-empathy for all that is innocent.
The founder of Manichaeism, Mani, was a passionate follower of Jesus. In True Detective, Rust indeed takes on the qualities of the Christ:
Early in the series, Rust admits to Marty that he focuses on the crucifix during meditation because he wants to understand Jesus’ moment in the Garden of Gethsemane, when he contemplates and then willingly accepts the prospect of his crucifixion. Star Matthew McConaughey’s performance is filled with little bits of body language that set up Rust’s climactic crucifixion by Errol, who taunts Rust with Satanic jibes as he wanders through what looks like an underground forest made of leafless tree limbs, then hoists him up with that knife in the gut as if he were Christ nailed up on a cross.
There is resurrection for Rust, but what makes him a heterodox savior is his Gnosis — an awakening of one’s inner light paired with the realization that the truth also sets one free to face the darkness of existence. As one article explains:
Anyone who digs deep into information, much less secret information – be they marketers or managers, whistleblowers or police detectives – acquires knowledge.
More knowledge opens a gnostic door to another, broader investigation. True Detective bears a cautionary gnostic message about detectives who uncover that growing body of information. Rather than knowledge telescoping the investigator (and viewers) up to ever greater stages of positive enlightenment, knowledge here expands down into ever-enlarged realms of horror.
The horror is the material world (and its rulers), and the misanthrope Rust is there to fight it to the end. But not all is lost. At the end of the season when Archons have been felled, his partner Mary Hart (Woody Harrelson) looks up at the thick Texas nighttime sky and metaphorically claims darkness has overcome the stars. Rust tells him: “Once there was only dark. If you ask me, the light’s winning.”
This Netflix content is based on Rich K. Morgan’s novel, a noir blend of dystopian and cyberpunk genres set over 350 years in the future. Within an atmosphere that nods to Blade Runner, humanity has discovered the secrets to immortality with technology that allows consciousness to be downloaded into a “cortical stack.” These disks are stored in the vertebrae of an individual, storing their consciousness — very often multiple lifetimes of experiences — and can be placed into a new body, a “sleeve,” when the old one passes.
As in any Gnostic tale, we get a protagonist, Takeshi Kovacs (played by bad-asses Joel Kinnaman and Will Yun Lee), who rebels against the existing human paradigm and deciphers the tangled mess that is consciousness. Kovacs even has a tattoo of the Ouroboros on his arm.
Altered Carbon brings forth the marked Gnostic rejection of transhumanism, immortality, and reincarnation. All that matters are transcendence and gaining alchemical powers that make one kinder to others on this prison planet.
As Jeremy Johnson put well in an article:
Altered Carbon is a modern myth of gnostic evolution, with our celestial twins, the Elders, guiding our labored and piece-meal terrestrial incarnation down below in the image of the cyberpunk megacity. In my view, the message of the show is not that we should fear the evils immortality should bring but that with the power of the stone — the elixir of immortality — comes a call to live a life more divine, not less, and that we should not see ourselves as gods but as half-mortal, half-immortal beings learning, however imperfectly, however crudely, to grow their wings.
Altered Carbon is not at the level of the four other television shows mentioned, its aesthetics a bit too gratuitously violent and sexual for my taste, but here’s to season two.
One theme to rule them all
It’s no secret Gnosis that Philip K. Dick — heavily influenced by Gnosticism later in life just as he’s an evident influence on Altered Carbon and Westworld — held two main concerns in his novels: what is reality and what is it to be a human being.
We see in Gnostic television that reality is very negotiable, although the Powers and Principalities usually hold all the cards (or coding).
Yet there is one salient theme across all these shows on it means to be a real human:
Rebellion against any consensus reality.
To be human, according to the ancient Gnostics, was to take the fire from the gods and attempt to burn their systems to the bloody ground. The world order wasn’t going to change, apparently, and stealing the flames of enlightenment often involves hacking a pair of Icarus wings instead of waiting for Prometheus, our true father. But victory tends to occur when the starlight of compassion begins to break through the dark skies of mere being, as Rust alludes to in True Detective.
Put it best, Stephan Holler once explained the Gnostic condition by quoting Leonard Cohen. “There’s a crack in the world. That’s how the light gets in.”
Let’s get cracking, Simon.
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