Warning: This contains spoilers for Season 1 of Hand of God.
“I’m a human but remember first I’m a man. You painted pictures for me, That I refuse to understand.” Those are the lyrics for the theme tune to Hand of God, Amazon’s psychological drama about a man battling with his faith. At least, that’s what it appeared to be back in Season 1, when we opened with the sight of Ron Perlman dancing around naked in a fountain, apparently speaking in tongues.
With his son, PJ, dead, and a burning hunger for justice, Perlman’s Judge Pernell Harris found himself turning to vivid visions, apparently from God, telling him to find the killer. That divine quest brough him into contact with dodgy priest Paul (Julian Morris), of the titular Hand of God chapel, reformed white supremacist KD (Garret Dillahunt), willing to do Pernell’s dirty work under similarly divine inspiration, and the slippery corporate boss Nathan Brooks (Jimmy Ray Bennett). Along the way, his religious convictions brought him into conflict with his jaded wife, Crystal (Dana Delany), with both fighting allegations of corruption and more, alongside slick mayor Bobo (Andre Royo) and Pernell’s mistress, Tessie (Emayatzy Corinealdi). By the end of the season, PJ’s death has been revealed to be an act of corporate sabotage, with Brooks ordering his assistant, Anne (Elaine Tan), to seduce PJ and kill him, getting them access to Bathwater, a piece of software he designed that would change the world of online data – either for good (user privacy) or bad (corporate snooping).
If that sounds like a lot going on for one TV show, you’d be right. Hand of God is sprawling stuff, with creator Ben Watkins (Burn Notice) daring to tackle an ambitious array of themes in just 10 episodes, from spiritual belief to 21st century surveillance, with a slice of legal conspiracy and sexual assault (and its consequences) to boot. While that blend of bold topics was initially commendable, though, it soon became clear over the course of the show’s first season that Hand of God was a divine mess – a well-intentioned and, at times, dazzling drama that never quite got its head around its own brain-twisting dilemmas. Man’s reach exceeding his grasp has rarely felt so apt.
Season 2 attempts to bring some clarity to the psychological haze. Harris has apparently decided that his visions were a mental illness, after all, just in time for his trial over the murder of PJ’s killer. Ron Perlman once again reminds you that he deserves the lead more often, seizing the opportunity to play Pernell with a more level head than ever. The visions appear, but he bats them away, instead focusing on skipping his parole conditions to try and see a specialist head doctor (Brian Baumgartner).
Crystal, meanwhile, cosies up to Brooks to find out more about his company’s plans. Dana Delany was the best thing about Season 1, and she’s just as electrifying here, at once calculating and cruel, yet also oddly compassionate towards her husband – if you thought her secretly drugging him to make him sane in Season 1 was a baller move, her approach to job interviews in Season 2 is just as deliciously ruthless.
Meanwhile, there’s PJ’s grieving widow, Jocelyn (Alona Tal), who’s becoming increasingly paranoid that someone is after her to get PJ’s Bathwater. If the focus were just on them, you suspect that there could be a decent drama in store – this sophomore run begins with PJ’s ashes being scattered, a scene that seems to promise a family narrative. But Hand of God still doesn’t know when to stop. It’s family is far bigger than blood.
And so we also catch up with reverend Paul and his girlfriend, Alicia (Elizabeth McLaughlin). Julian Morris is marvellous as the man of the cloth who wants to use the cloth to get high as much as preach to a crowd – his attempts to become a TV evangelist in Season 1 were a showcase for an actor at the top of his game, with McLaughlin bringing emotional weight to their subplot, and literal weight, when it turned out she was pregnant with his baby.
In between the two stands KD, with Garret Dillahunt still mining his reticent, macho mumbler for nuanced depths and grumbled sympathy – a trip to the DIY store is wonderfully endearing, as he proves to be a good egg, despite his misguided homicidal acts in Season 1. A show about this trio would be an intriguing exploration of faith and doubt, laced with redemption and grit. But Hand of God doesn’t just put its hand in one collection plate; it wants to have its communion wafer and eat it.
And so we also catch up with Bobo, who’s desperate to secure his legacy as San Vicente’s black mayor. That required him to get into bed with Brooks and more to secure the funds for a new education improvement scheme – a scheme that he kicks off with his own former high school, ironically named after a notable racist. Andre Royo is excellent as the ambiguous, ambitious man, who is striving to achieve real change, but is constantly held back by his own corruption (and that of Pernell). The introduction of an old flame (Nia Long), who’s now a reporter wanting to do a warts-and-all profile, only reminds us how many warts his photogenic smile conceals.
If the show revolved around him, his son, and the well written Tessie, we’d have an evocative, complicated study of race, politics and police brutality. But Hand of God’s ballot paper has more than a few boxes it wants to tick – and that isn’t about to change any time soon.
The result is a tightened second run, boasting a more compelling narrative, as Watkins frees his show from some of its religious baggage to be more of a straight-forward legal thriller. It helps that Crystal, too, is undertaking her own detective work, tying her more directly into the plot. The style, meanwhile, is only more impressive, from the catchy theme song and the growling soundtrack to the constant juxtaposition of bold colours and urban decay, not to mention the enjoyably lurid bursts of fantasy, from people’s teeth falling out to Paul’s drug trips.
There’s something underneath it all, perhaps, about the difference between what people want to believe is real and what actually is, whether that’s the strive to be a better politician, the urge to escape the cloying nature of a rundown reality or the need for deeper motivation sent from on high. But Hand of God lays out its weighty, prestige script with too many weighty, prestigious flourishes – by aiming to become a big spectacle deserving of this golden age of TV, it destines itself to never quite reach its potential. Attempts to go back to Season 1’s opener, translating Pernell’s tongues and paralleling them with PJ’s own ravings about breaking free from the system aim for a profound synchronicity, but the screen is so swamped with other ideas that it fails to stick the landing.
The result is a frustrating watch, not because it’s bad, because there is so much good writing and acting in it; if only it knew which good bits to cut out. In a strange way, this only makes you want more – perhaps a string of separate mini-series linked together by a broad universe, or an anthology of standalone stories within one big season would be the series’ ultimate salvation. But after a first season of mixed reviews and a decision from Amazon not to renew it for a third, the show’s lesson doesn’t seem to have been learned. A story of redemption and shifting perceptions, Hand of God’s biggest sin is perhaps that it doesn’t seem to know how to change. Some viewers will be more forgiving of that than others.
Season 1 and 2 of Hand of God are available exclusively on Amazon Prime Video, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.