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‘Manifest’ Gets the Villain It Deserves: A Murderous Smoke Monster

No, it’s totally different from the monster from ‘Lost’

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Spoiler alert

If you, like the rest of America, were subjected to months of promos for Manifest, you probably have some questions. As the plane taxied in to meet a cavalcade of police cars, your first question: “Excuse me, what exactly is the problem?” As a very serious official announced that the 191 people aboard Montego Air Flight 828 had all been missing and presumed dead (gasp!) for five and a half years, your second question: “OK, what exactly happened to the airplane?”

If you tuned in for last week’s premiere, though, you might recall that Manifest is a possibly historic bait and switch. The show was sold as a sci-fi-tinged mystery that would tell us precisely where that airplane went—a sort of latter-day Lost. But by the end of Manifest’s first episode, it was clear that things were taking a turn for a different kind of supernatural: One by one, our returnees began to hear voices compelling them to carry out minor acts of heroism.

When we last checked in on the survivors of Flight 828, the mysterious voice had compelled a couple dozen of them to drive out in the middle of the night to the military airfield where their plane was being kept for inspection. As they watched, it … exploded. Just, boom! No more plane, and, to the chagrin of investigators from the U.S. government, no more evidence to explain how 191 people vanished into the air and less still about how, or why, they reappeared.

This is now a matter of national security! We know this because the show mentioned it on multiple occasions. Some theories for the disappearance of the flight peddled during a superserious pan-government meeting: an extraterrestrial encounter, a Trojan horse attack, body doubles, a wormhole. Michaela (Melissa Roxburgh), whose robust eyebrows I believed were Manifest’s main character until the smoke monster showed up (more on that later), suggested that the disappearance was the work of God. Manifest seems like it would like for us to agree with her: A strange woman in midtown Manhattan gloms onto Michaela’s young nephew, fellow returnee Cal (Jack Messina), while repeating the words “He is risen”—so Cal, I suppose, might be the second coming of the Lord Christ himself. One need not be a biblical scholar to see the potential duality in the show’s name. (Also, the show has proven very effective at making me turn my water into a glass of wine.)

This is indeed a miracle-of-the-week show. Last week, our heroes—superheroes, really, given that they now share the cosmic superpower of guidance from on high—saved two girls from a kidnapper. This week, ethereal notes of chamber music led returnee Ben (Josh Dallas) to find evidence exonerating a teenager wrongly accused of jewel theft (seriously!).

But! But, but, but! Have we waited long enough? Can we talk about the smoke monster? Imagine if the Final Destination Grim Reaper took on corporeal form. Imagine if the Game of Thrones Red Woman baby were bigger and sort of, uh, lumbering. Imagine if the Lost smoke monster exploded people’s heads. Imagine if The Onion wrote a story in 2009 headlined “Smoke Monster From ‘Lost’ Given Own Primetime Spin-Off Series,” and then the smoke monster from Lost was in fact given its own primetime spinoff series.

OK, fine, Manifest’s creature is probably more of a shadow monster than a smoke monster. It shows up first when Cal draws a family portrait, complete with an ominous shadow person between mom and dad. “Who’s that?” he’s asked. “I dunno,” Cal shrugs, casually. (Is creepiness a disqualifying factor for being the second coming of Jesus?)

Our shadow-smoke monster, it turns out, isn’t here to make friends. After the plane explodes, Flight 828’s survivors are told to observe a “strict media blackout.” One woman disregards that directive, making an appearance on cable news to suggest that her disappearance might be the work of a government conspiracy. As she’s watching the replay back at home—“I think the government is behind this. I mean, if I’m supposed to own my truth, don’t you think they should too?”—the monster creeps up behind her and: pow. She, too, goes boom. Maybe the shadow monster is after Flight 828’s survivors. Maybe it doesn’t care for all these help missions. Or maybe it just really loves rules.

So this is where we are: The plane show no longer has a plane, but it does have kindly samaritans aplenty. Still, all this good deed stuff could get a little predictable, whether or not it’s a portend of the rapture—so thank heaven for our nefarious bad guy. Dare I say that I’m ready for the shadow monster to own its truth?