I'm going to be making references to the finale of season two of Torchwood, episode 3.02 of Heroes, and the pilot of Firefly, so if you're concerned about spoilers, consider yourself warned.
Now, when I'm talking about this religious imagery, I'm talking specifically about the Jesus pose, with the person upright with the arms stretched out to the side, like Jesus on the cross.
In the second season finale of Torchwood, the leader of the group, one Captain Jack Harkness (a man who coincidentally cannot die, long story there) is captured by an enemy. His arms are shackled to two opposing walls, and he's electrocuted to death a time or two for the apparent amusement of his enemy, always coming back to life in the Jesus pose. Granted, there were other occasions during the season where the undying Jack exhibited some savior complex behavior, like being buried and brought back alive, offering forgiveness and whatnot to his teammates (enough so that a recapper on AfterElton.com refers to him as "Jesus Jack"). I didn't necessarily see a huge problem with that, because if I were over 150 years old and couldn't die, I might have gained a little perspective too. Just saying.
But was the Jesus pose a deliberate Jesus pose on part of the writers or director? Or was it just the fact that one of the most efficient ways to restrain a human so he can't use his hands to try to free himself is to tie his arms straight out? We've all seen cop shows or movies where a guy with his arms tied behind his back always uses a knife or sharp object to cut his bonds, or uses a key or pick or dislocates a thumb to get out of cuffs. If his arms are bound in front of him, nearly the same thing can result, with the added bonus that they can run away with better balance. Stretched-out arms screw with your victim's options for escape.
Another example of the Jesus pose was with Claire in The Butterfly Effect. When she discovers she can no longer feel pain, she attempts to throw herself in front of a train to feel alive. We'll leave her feelings of ambivalence about her powers for another time. Just before Future!Peter swoops in to pull her out of the way, she stands on the tracks with her arms outstretched.
Was that a deliberate Jesus pose? Or was it just because Claire wanted to make sure she would be hit as fully as possible, with no attempt to protect her body from harm, not even a little? She was deliberately giving up, opening herself up fully to try to feel pain, and wanted it to feel as purposeful as possible.
On a different note, there was a music video by the band Creed, don't remember which one, where the band's on a roof, and lead singer Scott Stapp throws his arms out to his sides as he sings. A LOT of singers do this, not just Creed, but I remember seeing some discussion about how it was a deliberate Jesus pose.
Why does it have to be? Why not just opening himself up so people can see his awesome shirt or sculpted pecs?
Getting further back to Jesus, and ignoring for a moment all the Biblical baggage, the crucifixion pose is hardly unique. It was used on thousands if not hundreds of thousands of people over the course of centuries as a form of execution. While not exactly efficient in terms of swiftness of death, it did kill people in a way that made a statement and deterrent to others. By nailing the victim's hands out of the way and his feet down (some crucifixion frames were more like Xs than the Christian T-form) it made sure the victim wasn't going anywhere.
Basically, the "Jesus pose" was used for crucifixion because it was an anatomical necessity for what it had to accomplish. The range of motion for a human's arms and legs is relatively limited if you want a slow death (as opposed to the far more flexible, if far more deadly, kind of limb-lacing used on the Catherine wheel form of torture). It's also limited if you want your victim to not be able to free themselves or struggle easily.
In short, it's not all a deliberate Jesus pose, sometimes the actors stand like that because there's only so many ways you can pose! Having the arms outstretched is a vulnerable pose, and it’s a way to convey openness or weakness, depending on what kind of message you’re trying to send.
And if they are using the Jesus pose deliberately… well there’s worse things they could imitate.
In other ramblings about the use of religion poses in TV is the “supplication” pose. Now, this is one I like, and I like a lot. Probably I like it more unreservedly than the Jesus pose because it’s not as hard-wired into Americans’ cultural psyche. People sometimes miss it and its implications, so it makes me feel smart when I notice it. I’ve definitely seen it used twice and both times to great effect.
The first time I remember seeing it is the pilot episode of Firefly. Shepard Book, a priest who recently fell in with Serenity’s motley crew after several years at an abbey, finds his first few days out a bit of a switch from meditation and gardening. He found out he’s traveling with pirates and thieves, there’s a whore on board, he had to beat up a lawman, and watched the captain of Serenity shoot said lawman in the head without a second thought and dump his body. Book is obviously conflicted, very severely, and the only person he feels comfortable talking to about it is Inara, the whore on board.
Inara is actually a Companion, more like a Japanese geisha, and as much a priest in her own right as Book (as we discover in later episodes). He goes to her with his concerns, telling her he feels like he’s fallen in with bad company, and is not entirely sure Captain Mal was in the wrong for shooting the lawman. During this scene Book is sitting down, Inara is standing, and as he confesses his feelings to her, he bows his head, and she lays her hand upon his head as if in forgiveness. It’s a very moving and awesome little moment, these two totally different people finding a common understanding and strength within their differences. Book is almost kneeling, and Inara looks like a goddess right here, which emphasizes the feelings within this scene.
Another great use of supplication was in an episode of CSI: Miami. Yeah, yeah, I know. Not the kind of show you’d expect for this kind of discussion, though there’s been several religious-themed episodes on all three CSIs. Now, don’t ask me for the episode title, because I don’t remember. I don’t even remember what the episode was about, but I do remember the scene very clearly.
You have to remember that CSI: Miami is filmed in very lush and saturated colors, with very beautiful golden light, in compared to CSI:’s harsh desert brightness/gloomy houses/green morgue or CSI: NY’s washed out and faded concrete jungle.
In the scene, the lead guy Horatio Kane has been accused of a crime that he claims he didn’t commit. To prove his innocence, his lab has to process the evidence and catch the real killer. So they need to start off by scraping his fingernails for any DNA and swabbing his hands for GSR (or something of the sort, they needed his hands, at any rate). Horatio is sitting down at a table and puts his elbows up on it, dropping his head down so his hands are palm up above his head. Across from him Calleigh Duquesne, be it noted she is an attractive blonde woman, carefully collects the evidence from him, as he keeps his head down, his fate in her hands, calm and accepting. This entire scene is backlit by one of CSI: Miami’s ubiquitous glass-block walls in their police station, so both are illuminated with this kind of golden halo.
Yes, the scene is much more obvious, and so much so that I was initially going, “Ouch, ouch! Geez, drop the hammer already, I get it!” But seriously, upon reflection, I love that scene. Even if you don’t care much for CSI: Miami (I only watch it if there’s not much else on), I think you have to like this scene. Horatio Kane is the bigwig in the lab, and he’s willingly put his future and reputation in the hands of a friend, trusting her to absolve him. Love it.
When used deliberately and with care, I think the use of supplication is great for character development, because it implies a great trust, both of the “priest” and the “parishioner.” The power is given up from the later to the former, and it shows how relationships can take sudden and deep turns, whether in a new friendship (like Book and Inara) or in a long-term working partnership (Calleigh and Horatio). I think it works much better in a visual medium than a written one, because by the time you’ve managed to describe it, five paragraphs have gone by, but its use in film and video, when correctly applied, can have a powerful impact.