If the adage holds—that one shouldn’t talk to friends about politics, religion or money—then Mike Flanagan’s Midnight Mass would be a very lonely person. Which, as it turns out, is very much a core subject in the Netflix series. But more on that later.
Sifting through themes of grief, guilt, and death, the American filmmaker presents Midnight Mass with two very differing approaches to the topics – one spiritual, the other nihilistic – in a capsule story that happens on a fictional island. You’ll find similar resonance in the director’s earlier works.
He first struck notice with Oculus in 2013 and found critical success in an updated version of horror novelist Stephen King’s Gerald’s Game (2017). But he might best be known for his other two acclaimed titles—The Haunting of Hill House and The Haunting of Bly Manor. He returns in this production with familiar faces but departs from the former with a decidedly more straightforward approach to the story.
Riley Flynn (Zach Gilford) returns as a prodigal son to the tiny fishing town of Crockett Island, having served jail time for manslaughter after killing a teenage girl when he was drunk driving. It’s a sentence of another kind where the bars of his cell is replaced by the judgemental awkwardness of residents in the small community that he tried so hard to run from.
And while some interpret his distant demeanour as disgraced pride, it’s guilt that has him isolated—guilt that appears to him still every night, many years later, in the glittering (you’ll understand why when you watch the series) form of the dead girl.
His mother, Annie Flyn (Kristin Lehman), and former childhood sweetheart Erin Greene (Kate Siegal) are the only ones that reach out, coaxing him out of his aloof shell and even invites him to church to find reprieve from his burden. The efforts come up against a wall of logical deduction (God wouldn’t be so cruel as to let him live and have an innocent girl die, he argues) that is until a mysterious new Father arrives to replace the old.
When Father Paul Hill (Hamish Linklater) approaches Riley, his pull is irresistible. Like many of the residents, Riley finds himself worked into his influence, slowly nudged to come face to face with spiritual methodology.
It all seems to work—the charisma of the Father and his later miraculous workings brush under the few parallel dark happenings. Ghostly silhouettes of the old Monsignor start appearing, and maimed cats wash up ashore, the town drunkard disappears—you know there’s more to the priest than he lets on.
Fans of his The Haunting series will find Midnight Mass a different creature. The pace here is a little more even than the earlier two—both renowned as slow burners that only reveal anything significant in the latter half of the series. With varying levels of horrific payoffs interspersed in each episode, the newest series goes down a little easier for those needing shots of their adrenaline to sustain interest.
That said, Midnight Mass is quite the talker. In fact, there’s a generous dose of slow zoom-ins on monologues by the characters. Truth be told, there are moments when you’ll find overlaps in these small epiphanies (so signature to Flanagan’s writing), but the filmmaker’s precise cinematography with long-time collaborator Michael Fimognari, as well as natural lyricism in writing, keeps the scenes palatable.
And as you’d soon discover, these conversations present the discourse that Flanagan wants to induce in your mind.
For Riley, guilt is a permanent stain that does not come off with Hail Marys. For the town’s pious zealot, Bev Keane (Samantha Sloyan), faith is not to be questioned. For the new Muslim town sheriff, Hassan (Rahul Kohli), there are more ways to find God—and from this comes one of the show’s best tension.
And through it all, the running question here is: Is religion just the laziest form of mental therapy? And is life just about the connections we make with others? Can death break those connections?
Sweeping Midnight Mass over as being a cynical Christian piece, as much as it was inspired by Flanagan’s upbringing and eventual turn to atheism, would be doing the show a disservice. With the rise of social media platforms, the series sounds a necessary call to question our responses to charismatic leaders or self-proclaimed life coaches. Are they really what they appear to be, or just hiding behind a system built to be untouchable?
Bev plays out one aspect of this by justifying every action of hers or others with a quote from the Book, quickly exemplifying the destructive extremism that blinds her in life. On the other hand, Father Paul displays his charisma through gentle but manipulative nudging in the guise of wisdom, though he bears better self-awareness than Bev. But Flanagan wants to remind us—these people are real.
One such example is @apostlekathrynkrick on TikTok. Her intensity can be felt even through the screen, as she hammers down the word of God that flits between confidence and arrogance, and performs miracles to the willing audience, driving out demons imagined or otherwise.
Whatever side of the fence you sit on, there’s no denying it – it’s very real for the participants. And Midnight Mass shows how far that belief can go when led by personal agendas.
It seems that the only ones seeing past the miracles and this tide of the faithful are the ones who asked questions, and Flanagan presents this in the most respectful way or the ones who were deeply emotionally connected to the ones that did.
In many cases, such as Erin, town doctor Sarah Gunning (played wonderfully by Annabeth Gish), and the Flynn family, it was their intense love for one another, in another human being, that found them their form of salvation. It’s the loneliest characters like Bev or town handyman Sturge that always stepped up to the nastiest tasks and decisions.
This brings to mind one of the most ignored commandments: Love your neighbour as yourself. As it applies to today’s climate, it would seem the details in the other books often overshadow the bigger picture, especially when one stands to gain from it or allow one to reside in bias.
This leads us to the third theme of the Midnight Mass, that of ageing, death, and immortality because it seems to explain why some exhibit such strong prejudice while others receive with an open mind and heart.
In a piece by BBC, it was discovered that “besides making us more punitive, thinking about death also increases our nationalistic bias, makes us more prejudiced against other racial, religious and age groups, and leads to other such parochial attitudes”—something Bev in the show demonstrates vividly.
The reason, they suggest, is that the fear of death steers one to find immortality, and dogmatic religion often includes this as a reward—but it also one that comes with a bag of rules. And from this comes a natural ‘othering’, both as a way to reaffirm one’s distance from the immoral act and also to find shared value with an affirmative community. They say figures can’t lie after all.
The seven episodes of Midnight Mass are aptly chronicled by books in the Bible. It starts with Genesis and ends, of course, with Revelations. Each hour leans into the tomes and allows us to witness each character’s navigation towards purpose and meaning. The end finds itself giving us closure somewhat by offering us the molecular reminder from Neil deGrasse Tyson that we are all made up of stardust.
Director: Mike Flanagan
Writer: Mike Flanagan
Main cast: Zach Gilford, Hamish Linklater, Kate Siegel, Rahul Abburi, Crystal Balint, Matt Biedel, Alex Essoe, Annarah Cymone, Annabeth Gish, Rahul Kohli, Kristin Lehman, Robert Longstreet, Igby Rigney, Samantha Sloyan, Henry Thomas, and Michael Trucco
Running Time: 7 episodes of 60 minutes
Genre: Drama, Horror, Mystery
First published: RICE Media (Oct 12, 2021)