Imagine you get lost in the desert, wandering away from your tour group – your mind already at a disadvantage due to dementia, with a loose grasp of reality. In the desert, you seek shelter in what appear to be the ruins of an ancient building or a cave, and then you see it – a creature, ancient, human-looking but in that eerie way in which it is equally certain that it isn’t human. It is winged – like a bat is, not like a bird, with a thin membrane of skin. It approaches you – attacks you – feeds from you, and then feeds you with its blood.
There are many ways to interpret that experience. Scientifically, the world is vast and has many corners in which unknown, unexplored, things may lurk. There may be explanations why something so large, so hungry, has remained un-described in scientific literature, why it has eluded discovery. You may think that it has encountered humans before, and given birth to countless myths about ancient beings that feed on blood and impart immortality and invincibility through their own blood. Or, if you, the person stumbling through the desert in the Holy Land, are a priest – an old priest, with a failing mind – you may interpret that experience through the knowledge that has informed your whole life. Scripture, which describes encounters with angels as horrifying, awesome in the original sense of the word, fear-inspiring. You may come to the conclusion that you have been blessed by a visitation, that when you awake young and with a clear mind, and a mission for your future, it is god’s will because there is precedent in the Bible for this experience, and seen through this lens, it makes sense and has meaning.
I think Midnight Mass is Mike Flanagan’s masterpiece, and I say that in spite of the fact that it doesn’t entirely stick its landing. Flanagan has written and directed two great Stephen King adaptations in recent times, Doctor Sleep and Gerald, and Midnight Mass feels deeply informed by King’s writing, his focus on painting a (often isolated and insular) community before bringing devastation upon it. He is still working on his haunted house series in which he adapts classic works of horror literature, creating places that bear the scars of history and inflict them on their new occupants, and Midnight Mass features a whole secularly haunted island with its historical scars that come to the surface before anything monstrous and supernatural truly happens. Midnight Mass is informed by what has come before it, but it is also a purer distillation of everything that Flanagan is interested in, and that is obvious in the first episodes of the series, which are its strongest.
At the centre of the story but not surviving until the finale is Riley Flynn (Zach Gilford), the island’s prodigal son, who left to become something his fisherman father could not understand – a worker and later investor in the tech industry. When we first meet him, his dream of leaving Crockett Island (named after a frontiersman but set in a time where the frontier has moved decades ago, and left those who couldn’t adapt behind) crushed when he kills a young woman in a drunk driving accident. He goes to prison for four years, and upon his release, has nothing but his family on the island and his childhood bedroom (dated to the mid-90s through movie posters of Se7en and The X-Files) to go back to. It is his eyes that we see the people he left through – an island economically devastated first by an oil spill that has severely impact its only base, fishing, and then by an ill-advised settlement with the oil company that has wreaked devastation and has been, perhaps corruptly, invested in a rec centre for a community that no longer exists as such. There are countless signs of decay in this world he returns to. His own parents are weakened by hardship – his father coughs ominously, and is physically bowed by his bad back, his mother’s eyesight is waning as she clings to religion and family in the light of poverty and her son’s crime. The houses look like they haven’t much changed since Riley left, like nobody had the means to renovate. Whoever is left there can’t leave, and whoever has returned has done so unwillingly, or because of severe trauma. Riley’s childhood sweetheart, Erin Greene (Kate Siegel), has returned pregnant from an adventure on the mainland that has scarred her, a possibly violent marriage that now makes her the talk of everyone who thinks they can judge her choices. The island’s doctor, Sarah Gunning (Annabeth Gish), only stays because she cannot figure out how to move her aging mother Mildred (Alex Essoe) to the mainland, even though she feels like an outcast in this Catholic community that judges her for her queerness. Sheriff Hassan (Rahul Kohli) has moved here from New York with his teenage son hoping to find reprieve from the racism he experienced serving after 9/11, but finds himself constantly facing racist quips from Crockett Island’s most devout inhabitant, Bev Keane (Samantha Sloyan). It is said openly that this is no longer a community, that this island which once supported hundreds of inhabitants, hundreds of fisherman, is now a dying collection of more and more empty houses. To symbolise the dying town, the local priest who has led the parish for decades is now suffering from dementia and barely able to get through a service without the help of his altar boys and Bev Keane.
Riley sees all of that in his first days back on the island, navigating his father’s non-optional request of attending Sunday mass (but not taking Communion, as he is not in a state of grace as a lapsed Catholic who now identifies as an atheist, which singles him out even more among the few remaining parishioners). Through his eyes, we slowly learn about some of the dark histories of the island – the town drunk who accidentally shot the young daughter of the mayor, injuring her spine so severely that she can’t walk, the way that Bev terrorises everyone she sees as less devout than her, or different. Riley isn’t the only new arrival on the island though – on the same day, a charismatic priest arrives on the ferry, and very soon after that, Father Paul (Hamish Linklater) is at the centre of a literal revitalisation of the community.
Hamish Linklater is outstanding in the role, as Father Paul approaches this new place with generosity and kindness, with a feverish excitement for renewal. His sermons move the parishioners, he goes out of his way to provide for the doctor’s mother, always devout in life, who hasn’t been able to attend a service due to her condition – Father Paul becomes part of the community, and remakes it in the process back into something that resembles a community. In the background, quirky things, good and bad, begin to happen – hundreds of dead cats wash up on the beach (as in The Haunting of Hill House, this isn’t a good show to watch if you feel particularly tender about the fate of cats and dogs), the town drunk’s dog is poisoned (a first sign of how far Bev would go to remake the island in her own image, how cruel she can be), but also, Riley’s mother suddenly no longer needs glasses; his father’s persistent back-age ceases, and then finally, a true miracle occurs: Leeza (Annarah Cymone), the mayor’s daughter, is able to stand up from her wheelchair and walk up the steps towards the altar to receive Communion.
This miracle takes place in the context of what I think makes Midnight Mass so outstanding – an ongoing debate about religion and rationality. Riley becomes a centre piece of that debate when Father Paul offers him to have his court-mandated AA-sessions in the town’s rec centre rather than on the mainland. Since it is only the two of them to start off with (a proposition the Father admits he hadn’t truly thought through, and analysed for its potential awkwardness), they begin a deep and profound debate about religion that spans several episodes. Riley, in prison, has read the religious texts and found himself without faith – and he argues convincingly for a different approach to the managing of his addiction, one that does not focus on admitting powerlessness, but on responsibility and agency. Riley understands his addiction through the lens of science, not religion, and he has been managing it successfully that way, with a profound disagreement to the Serenity Prayer that Father Paul opens each session with. It’s a fundamental disagreement that will become relevant later, when the idea of addiction and helplessness is translated to something truly monstrous – and Riley decides for himself that responsibility and agency are the core tenants of his beings that transcend his willingness to stay alive at all costs.
Midnight Mass is so good because it builds its central horror story so slowly, and with so much care towards showing these characters before the inevitable showdown (which, much like a Stephen King story, must come at the end). The reveal of its central mystery is almost quiet, given through Father Paul’s confessions in an empty confessional – there is nobody, after all, to give his confession to, except God. He retells the story of the old man in the desert, and his revitalisation through the angel’s blood, but of course, the old man is him – of course, Father Paul was the Monsignor all along, a man who cared so deeply for his community that he confused the curse of a monster for the gift of an angel, an opportunity for a dying place to literally come back to life again. It is a literal gift of life, a drink of the monster’s blood that has been curing illnesses, reversing ageing (most obviously, in Dr Gunning’s mother, who at the end of the story looks like she could be her daughter’s daughter). It has also, darkly and horribly, ended Erin’s pregnancy in a way that made it appear as if she had never been pregnant at all, and a short (and sole) trip to the mainland, she is confronted with a medical professional who assumes that she is having a mental breakdown, an imaginary lost pregnancy. Father Paul thinks it a gift, but if he looked more closely, he would see that it mixes badly with pre-existing fault lines within the community. Bev, for one, immediately realises the powerful potential and she towers over the growing number of people who attend mass to witness another miracle – and once the truly monstrous nature of the undertaking is revealed, she, not quite surprisingly, embraces it fully and vigorously. It turns out that Father Paul must feed on blood like the creature that made him, and Bev is too eager to provide, and to envision a whole community of godly people who will never die but feed on the unworthy.
It is a twist that works so well because the flailing community of Crockett Island has been established so carefully – it has its moments of grace, of trying for a sense of togetherness, even when it frequently fails. There are festivals, there is shared food, and shared joy in the miracles, but always also the darkness of exclusion, of measuring other’s faith and finding it lacking. Most obviously, it comes to the surface in Bev’s treatment of Sheriff Hassan, who has come to the island looking for dignity and has instead found a woman who, once all pretence of civilisation falls from her, reveals herself to be the vilest racist. But it is there in smaller moments as well, in the unkindness towards a man who is consistently drinking himself to death and only receives a short reprieve of hope before he becomes Father Paul’s evening meal, and then a thing for Bev to dispose of to keep up appearances. As in a good Stephen King book, the presence of literal monster only brings to the surface the true monstrosity of humans. When Riley is turned by Father Paul and asked to take part in what they have planned for the island, he makes a decision – because he knows how dangerous Father Paul’s promise of acting without guilt, without remorse, is. He rows out a woman he probably loves, and tells her a horrible story, but it’s a story that also brings to mind a conversation they have had earlier, in the show’s most graceful moment – when Riley and Erin talk about what they think will happen after death, in which Riley somehow makes the biological reality of death poetic and beautiful, and Erin makes the religious conception of heaven tangible in her interpretation. Both of their versions have grace and beauty, and Midnight Mass has no intention of choosing between the two.
Riley combusts with the first rays of sunlight, because of course, this is what it has always come down to – the monster in the dark of the cave has infected Father Paul with a promise of eternal life that comes at a cost that is well-explored, and the same thing can appear as an angel or as a vampire depending on interpretation. Because it is a curse or a creed, it wants to spread, and so Bev decides to spread it to every single remaining islander, and then to take to the boats to bring this gift, this condemnation, to the world. But like in every good horror story, an unlikely team of heroes has emerged to stop this from happening, but the cost they pay is terrible. It’s a finale that feels like it’s been filmed and written before – the Sheriff, the Doctor, Erin, deciding their own life matters less than the fate of the world, and the two precious children who will be the sole survivors of the massacre to come. I think Midnight Mass’ grace lies in its build-up, in its portrayal of guilt, addiction, faith and reason, in the small moments it has to offer. Like Father Paul and Sarah Gunning's mother, revealing the secret of her paternity, revealing that the stares she always thought were unkind were in fact, fatherly, proud, loving, but the moment of realisation has come too late to make a difference in her life, and she is laid to rest in the spot she loved most on the island. Like Riley’s torturous conversation with his father (and yes, a reminder that Zach Gilford is outstanding in this series, and more so because of how it connects, tenderly, with his character on Friday Night Lights), who has shown himself to be less forgiving than his mother, trying to ascertain where he went wrong, how this son he never understood became everything he is now, standing next to him on their small fishing boat. Riley tells Erin in sheer awe that each of us was made by stars, and that if you lacked the scientific understanding of our century, you would confuse the stars in the sky with the very same bonfires around which human communities may have gathered, to evolve to reach out and touch infinity.
2021, created by Mike Flanagan, starring Kate Siegel, Zach Gilford, Kristin Lehman, Hamish Linklater, Samantha Sloyan, Igby Rigney, Rahul Kohli, Annarah Cymone, Annabeth Gish, Rahul Abburi, Alex Essoe.