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Review: Netflix's 'Midnight Mass' Knows Exactly What The Road To Hell Is Paved With

By Tori Preston | TV | September 28, 2021 |

By Tori Preston | TV | September 28, 2021 |

midnightmass103 (1).jpg

Mike Flanagan, the man behind the previous Netflix sensations The Haunting of Hill House and The Haunting of Bly Manor, not to mention the sharp Doctor Sleep, has a proven track record of adapting some of the horror genre’s greatest minds. So perhaps you could say he learned from the best in crafting his magnum opus, Midnight Mass, a 7-episode limited series that hit Netflix last Friday. Certainly the tale of an isolated community falling under the influence of a mysterious new preacher is thematically very similar to works by Stephen King, while the evil deeds committed by an unquestioning group of the righteous against outsiders is textbook Shirley Jackson. But Midnight Mass is more than the sum of its parts, and of all the many threads it weaves the strongest is pure Flanagan: The refusal to subjugate the humanity of horror behind its metaphorical trappings. In ghost stories, the idea that we are haunted by our regrets is made literal — but Flanagan has always paired his literal ghosts with their conceptual counterparts. His vision of fear is one where the supernatural evils are rooted in — and often secondary to — the evils that people commit on their own. Horror isn’t treated as an allegory for human nature but rather a framework for its fullest expression, and you could easily remove the genre tropes from Midnight Mass and still be left with a meditative drama about faith, following, and existential dread.

Not that I’m saying Mike Flanagan should give up on his horror career and go straight, mind you. One of the greatest pleasures I take from his work is seeing the thoughtful ways he manipulates those tropes to serve his stories, and Midnight Mass is no different. This is pure folk horror turned on its ear, where instead of modernity coming to blows with the Old Ways, it’s rationality crashing up against good ol’ fashioned Christianity. Midnight Mass begins its interrogation of the Church by casting it in the same position that paganism usually holds in horror — ancient, backward yet powerful — and it’s a comfortable fit. An all-powerful being has a plan for you, and to show your devotion to Him you must congregate regularly while singing His praises and imbibing His blood and flesh? It’s easy to ignore how bonkers the rituals of Christianity are since they’ve been so normalized, but Midnight Mass relishes the chance to take a step back and remind you how weird this all is. By putting the Church in the narrative position usually held by the occult, it reveals how closely its machinations actually just resemble… a cult.

You’re going to hear a lot of Biblical passages recited during this show, but the most applicable proverb to describe Midnight Mass can’t be found in that text. It’s an old saying, one that you’re all familiar with: “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.” That’s the plot of Midnight Mass in a nutshell; how you can be so blinded by the righteousness of your purpose that you fail to see the wrongness of your work. The story begins with the arrival of two men into the tiny, fading fishing village of Crockett Island. The first is Riley Flynn, played by Zach Gilford — an actor IMDb insists has had a fruitful career over the past 18 years but who will always and forever be Matt Saracen from Friday Night Lights, to the extent that I barely even recognized him in this show because he wasn’t playing high school football (and as Podjiba listeners know, I’ve only ever watched that show’s best season: Season Two). Anyway, Riley is a recovering alcoholic who just got released from prison after killing a teenage girl in a drunk driving accident, and he’s come back home to live with his parents and start the next chapter of his life. He’s the prodigal son returned, a former altar boy who has since lost his faith and his sense of purpose. The second man is an enigmatic young preacher named Father Paul (Hamish Linklater, a bold new contender for the title “Hot Priest”), who arrives to take over the island’s rundown church, St. Patrick’s, as a replacement for their regular clergyman, Monsignor Pruitt. He steps off the ferry with a massive trunk and a lot of secrets. Both men are struggling with the baggage of pain, suffering, and past mistakes as they attempt to make a fresh start — a Resurrection, if you will. The difference is that Father Paul is facing the baggage of his flock as he tries to resurrect the whole of Crockett Island, and as we all know, before there can be resurrection there has to be death. Rather a lot of it, in fact.

That’s my spoiler-free version of the plot, so if you haven’t seen the show and don’t want any more specifics, then let me quickly lay out the show’s potential weaknesses. One: Yes, Midnight Mass spends a LOT of time on church services and rituals, and it can be tedious. As I mentioned above, I think it’s intentional in order to emphasize the darkness underpinning a lot of the dogma, but I think the repetition serves another function as well: It’s realistic. While we were watching the show, I kept catching my husband reciting the words to all the ceremonies along with Father Paul, which… was infinitely creepy, yeah. But he was an altar boy in his youth, and he’d learned all the rituals by heart. For viewers like me, who were not raised in that faith, I think we may take it for granted that one Communion is the same as all the rest. And it is! It all looks the same! But the show’s repetition begins to approximate the experience of Christianity — of weekly or daily devotion. And yeah, it’s tedious! That’s kind of the point! Also, there’s a reason why we need to see the characters drink the blood offered by Father Paul a whole bunch BUT ANYWAY. The point is, this is only a “weakness” in terms of your tolerance level for it — Flanagan knew exactly what he was doing.

Another possible weakness is how monologue-heavy the show is. Every main character has at least one opportunity, if not several, to sit across from another character and rattle off a five-page chunk of text laying out their personal beliefs without interruption. The fact that the other character just sits there taking it all in politely is probably the detail with which I had the hardest time suspending my disbelief. Real people would interject! It would be a conversation! But here again, while our mileage for this kind of tactic may differ, I do believe it serves an important purpose in the show. For one thing, it demonstrates how personal the journey of faith is — how individual it is. We are all looking for answers to life’s big questions, but how we search and what we find is unique. By giving everyone their moment on a soapbox, the show makes clear the distinction it is drawing between the fundamentalism of organized religion, and the personal pursuit of faith. The other thing it does is give you a format to directly compare Christian views against those of people who follow other religions, or more atheist, agnostic, or science-based tracks. Perhaps this is my own heathen bias speaking, but when Riley talks about how he believes that death just means you have a 5-minute super dream while microorganisms continue to eat you, and your body serves a purpose in the cosmos independent of your consciousness? That was far more comforting to me than “Heaven is love” or “God always has a plan.” No matter how compelling or compassionate Father Paul is, there’s no covering up the fact that “God always has a plan” is a real argument killer. There’s nowhere to go from there! And sure — that’s what faith is for, but hearing other beliefs tackle the same questions as Christianity all in the same space helps underscore the limitations of God as a default answer for everything. Did the show need to be as talky as it was? Probably not. But some of those monologues are simply stunning, and the last one — delivered by Kate Siegel as Erin Greene — may even move you to tears.

The third sticking point I want to mention is a spoiler, but it’s the sort of thing people always seem to want a heads up about so I’m gonna just say it: a bunch of cats and a dog die. If that’s your hard-pass detail, I get it — it’s hard to watch. Still, to Flanagan’s credit, it all functions as a fantastic bit of foreshadowing. We first meet the feral cat colony of Crockett Island at night, and they’re just shining eyes in the shadows as they prowl. The show teaches you how to look for eyes in the night, which makes the impact all the greater when you still see those eyes in the darkness after the cats have all died. Remember how you sort of had to learn how to spot all the hidden ghosts in Hill House? Yeah. It’s a bit like that. I will say, however, that the dead cats are very fake looking, and that helps. As for the dog, well, he’s a very good boy and he didn’t deserve what was done to him, but it establishes two things: What rat poison does to a creature, and just how irredeemably awful the town’s pious busybody Bev Keane is.

Those are the elements that may try your patience as a viewer. Perhaps Midnight Mass could have been trimmed down to a tighter 6 episodes, but that’s just splitting hairs. Overall, I think the repetition adds to the meditative quality of the show, and the result is a thought-provoking exploration of faith and the meaning of “good” that will unexpectedly leave you in a place of… hope. Unfortunately, to speak in more depth about the elements of the show I think are the strongest and unpack how Flanagan arrives at hope, I’m gonna need to delve into plot specifics — so this is your bail-out cue if you’re spoiler averse!

Bev Keane, as portrayed by Samantha Sloyan, is one of the most effective villains I’ve ever seen, in horror or any genre. She is hypocrisy personified, as dangerous as she is righteous and with a Bible passage ready at the tip of her tongue to shout down any dissent. She is the ringleader that tips the island into chaos, but she’s also nothing more than the defining example of what everyone is guilty of: Using God to excuse their most dangerous impulses. The fact that she is the true villain and not Father Paul, the dude who brings an actual vampire to the island thinking it’s an angel, says a lot about the philosophical bent of the show as a whole. Yup, the supernatural force this time around is a vampire — but one of those old school man-bat types, perfectly in keeping with the folk horror trappings of the show. The weakness to sunlight, the transferring of powers via blood-drinking, all of it points to the creature Father Paul smuggled onto the island in his trunk being a vampire — the only thing missing is the aversion to crosses, which doesn’t appear to be an issue. Father Paul, by the way, is actually the elderly Monsignor Pruitt, de-aged thanks to the vampire blood his “angel” fed him after attacking him in a cave outside Jerusalem. When Pruitt awoke with his youth and wits returned to him, he jumped to the conclusion that he’d experienced a real miracle… because he WANTED to. That’s the thing, isn’t it? We all choose the version of reality that makes us most comfortable. So Pruitt ignored the fact that his “angel” dwells in darkness and can’t step out into daylight, and ignored the bat-wings and the violent attacks, and instead focused on what his Resurrection could mean: A second chance at life, and a second chance to save his congregation. So he packs the creature into a trunk and takes it back to Crockett, to bestow this “miracle” on his people. He lies to them about his identity, and he adds the creature’s blood to the communion wine to begin the slow transformation to immortality… which will culminate in a midnight mass service where he encourages his followers to take a leap of faith (or a sip of rat poison) and complete their resurrection.

Not everyone on the island is a believer, though, and it’s up to the handful of outsiders to recognize the danger being unleashed on Crockett. Riley is the first, and the most interesting. When he talks about the dissociative experience of his alcoholism — the voice that urges him to take another drink, the voice that both is and is not himself — we have a point of reference for what Father Paul experiences as the voice of God. It’s convenient to think we are getting guidance from elsewhere, but both “voices” are just our own instincts and impulses at work. Riley is also the first person on the island to be turned by the vampire (though not the first to be killed by the beast), and Father Paul believes that makes Riley a chosen figure, an apostle — that God is offering him redemption for his sins. Perhaps that is the case, but not in the way the Father expected. Riley immediately goes to Erin, his childhood love, and takes her out on a rowboat in the middle of the night (a scene that mirrors a reoccurring dream he’s had). He tells her the entire story of what’s happening on the island, who Father Paul really is, and just what Riley himself has become. It’s a warning for her to save herself, and to prove that his unbelievable story is true he sits in front of her as the sun comes up and lets himself burn to dust before her eyes. The truest sinner commits the story’s one purest act of sacrifice, and of grace. Bev Keane would NEVER.

He’s not the only outsider, though. Erin, whose own pregnancy was reversed thanks to the communion wine, finds other allies on the island. First there’s Dr. Sarah Gunning (Annabeth Gish) and her “miraculously” revived mother, Mildred (Alex Essoe), whose own secret connection to Father Paul proved to be the real driving force behind his desire for a second chance. Then there’s Sheriff Hassan (Rahul Kohli), an outsider twice over as both a Muslim and a newcomer to Crockett. He’s a complicated figure — a man whose experiences with discrimination in the NYPD have driven him to take refuge in this sleepy community in hopes that he can spend his days in ease. His reticence to stand out or make waves makes him a little slow on the uptake as a police officer, but he’s given one of the most important bits of dialogue in the whole show in a scene where he questions Bev Keane about whether she should be handing out Bibles in public school. Her casual dismissal of his faith prompts him to correct her about how Muslims view Christianity: “We love Jesus, and we love the message that was revealed to him… But we also believe, after the time of Jesus, thanks to the interference of men, there were deviations in Christianity. People altered the message — priests, popes, kings. That’s why there’s so many versions of the Bible. People got in there and made their changes.” Midnight Mass hinges on people taking the Bible and interpreting it as they want, but Flanagan chose to verbalize that concept through the words of a Muslim character. Bev, of course, remains unconvinced — and you’d better believe she calls him a terrorist by the show’s end.

As the congregation willingly undergoes an unspeakable transformation, and uses it as an excuse to terrorize the remaining unbelievers, this small group of outsiders chooses to make their own sacrifice. They destroy the boats, so the turned villagers can’t spread their infection to the mainland. They burn the last remaining buildings, so the villagers have no place to hide from the sunlight. And they die in the process, though they save the world. As the sun comes up after that last night, the nightmare ends with a song turned to dust — and two young teenagers floating in a boat as the only witnesses.

There’s so much I want to say about Midnight Mass. The way every reveal is methodically seeded in, so you can practically predict all the secrets by the end of episode two — and it in no ways diminishes your enjoyment of them. Nothing is out of left field. Nothing is a mistake — not even the unconvincing old-person make-up on half the characters. The way Riley is haunted, Bly Manor-style, by the image of the girl he killed, red and blue police lights eternally reflecting off the bits of windshield glass embedded in her face. The way Father Paul is ultimately so sympathetic, despite his missteps. The way the show doesn’t just interrogate our need to find answers to our existence but offers its own — that maybe God is simply the universe, and our purpose is to be a part of it for a brief moment and then pass our particles back into the system. That our idea of self — that thing that’s driven by the impulses and desires that get us into trouble — is nothing but a temporary dream, and if we loosened our iron grip on the concept of “I” maybe we can find peace in the knowledge that we will forever persist in some form or another, always. We’re already a part of something greater. Nature is the plan. And we can find comfort there.

Mostly, though, I want to say that Midnight Mass wasn’t the show I expected. It was less scary, but infinitely more unsettling. It was profoundly moving. Flanagan put his whole self on the line here, and I don’t need to agree with every single choice to know that I’ll be chewing over the entirety of this show for a very long time.

Tori Preston is the managing editor of Pajiba. She tweets here. You can also listen to her weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.