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Midnight Mass

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Netflix’s favorite horror-meister, Mike Flanagan, is back with a new miniseries, Midnight Mass. I suspect it’s not going to have the same fannish reach as his previous shows, The Haunting of Hill House and The Haunting of Bly Manor, because it lacks their distinctive visual flair and overt horror storytelling (no ghosts lurking in the corner of your eye here). But as someone who was alternately impressed and frustrated by those two shows, I thought Midnight Mass was Flanagan’s most complete work yet, the first one where it feels as if he has something to say, as opposed to interpreting (in some cases quite badly) the work of other people.

Set on Crockett Island, a tiny fishing community beset by both economic hardship and a recent oil spill, Midnight Mass initially feels more akin to something like Mare of Easttown than Flanagan’s previous shows. It opens with two arrivals on the island: former golden boy Riley Flynn (Zach Gilford), who has spent the last four years in prison after killing a teenager in a drunk driving incident; and Father Paul Hill (Hamish Linklater), who arrives unexpectedly to take over the position of parish priest for the local church, St. Patrick’s. Hill quickly establishes himself as an energetic and empathetic community leader, reaching out to Riley despite the latter’s strongly-felt atheism, and preaching spiritual renewal to his despondent congregation. So that at first, it almost doesn’t feel out of the ordinary when his presence triggers events that can only be described as miraculous—a wheelchair-bound girl walks; the layers of old-age makeup slathered on much of the cast start slowly coming off.

Midnight Mass‘s early episodes are so steeped in the tropes of naturalistic prestige drama that it can be easy to forget—as the characters often seem to—that something weird or supernatural is going on. We talked about this kind of blurring of genres last year when we discussed HBO’s The Outsider, based on a novel by Stephen King. Like that show, Midnight Mass is extremely upfront about the exact nature of the horror story it’s trading in. When Hill arrives in town bearing an enormous wooden chest, when the St. Patrick’s altar boys catch him putting something in the communion wine, and when local strays (and even townspeople) start running afoul of an unseen, winged creature, it is very obvious what kind of story this is. But its characters are too caught up in their mundane problems to notice, and even if they did, they don’t live in a world where the supernatural is a real thing. Or at least, they don’t think they do, and that belief is allowed to hold sway until it becomes completely unsustainable.

(The comparison to The Outsider is particularly apt because Flanagan is probably the biggest Stephen King fanboy working in Hollywood. He’s adapted several of his works to the screen, and most of his writing bears the hallmark of King’s influence. Midnight Mass is also clearly King-inspired—the premise recalls Salem’s Lot, but I also found myself thinking about Needful Things and Under the Dome.)

Where The Outsider lost the thread a little once its supernatural McGuffin was established, however, Midnight Mass keeps its shape, largely because it doesn’t treat its prestige drama trappings as a costume it can shuck off when the time is right. It is a horror story, and it’s also a story about religion (specifically, Christianity) and how it shapes communities, for both good and evil. Flanagan is, of course, not the first horror writer to point out how easily the Catholic sacrament lends itself to horror storytelling, but where other writers tend to use that intersection as an excuse for schlock, in Midnight Mass it is a launching point for a thoughtful discussion of religion.

Almost from the start, Midnight Mass goes very deep into the specifics of Catholic ritual, in a way that cuts against the standard pop culture depiction of it, as a sort of vaguely Christian blob. Here terms like chasuble and ordinary time are thrown out casually, the specifics of altar boy hierarchy are gotten into, and the choreography of the mass is repeated again and again. To be fair, this is all probably a lot weirder to me than to most people watching the show, but the depiction feels deliberately alienating, as if trying to make the point, even before anything supernatural happens, that what these people take for normal is actually kind of strange. And Flanagan is quick to capture how religion can encourage poisonous habits of thought. Sure, not every member of St. Patrick’s is like Bev Keane (Samantha Sloyan), the self-important, self-righteous church administrator who bullies and steamrolls anyone who gets in her way. But even Riley’s kind, open-hearted mother (Kristin Lehman) will sometimes do things like rejoice in the fact that a Muslim teenager has come to church.

By the time the healings start happening, Midnight Mass‘s argument is clear: unquestioning Christian faith has left the congregation of St. Patrick’s vulnerable to evil, able to be persuaded that what they’re witnessing is an act of god. While some parishioners are eventually able to see that something has gone wrong, that Hill’s sermons about “an end to death” and a coming holy war are not normal or good, for the most part the characters who have the moral clarity to realize that something is wrong are the ones who are outside the fold: Riley, the atheist; the town doctor, a lesbian who feels alienated from the church (Annabeth Gish); the Muslim sheriff (Rahul Kohli).

At the same time, Midnight Mass is not merely an anti-religious story. It repeatedly makes the point that faith manifests itself differently in different people. When the full extent of Hill’s plan and the danger it poses, not just to the island but beyond it, become clear, it’s their faith that gives some parishioners the strength to fight back. More interestingly, the show rejects the assumption, common to stories of its type, that once a person has been transformed into a monster they are soulless and damned. Hell and damnation are, in fact, completely absent from its cosmology, and in its final episode it becomes clear that even monsters can consider themselves people of faith, make moral choices, ask forgiveness for their immoral ones, and experience grace.

To be sure, Midnight Mass also suffers from a lot of by-now familiar Flanagan weaknesses. His writing and directing tend towards showiness, so the show will occasionally throw out a self-indulgent, largely pointless long take, and its overlong episodes are weighed down by a simply dizzying (and eventually wearying) array of monologues. The ending, as one has come to expect from Flanagan, is more sentimental than it really needed to be. But the show wears these flaws more lightly than previous Flanagan efforts, and I think that’s because unlike them, it knows what it’s about. When the credits roll, you feel like you’ve gotten a coherent story rather than a grab-bag of good and bad bits, one that leaves you some things to chew over.

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