The truth is, I had so much more to say about this show that I needed to write this piece. So do not read any further until you’ve seen all seven episodes.
If you have heard me talk about Midnight Mass in person, you’ll understand how much this show has affected me. While yes, some of it may have been clear due to my spoiler-free review, my tweets about it, or even the many text messages I have sent to friends and family as both a precautionary warning and a declaration of what can not be missed. I am unable to speak about the series at length without getting emotional thinking about it.
Midnight Mass is what I currently think is the best thing released in 2021 and Mike Flanagan’s best project so far. I know I’m not alone, but I believe that he is one of the best working filmmakers and storytellers working today. Not just in the horror/genre field, but overall. Earlier this year, I wrote an essay for Film Cred to talk about the recurring theme of trauma in his films. When I started writing it, I didn’t realize why this aspect, or hell, most of his recurring themes spoke to me. In the process of writing it (and a great editor, thank you forever, Tyler), that helped me understand my connection to it. There were elements of myself spread out through all his films for me to pick up on slowly.
In reality, parts of this “review” (if we can call it such) are more so a collection of thoughts I’ve had while watching the show and discussing it with other friends who have seen it. While I’m happy with my spoiler-free review, it is frustrating not to talk about the Angel. I wish the look on my face was caught on camera as I realized that not only would Flanagan be tackling vampires in this series, but then to place the vampire in the context of religion as an angel? Frankly, it’s brilliant. The people of Crockett Island should be as terrified of the Angel as we are in the comfort of our homes, but, by telling people he’s a servant of God, he’s welcomed. Or it is welcomed. With every step it takes, it is unsettling and haunting. Even as it eventually lunges at Riley in the fourth episode, giving us one of the biggest scares of the show, we are unaware of what’s going to happen next. But we knew that, right? In Hush, Sarah (Samantha Sloyan, who also plays Bev Keane) speaks to Maddie Young (Kate Siegel, who fucking kills it as Erin Greene, which I’ll talk about shortly) about her novel Midnight Mass seems to be both published and being written. “I loved Riley. I loved Erin.” Sarah mentions she can’t tell where it’s going, to which Maddie brings up “Writer’s Brain,” where she’s able to figure out multiple endings. It’s clear Flanagan knew even then, nobody would be able to predict where it ends.
I’ve spoken about the monologues that are found in the show. Everyone has a moment or two where they truly get to shine. While at first, it’s Hamish Linklater’s show, as it should be. Between the loud, powerful sermons he delivers that make a non-believer like myself want to believe. Still, it’s the quiet moments, specifically with Riley (Zach Gilford), that make us pay attention. As he yells at him, “I promised you complete honesty, and I’m giving that to you, and I’m tired of you lying to me, Riley Flynn,” I am afraid. I am afraid of what could happen next, about what does happen next, and what Father Paul could potentially become.
These are just one of the many lines that have stuck with me since I’ve seen it and have hit even harder on repeat viewings, between Rahul’s heartbreaking performance about Hassan’s journey to becoming a sheriff for the Crock Pot or the final conversations between Riley and his parents Ed (Henry Thomas) and Annie (Kristin Lehman). But none have stuck with me more than the monologues that Kate Siegel performs. Whether it’s her talking about her mother’s wings being clipped or what happens to us after we die, but I think it’s a safe assumption that while they’re all worthy of mountains of praise, nothing compares to “we are the cosmos dreaming of itself.” Between the score by The Newton Brothers and Kate’s delivery, her monologue sounds like the most beautiful song I’ve ever heard, with some of the most poetic lyrics written. Every monologue feels like a gorgeous poem pouring out of the performer, both precisely thought out yet entirely discovered as they speak. “We are the cosmos dreaming of itself” is a line so perfect and beautiful and encapsulates so much of what is found inside the show. A show that beautifully understands religion and how fucking frightening it can be.
I grew up Catholic. My family now attends a Baptist church, but I went to Catholic school, as did my mom. I went to the same elementary school that my mom and uncles went to. We even had the same secretary. My grandparents, at least on my mom’s side, are still deeply religious, they constantly swear by the bible, and one of the biggest hurdles they luckily had to deal with during the pandemic is not attending mass in an actual church. I’m aware of what religion should mean, the people who preach it mean well, and when the followers adapt to what they’re learning. This is the case with Erin and Father Paul. They understand there shouldn’t be boundaries or fighting for your country. And then you have Bev, who twists the scripture around her finger to do as she pleases. Even in a show where we have a massive massacre (sort of) inside a church with a vampire, Bev’s disgusting, manipulative, horrific behaviour is the true villain of the show. This leaves us with Riley, who wants to believe. After he kills the woman at the show’s beginning, his response is to pray, as if it could do anything for them. Living in a world with so much pain and sorrow, it is hard to stay as someone who can believe in miracles. Are they there? Sure, but is it God? These are some of the existential questions Flanagan casually makes us ask ourselves during the show’s duration. Questions that leave me in the dark, way after an episode is over, wondering how to continue.
One of the reasons the show affects me so much is because it scares me. No, not just the religion, or the vampires, and the countless tense moments of suspense. No deeper than that. It makes me think about giving up, or at least, how often I’ve thought about giving up. I see so much of myself in Riley, in a spot where I am unsure if I’m able to move on some days, in some ways, stuck in a boat drifting in the ocean with no destination in sight. What about all the pain I will bring to my friends and loved ones? The text messages I almost sent to them after finishing the show for the second time. It scares me because just when you think you’re doing good, it hits again. And again. And I can not escape it. So I’m scared. Getting past our hurdles and battles with our mental health when we want to fight but just can’t. It’s Erin’s faith, not in God, but Riley, that when she is scared out of her mind about what Riley might do, she offers her hand. “My dear, dear you. If you’re sick, or you need help, I’m not scared of that.” But it’s too late. There is no going back. “I brought you out here, so I’d have nowhere to go.” It’s the strength that Riley loses after losing his faith, the strength of not being able to fight for himself anymore. And that, that fucking terrifies me. More than anything else in this show. More than anything else, I’ve watched in a long time.
That’s the catch, though, the reason why I see the show as I do. I see myself as Riley, and I see the people I love as the people around him that populate the island. I hope they’re not afraid of me or to help me like others have been in the past. I know they’re not, but it’s this fear that brings me back to the same place, on the boat with Riley, wondering what exactly is going to happen when the sun rises. It’s this that brings me back, that makes me tell everyone I know to watch it. Maybe then, I won’t feel so alone.
During my initial watch, multiple moments left me shaking and crying alone in my living room. On my rewatch, I was worse. I felt myself lost and floating on the boat with Riley, wondering what I’d see when I’d look up. Either nothing at all, someone to help, or this idea of acceptance and forgiveness. Unfortunately, these are the moments that are being played on repeat inside my mind, the ones that leave me in a daze. Flanagan continues to deliver these beautifully crafted humans that span the spectrum of sound and evil. Ones that seek forgiveness after causing harm, and ones that never give in to evil, even when tempted, even as their bodies beg them to do so. It’s the demons and ghosts that we fight and struggle with every day. It’s what Flanagan does best. He manifests our battles into living ghosts that taunt us. As Riley sees the ghost before bed when he first arrives in prison, he is taunted, terrified and unaware of what is happening. By the time he sees her in his room back on Crockett Island, he is unfazed and numb by the sight of her. The spirit he is doomed to face before going to sleep every night. It doesn’t greet him as an old friend, but rather just another thing he fights nightly.
Simply put, Midnight Mass is just shy of a miracle itself. Expertly created, with a score that ties it together, the editing that keeps us all on our toes, the performances that make our hearts shatter. There’s something to be said that by bringing returning faces, it hurts more when they’re gone. But while they’re here, it’s a joy to be around. To listen as they tell their deeply rich stories about all the things they’ve suffered from, to somehow, moments from death, sing. Sing louder than they’ve ever sung before, and sing together. It’s haunting to watch and listen as the island goes up in flames and the voices vanish, like they were never there, back into the cosmos, to do it all over again. Ash to ash, dust to dust. It’s what we’re all destined to do someday, and it’s how we fight along the way that shows us who we are.