tv review

Midnight Mass Provokes More Thoughts Than Screams

Photo: Netflix

The first episode of Midnight Mass begins with a death and a prayer.

Riley Flynn (Zach Gilford), a tech businessman with a drinking problem, has just plowed his convertible into a Volkswagen Beetle, killing its young driver. He stares disbelievingly at the red-and-blue police lights reflected in the broken glass shards on the woman’s mangled face, her fresh corpse the equivalent of a macabre light show. Riley immediately begins to say the Lord’s Prayer — “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name …” — when a cop cleaning Riley’s wounds interrupts him. “While you’re at it,” the officer suggests, “why don’t you ask Him why He always takes the kids, while the drunk fucks walk away with scratches?”

Midnight Mass, the third Netflix original from the platform’s official horror auteur Mike Flanagan, certainly belongs in the scary section of the Netflix library alongside his two previous series, The Haunting of Hill House and The Haunting of Bly Manor. But as that post-accident exchange implies, this seven-episode limited series, which premieres tomorrow, is less interested in bumps in the night than exploring spiritual questions and the role organized religion plays in uniting and dividing American communities. As the details in Flanagan’s latest limited series, and his best so far, come into focus, it becomes clear that Midnight Mass actually is, in part, an indictment of extreme Evangelical Christianity. But, as in the best horror, this message creeps its way into the storytelling subtly, enabling you to absorb the broader points Flanagan makes about groupthink and moral superiority without feeling like they’re being slammed into your head with Thor’s hammer.

Where Hill House and Bly Manor are more blatant works of horror containing deeper issues buried within their ghost stories, Midnight Mass is practically the opposite. It contains some frightening scenes, a couple of jump scares, and a few pumps of nightmare fuel, to be sure. But this is more of a serious drama that happens to shoot some chills up the spine from time to time. It is evocative of both a specific Stephen King novel and a recent work of television horror, neither of which I will mention here because they would spoil one — though not the only — crucial twist in the series. I don’t want to spoil that, not just because Netflix specifically asked critics not to, but because viewers deserve to take this journey with as few preconceived notions as possible.

Midnight Mass begins in earnest roughly four years after Riley’s car crash, as he’s released from prison and returns to Crockett Island, his fishing-village hometown (population: 127) that lies isolated in the middle of the sea. There, he reconnects with his forgiving mom Annie (Kristin Lehman), stoic dad Ed (Henry Thomas), younger brother Warren (Igby Rigney), and his high-school sweetheart Erin Greene (Kate Siegel), a teacher who also moved back to the so-called “Crock Pot” after her mother’s death. Other notable residents, also played by members of Flanagan’s regular ensemble of actors, include the island’s doctor Sarah Gunning (Annabeth Gish), preoccupied with caring for her aging mother Mildred (Alex Essoe); the new-to-Crockett Sheriff Hasan (Rahul Kohli), a Muslim man who, predictably, is treated abysmally by some of the townsfolk; and the self-righteously devout Bev Keane (Samantha Sloyan), who plays a pivotal role at St. Patrick’s: the church, school, and heart of the island.

Then there’s Father Paul (a phenomenal Hamish Linklater), who arrives on the island around the same time Riley returns. Father Paul is supposed to be serving as interim pastor while longtime St. Patrick’s priest Monsignor Pruitt recovers from an unspecified illness off-island. But not long after Father Paul arrives, events of an unusual, even miraculous nature begin to unfold, quickly making him a revered figure among the locals.

Without Linklater, Midnight Mass would be a pretty good series. With him, it achieves moments of greatness. Linklater portrays Father Paul with a gentleness and generosity that makes it completely conceivable that a guy like Riley, who has become quite cynical about religion in prison, might be persuaded to turn to him for help navigating his mandated recovery from alcoholism. There’s a “man of faith/man of science” dynamic between the two that is one of the more compelling aspects of the series. But Linklater can also crank up the fire and brimstone when he wants to, delivering sermons that are impassioned, inspiring, and, increasingly, unsettling. He is handed some long speeches and stretches of dialogue that he makes sing in a way not every actor in Flanagan’s universe can; he speaks as though he’s discovering his way through every sentence and wants you to come with him. Father Paul’s backstory is one of the great central mysteries in Midnight Mass, and Linklater makes you want to solve it.

But not every mystery gets solved. Some major plot developments early in the series — including the sudden appearance of many dead cats on the shoreline — are dropped and never revisited. (If a bunch of dead cats washed up near my home, I feel like it’s something I would talk about for a while.) As is so common in Netflix shows, the often pitch-black aesthetics occasionally make it challenging to actually see what the characters spy in the shadows. And the actual ending of the series does not deliver nearly as effectively and creepily as the climaxes of the two episodes that precede it.

But telling this story in seven installments instead of the ten it took to unspool Hill House and Bly Manor makes for a tighter and more satisfying experience overall. It’s particularly poignant in its reflection of the current cultural moment, as humanity chases cures for illness and certain factions distort any biblical verse to justify selfish, destructive behavior.

“This isn’t a community, honey,” Annie Flynn tells her son, Riley, when he returns via ferry to Crockett Island. “It’s a ghost.” She’s referring to the dwindling population of the place they call home, but she could just as easily be talking about the idyllic notion that in small-town America, one of Jesus’s central teachings — love thy neighbor — actually means something.

Midnight Mass Provokes More Thoughts Than Screams