Too frequently we see only what we wish to in those precious things that inspire us. Human beings are fallible and it makes sense we would want our religious institutions and icons to be quite the opposite. But when that desire becomes strong enough, we’re willing to overlook tremendous evil to maintain the illusion of perfection and grace. Mike Flanagan’s newest Netflix production, Midnight Mass, portrays this perversion of faith in startling clarity.
If you’re worried about spoilers, don’t be. I went into this relatively new, limited series blind and I hope anyone reading this will do the same, so I’ll be as vague as possible and keep major plot points out of my writing. Besides, keen fans of the genre will quickly piece together what kind of story is being told by Flanagan and his collaborators before the big reveal around the midpoint.
So what, then, is Midnight Mass if we strip away its horror exterior?
For starters, it’s an exploration of faith and what that word means to each individual person. In several interviews Flanagan has admitted he wrestles with his Catholic upbringing, something more than a few of his Midnight Mass characters are processing themselves. The audience finds the fictional Crockett Island (or more informally “The Crockpot,” famous for its multicultural background, the mostly white residents boast more than once) and its inhabitants participating in full-blown evangelical revival, miracles and all, almost immediately after the series kicks off. So atheistic Riley’s (Zach Gilford) timing as he returns to his childhood home after serving a prison sentence for vehicular homicide is less than stellar. His childhood sweetheart, Erin (Kate Siegel, Flanagan’s long-time collaborator and romantic partner) is also a recent arrival to the remote community, having escaped an abusive relationship to give birth to her child and begin life anew. And St. Patrick’s Church, perhaps the most significant community organization on Crockett Island, is itself receiving an enigmatic, young priest, Father Paul Hill (a never-better Hamish Linklater), who seems to be somehow responsible for the strange goings on.
It’s in this place of worship that Midnight Mass is at its most compelling. Flanagan’s attention to the repetition and ceremony inherent in the Catholic faith is nothing short of scholarly. From the halfhearted ringing of the bells by bored, teenage acolytes to awkward shuffle up to the altar to receive communion, he nails the churchgoing experience. There’s even a knowing nod to taking the sacraments as the literal consumption of the body and blood of Jesus Christ, a core tenant unique to Catholicism as compared to protestant schools of Christian thought.
Most knowingly, though, is Flanagan’s understanding of the power the church and those in its employ hold over their congregation. With the obvious exception of the town zealot, Bev Keene (Samantha Sloyan), most of the parishioners are affable and kind, if a bit sheltered. But theirs is a blind, strong faith, and it only takes a few firebrand sermons from Father Hill, Bev’s self-righteous assurance, and a miracle or two for everything to go wrong.
Distilled to its essence, Midnight Mass is a scathing criticism of the weaponization of religion. It’s in Ephesians 6 that the apostle Paul describes each component of the Armor of God as having a holy corollary – the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the sword of the Spirit – but faith is reserved for the final piece of armor: the shield. One’s faith isn’t to be used as an arrow, or an axe, or any other weapon with which to lash out or destroy. Our relationship with a higher power, whatever it is or wherever we may find that divine inspiration, is supposed to be a measure of defense against the evils of the world. In each of the seven episodes of the show, what faith means and what it should be used for is explored by the ensemble cast, ultimately with heartbreaking and terrifying consequences. And I don’t think viewers need to be reminded how relevant this tale is to us at this moment; just look at the increasingly extreme and destructive politics of evangelical Americans and the willingness of the Catholic church to keep hidden the numerous scandals that have plagued it as an institution for decades to see the that very real horror reflected in our reality.
Though The Haunting of Hill House and The Haunting of Bly Manor are meditative, empathetic works, they’re both adaptations of existing material. Midnight Mass’s original script feels deeply personal to Flanagan in a way his last two limited series didn’t. And I happen to think it’s his finest work yet.