One cannot deny Mike Flanagan’s impact on the horror genre in the short time he’s been around. From his stellar debut season of The Haunting of Hill House to his multiple (really good) Stephen King adaptations, he is becoming a force to be reckoned with when it comes to horror entertainment right now.
And unlike the up-and-down-but-mostly-down Blumhouse, his work is consistently good. Flanagan just dropped the new horror show Midnight Mass on Netflix, and it’s his strongest work yet, getting us deeply invested in a remote Maine fishing village as it goes from peaceful and passive to Hell on Earth. The man carves out a ride that, while slow at times, has a killer ending that will stick with you long after the credits roll.
Disclaimer: The Show is a Slow Burn
That is something anyone looking to watch this show needs to know off the jump. This show focuses on genuine character arcs and human conversation far more than cheap scares. The “horror” of Midnight Mass doesn’t really come into play until the last few episodes.
So don’t go at this series expecting tons of superfluous gore. While that stuff does get served out in heaping portions by the end, this show is the definition of a slow burn.
There is exposition galore (we are talking 20 minute stretches of just two people talking on a couch), and the burn starts slowly. Midnight Mass is like a seed. It takes time to grow. Stick with it, and you’ll get some of the most fleshed out characters in recent fiction.
Ok, with that disclaimer out of the way, let’s go attend Midnight Mass.
The Tragedy of Riley Flynn
Midnight Mass begins with our lead character, Riley Flynn, played by Zach Gilford, sitting in the road after causing the death of a young girl from drunk-driving. He is duly arrested and that sets the tone for our story. You may immediately think having the protagonist of the show kill a young girl by driving drunk as a tough sell, and it is at first. Are you supposed to like Riley, or see him as the mess he is?
While Riley Flynn isn’t your typical protagonist, the show does an amazing job of warming you up to him, as like most people, he has issues. While the show starts with him being imperfect and standing out in his hometown, the show gives him time to show the more nuanced part of his character, and even though the show starts with a tragedy he caused, we viewers warm up to him, which is a sign of great writing. Riley knows he is imperfect, and it haunts him as much as it haunts the audience.
Riley is wounded and broken when we first meet him, but the show truly begins with him returning to his coastal home of Crockett Island after his prison stint. Riley knows what he has done, quits drinking, and remains haunted by his actions resulting in the once-faithful man to lose his faith in God – a strong theme throughout the show. Problems arise when Riley comes home and realizes rather quickly that something is off. Riley no longer believes in the Lord, but those ideals remain strong on Crockett Island. As much as it is his home, he feels like a stranger in a strange land.
Themes: Religion and Communal Conformity
Upon arriving home, Riley sees his old ex back in town, now pregnant. Erin Green (played by Mike Flanagan’s wife and muse Kate Siegal) and though there has been some time between their old love affair, it is quickly obvious these two still have chemistry, and are thrown off by the town’s zealous nature, which they commiserate on in multiple instances.
All this is made that much more apparent when a religious stranger rolls into town. Father Paul Hill (played masterfully by Hamish Linklater) has arrived in town as the new priest at St. Patrick’s church because the town’s old monsignor fell ill while traveling to the Vatican. The new priest is insanely charismatic and the townsfolk take to him instantly.
One member in particular named Bev Keane (played by Samantha Sloyan who steals the show as an overly religious and judgemental b*tch) takes interest in the new Father, and seems to almost follow him around like a puppy, fawning at every opportunity.
This is a vehemently religious community, and people who do not adhere to that religion and its rules are looked down on and gossiped about. Riley no longer sees a point in attending services, but gets compelled to by his parents, who both seem deeply bothered by their son’s actions, but dance around it passive-aggressively every chance they get. You see this early on during a dinner scene between him and his family. His father (played by Henry Thomas) is clearly agitated he doesn’t intend to attend church. Though he bites his tongue at first, he makes it pretty clear very quickly that if he plans to stay in their house, he will abide by their rules, and one of those rules is going to church.
That and the pressures of the town itself lead Riley to attend mass with his family, which is where things get really weird. Father Hill causes a miracle in front of everyone. This causes even those of no faith to suddenly start believing there may be something more going on here.
It is here we get one of the stronger themes of the show which is the idea of religious conformity. Riley may no longer believe, but what he sees Father Hill do makes him start to wonder if he was wrong. If perhaps God very much still exists and it was Riley who dropped away from God and not God who abandoned Riley. Seeing him struggle with that dogma becomes a big part of his character arc.
What becomes more and more clear over time is that Father Hill, while able to seemingly causes miracles, begins to get violently ill every time he shows even the slightest bit of power. And Riley, Erin, and Bev all take notice of this, but for completely different reasons.
The Darkness Beneath the Light
It is clear that there is something wrong with Father Hill, and in that revelation some of the townsfolk begin to inquire about Monsignore Pruitt and his unexplainable “illness” and absence. But this also gets quickly forgotten when some of the residents of Crockett Island begin to feel their own positive effects after the services.
Certain ailments are beginning to vanish, and some of the townsfolk start to notice some of their health problems going away. It is almost as if Father Hill is turning back time for some of these people. Bad backs suddenly heal and the memory issues for one of the locals all but fade away, and a girl who couldn’t walk for years is fully mobile again.
Proven to be already devoutly religious, these people are so quick to yell out miracle, but in the background, not everything is going smoothly. Erin, for example, not only loses her child (as in poof, it vanishes overnight) but the doctor’s even tell her she must have miscarried and blocked it out.
This is about the time you realize that Father Hill really isn’t who he claims to be, and his miracles all seemingly are coming at a much greater cost to both him and the community itself.
[SPOILERS] Midnight Mass Ending Explained
Our boy Flynn gets bitten when he tries to uncover what is really going on in town, and he brings Erin out on a boat so he can talk to her safely away from all the evil. There is a quick moment after he tells her everything that has gone down where you think he might have brought her out there to feed on her, but then it hits you. He brought her out here to use the morning sunlight to kill himself, so she would know what was really happening around Crockett Island. She sees this, sits in shocked silence for about five minutes, and then things kick into high gear.
So get this. Father Hill is actually Monsignor Pruitt. When he was out at the Vatican, he got jumped by an “angel” who sucked him dry like an old school vampire. Then said angel (looking an awful lot like a demon) cut its own wrist and let Hill chug on his life juice. In chugging on the vamp’s platelets, he suddenly found himself getting stronger and younger and wiser. Being an overly religious nutbag, he took this as a sign and struck up a deal with the angel.
So while everyone thought he was a new priest, he was their old priest the whole time, which is why he gelled with everyone because he already knew how to socialize and interact with them. The show culminates with the titular Midnight Mass, where 99% of the town drinks the demon blood and become “angels” themselves, which is in this world is a fancy word for vampires.
The finale shows us most of the town turn and start killing and turning those who try to fight it. It is a blood soaked nightmare, but in this process, Father Hill realizes how badly he f*cked up. He realizes he didn’t bring anything but death with him, and now it is too late. Everyone has been turned, and rather then heaven, he brought hell on earth to these people.
We see the angel flying away (insinuating its reign is not over), as most of the town gather on the local beach, knowing the sun is coming and that they are monsters, they all willingly choose to die. The sun comes up, everyone burns to ash, and the cycle ends.
Flanagan has said himself that the angel lives, despite it seeming like it may have also been caught in the sun when it flew off. So who knows? While the show is thought to be one season, this has yet to be fully confirmed or denied. Truth is, rumors are circling that there may be a second season already written, but for now we have to wait and see.
Which is good because that ending was (powerful and) brutal and I need a rest. See you all at mass on Sunday.