This piece will contain extensive spoilers for Midnight Mass, and is written on the assumption that you’ve seen it. If you haven’t, yet, plan to, and don’t want to know many twists, turns, and indeed the end, maybe bookmark this and come back once you have. Fair warning.
So by this point, I’m sure we’re all well aware of the many, many (many) pitfalls of social media. However, one of the good things about it, for me, is finding good things to watch. For various reasons, my meatspace social life doesn’t contain a huge number of genre fiction enthusiasts; whereas my digital friend circle is chock to the brim with sci-fi, fantasy, and horror mega-enthusiasts. And it was absolutely social media buzz that drove me to my last two horror TV shows - Squid Game (which really deserves its own essay) and Midnight Mass.
Mike Flanagan seems to have been building up to this for some time; his last two movies, Gerald's Game and Doctor Sleep were superb King adaptations, the latter especially. Trying to splice a novel clearly in part still reacting to King’s distaste for Kubricks' version of The Shining with a movie that is, notionally, also a sequel to that self-same film was a pretty unenviable task, and Flanagan’s execution far exceeded not merely my expectations, but what I even thought would be feasibly possible with such a brief.
And of course, his last two TV outings have drawn deserved critical acclaim; personally, I dug Hill House more than Bly Manor, but both were exquisitely made pieces of television.
But, I mean, Midnight Mass… holy shit.
Shall we start by listing the classic horror tropes? Isolated community, shrinking population, empty houses, blue-collar lives being eroded by outside forces (the emergent backstory about the oil spill and the company payout twinning the destructive forces of rapacious and indifferent capital and environmental catastrophe in a way that would feel painfully on the nose if we weren't, you know, alive in 2022), a religious revival, the new handsome stranger also a priest, the returning prodigal son with the dark past... shit, we’ve even got teenagers sneaking off to an even more isolated spot to get fucked up, and an actual, old school bloody Vampire. Looked at like that, well, why wouldn’t I like it?
Then again… well, let’s just say the horror genre is not short of works that end up considerably less than the grab bag of tropes they employ. Midnight Mass is playing with a lot of classic influences but, for me, the reason it was so successful was the way those tropes interacted with the themes of addiction, regret, and religious faith
Zach Gilford’s Riley Finn and Hamish Linklater’s Father Paul form the two sides of the coin. Riley’s recovering alcoholic, haunted every night by the ghost of the woman he killed, taking the twelve steps but lapsed in his faith, forced to return to his family home following his prison sentence, is a bold choice for a protagonist; drunk driving being among the more venally selfish crimes a person can commit. Gilford plays it well, as does the script, letting his guilt play out in the nightly shots of the dead woman as he lays down to sleep, her face lit by the blue/red lights of the police car. It’s a striking image, but it’s also a canny choice; by not having Zach articulate his guilt, the implication is that it’s too big for words, his stoic acceptance of the nightly visitation seeming to be a tacit acknowledgment that he’s getting nothing he doesn’t deserve.
It’s obvious he’s on a collision course with Linklater’s Father Paul, replacement for the beloved aged village priest who got ill on a recent pilgrimage; a charismatic, confident preacher with a pleasantly goofy, slightly awkward speaking manner. It’s an absolutely stunning performance from Linklater, giving a painful nervousness and odd, yet somehow charming cadence to his sermons and conversations. The first encounter between the two men sets out the territory they’ll spend most of the show sparing over; Zach has been talked into attending the church by his father, who has also asked him not to take communion - ‘it would be disrespectful’, his Dad tells him, if he doesn’t believe - and when Father Paul mentions it on their way out after the service, the moment of silence that spins out is exquisite. Paul lets it hang, before turning the moment around with a comment on the people Jesus preferred to hang out with, and Zach’s weary respect and acknowledgment felt thrilling to me; in real life, that’s normally where such conversations end, but by this point, it’s already clear to me that things are going to go very deep indeed, and, as you might expect, I Am Here For It.
The show didn't disappoint, delivering a ferocity of argument that can only occur when the writer has enough respect for both sides of the debate to give each the strongest possible case to make. But as electrifying as I found those scenes, they ended up just one glittering piece in the overall mosaic; there’s basically no part of the story that didn’t work for me. It’s a huge ensemble cast, and there really isn’t a weak link; Robert Longstreet puts in a heartbreaking turn as Joe Collie, the town drunk who put Leeza Scarborough (played by Annarah Cymone) in a wheelchair; The doctor and her near-the-end senile and bedridden mother, Zach's mother and father, the new, recently widowed Muslim sheriff and his son… There are a lot of paired characters, and the way all those pairings play out impact on the narrative and provide emotional weight; weight that, by the end of the final episode, feels very heavy indeed.
And honestly, each of those pairings could fuel an essay, so exquisitely are they drawn, so brilliantly are they written and performed; and each one opens a window into a tension, an argument, a philosophical or emotional question of weight. What does forgiveness mean, for both the victim and the transgressor? When a child becomes curious or starts to pursue a faith that is not that of the parent, how do you begin to navigate that (from either side)? What does love look like across the divide of faith and unbelief? These and many more, each given space to breathe and explore, and all while driving the narrative, slowly but inexorably, towards an apocalyptic finale… Yeah, as you may have realized by this point, I was really impressed.
That said, it’s the ending that stuck with me the most, for probably obvious reasons to those of you who have read my recent piece on Don’t Look Up: because, in addition to all the things I’ve listed, Midnight Mass is absolutely about the end of the world.
The island serves as a pretty good microcosm for this vast-yet-fragile ecosystem we all live on. Before the story starts, big oil has already devastated the community, via an oil spill that killed the fishing and a settlement that simply didn’t make amends the way it needed to, and gosh, it’s almost like there are things money can't replace, isn’t it? There’s a truly vicious and delightful subplot here about how Bev Keane, arguably the woman who runs the church and the nearest thing the show has to an outright villain both persuaded the islanders to take the settlement and to donate a large part of it to the church to build a rec room/social space.
And then, here comes the vampire.
The villagers are all vampirized via an act of deceit, remember. An act of desecration, in fact; a perversion of the sacrament that, for people of genuine faith, I imagine is about as profane and awful a thing as it’s possible to imagine. The islanders are poisoned, robbed of their humanity via a ritual of trust and faith. The betrayal of their trust by Father Paul is absolute. They see benefits, initially, improvement in their health and wellbeing, a de-aging, to be precise, that feels to be restoring a sense of hope to a community in sore need of it. Rather like the ‘miracles’ and baubles of late-stage capitalism, it seems too good to be true, and just like late-stage capitalism, it turns out it is, indeed, too good to be true.
Like. They’re infected, via an institution they trust implicitly, with an illness that leads them to need to murder to survive. Oh, and they are now lethally vulnerable to sunlight.
*Looks to camera*
This one landed hard. Because it’s 2022 and oil companies don’t merely still exist, they still fund political parties across the increasingly inaccurately titled ‘democratic world’ while extracting and refining the fossil fuels the consumption of which, left at current unchecked levels, will render the planet uninhabitable by humans and most other lifeforms before my kid gets to what we, but she almost certainly will not call retirement age. Our already laughably weak and ineffectual ‘democratic institutions’ and ‘checks and balances are so hollowed out they’re practically shades of whatever they were meant to be in the first place; our international press draws ever-narrower borders around what is even permissible as ‘political debate’, our police openly conspire with a supine press and a corrupt governing class, so that the only time a member of the ruling class falls prey to the laws the rest of us live and die by is when Kremlinology decrees It’s Time For Them To Go.
Not to put too fine a point on it, we’re fucked, people. And it’s still getting worse, still accelerating when we should be slamming on the brakes. And in the UK and the US, the specter of fascism feels increasingly present; infecting already viciously conservative power structures and parties. The historical comparisons with the 1930’s are stark and terrifying, and the reason we’re snoozing on them so badly is because, unlike the historical test case we’re all so familiar with, this time, those forces are emerging not in a separate party, but in existing ones; in the US Republican party and the UK Conservatives, repressive and oppressive policies are stoking the fires of racial and national division at the same time they’re increasingly outlawing even peaceful demonstration or protest. Both groups are funded by the companies whose emissions will kill us all. Both groups are supported by media outlets owned by billionaires whose sole interest is in preserving the existing economic status quo at literally any cost.
In other words, institutions we think we know, understand and trust are feeding us poison and calling it salvation.
What really hit me about Midnight Mass is that not everyone succumbs to the hunger. Riley’s parents are horrified by the carnage they see about them and refuse to partake. Again, this reflects what we know of history; often, the majority will go along with/participate in barbarism, under the wrong circumstances; but there is always resistance, people of conscience who refuse to be part of it.
Also true; the infected are fundamentally insane. Bev’s plan to burn all the other housing on the island is a perfect microcosm of the oil company profit-uber-allies mentality that’s led to this moment. As above, so below. The pattern replicates, each time devastating the environment surrounding it.
I can't stop thinking about Stephen King’s Desperation; The moment when the kid asks God why he has to fight the Big Evil - will it win otherwise? And God says no, Evil will always destroy itself, you fight because it’s My Will.
And, like, He’s not wrong. The problem is, the evil we face, in 2022, is big enough and powerful enough and destructive enough that it’s going to take basically all of us down with it, this time. As in Don’t Look Up, while it’s true that the ‘winners’ who escape will end up being eaten by some space raptor (or, more likely and more prosaically, murdered by the security guards they paid to keep us out of their bunkers), that doesn’t help us at all. Knowing that the people responsible for the black hole of annihilation and human misery my daughter has coming to her in place of a future will also Get Theirs isn’t even cold comfort; it’s no comfort at all.
I want the other thing. The Better Way. I want - I need - us to face down the evil we are currently ruled by, call it out for what it is, renounce it, and find a better way. Not for me, so much, but for my kid, and for yours, too.
What does Midnight Mass have to offer us, in this regard? Not a lot. For the residents of The Crockpot, it’s already too late; for them, the only question that remains is how they face the end. And in this, Flanigen posits that in the moment of facing our known demise our true character is revealed, and, sure, maybe, whatever, that’s fine, I cried, you got me. But.
For me, well, two things; the only survivors are the kids. One of the many amazing things the show does is make the moment a kid loses the use of her legs a victory, but that’s what happens. And that’s barely an allegory, right? Gen X has failed. Millennials are bowing under the same weight that crushed every previous generation. If there's any hope left, it lies with the kids; the kids, and, maybe, what the knowledge of what the kids will face may yet drive the rest of us to.
And the other thing is what I think of as the Easy Rider ending. For the people of The Crockpot, it’s already too late; it was too late when the story began.
For us? You know, the hour is late, and I don’t have it in me to lie to you; for us, it also might be too late.
But it might not.
It really might not.
And if there are still grounds for hope, however faint, Midnight Mass poses you/us/me the question; Is this how you want to go out?
Some sunrise, in the next 40 or 50 years, do you want to face it, knowing it’s the last not just for you and me, but for humanity? Do you want to be turning to the horizon, with a tear in your eye and a hymn on your lips, knowing you and everyone and everything you love is to burn, waiting for the sun to rise and make a final end of it? Because, absent transformational change, that is what we’re all looking down the barrel of. Right here, right now.
If not, well. The time is 2022, the clock is running brutally short.
If not now, when?
When will you rage?
PS - For a much, much longer conversation on the subject in audio form, please do check out the recent podcast with George Daniel Lea and Reverend Doctor Tom Atfield.
TODAY ON THE GINGER NUTS OF HORROR WEBSITE
THE HEART AND SOUL OF HORROR FEATURES