Mike Flanagan’s most personal project to date is also his best. It’s clear how much care and thought went into Midnight Mass, his new seven-episode limited series, streaming on Netflix today. It’s not that his past projects didn’t have those things, but Midnight Mass exudes confidence rarely seen in a work where every scene, every piece of dialogue, and every moment isn’t wasted. Sharp, and captivating, the series takes your breath away. Midnight Mass captures the evil and tragedy of religious zealotry and the rocky path toward healing with stunning visuals, powerful performances, and poetic musings on what it means to be human.
The slow burn nature of the series might turn some people off, but the time it takes to establish the characters and how they operate on a small island town called Crockett Island is necessary. There’s also enough intrigue in the first couple of episodes to tide us over, but when the mystery of what’s going on in Crockett comes to a breaking point by episode four, it’s a disturbing and fascinating descent into chaos.
Riley Flynn (Zach Gilford) returns to Crockett Island as the prodigal son after four years in prison, haunted by his past and unsure how to move on with his life when he’s right back where he never wanted to be. The arrival of a new priest brings Riley an unexpected chance to reconnect with his neighbors, and perhaps make a difference. This new priest, Father Paul Hill (Hamish Linklater), also brings with him miracles of an untold nature, and the truth behind them will bring the town to its knees.
Best known for his role as QB 1 in Friday Night Lights, Zach Gilford is in top form as Riley. That same sweetness found in Matt Saracen exists in Riley, if a bit muted after a drunk driving accident kills the girl he hit. Gilford plays it close to the chest but in Riley’s best moments, Gilford lets the anger and frustration Riley feels break free to call out the injustices of the world and the role organized religion plays in it. Up against a charismatic Linklater as Father Paul, who delivers sermons and philosophy with gumption, the two make for engaging scene partners, delivering some of the best moments of the show.
The tension created in seven episodes is palpable, especially amongst the townsfolk. A lot of the issues derive from Bev Keene (Samantha Sloyan), a highly religious woman who preaches to anyone who will listen, and wholeheartedly believes God is on her side. She hates, and she welcomes everyone else into her hatred. Often, the monster in the dark is not the real horror, but rather the humans who ultimately decide to interfere with something they should have left alone. Midnight Mass thrives when it touches on themes of interpretation and deliberation—bible verses and sermons are taken at face value, while the question—”what happens after we die?”—turns into a beautiful rumination on the soul and everything that encompasses a person.
This wonderful juxtaposition is present throughout the series; Flanagan’s versatility in transforming the scary into the profound is remarkable. Long monologues take us inside these intricate ideas, each delivered with grace and commitment by Gilford, Kate Siegel as Erin, a teacher and former girlfriend of Riley’s, Linklater, and Rahul Kohli, in particular. Kohli, who plays Sheriff Hassan, is another highlight. Facing religious discrimination as a Muslim surrounded by Christians, Kohli’s delivery of Hassan’s backstory is powerful. Its placement in the series comes at an odd time compared to other monologues that seemingly happen organically, but it’s a welcome dive into a character that comes a bit too late. Still, the information revealed poises Sheriff Hassan as a perfect deterrent to the ridiculous events happening in Crockett. These monologues avoid the tedious nature of exposition through the performances of each actor, inviting us into the very soul of who these characters are.
The rest of the cast is rounded out by past Flanagan actors: Annabeth Gish is Dr. Sarah Gunning, stuck on the island in order to take care of her dying mother; Henry Thomas as Ed Flynn, Riley’s father, disappointed in his son’s lot in life; and Robert Longstreet as Joe Collie, the local drunk (Longstreet has a particularly moving scene with Annarah Cymone, who plays the Mayor’s daughter Leeza). These characters all have flaws, but the humanity imbued into each one by their actor really emphasizes the tragedy that follows. They may represent humanity’s bloodthirst for violence, but there exist moments of pure empathy and regret expressed by each. Even Bev has her moment, ugly and pathetic though it may be.
Like with past Mike Flanagan projects, the horror unravels at a steady pace. A jump scare here and there gets the heart rate up until the meat of the issues make themselves clear. The revelation of what’s going on in Crockett is a surprising treat, a perfect moment of bait-and-switch and gasp-worthy fun. There’s a frustrating restraint in acknowledging what exactly it is, but that restraint works well with weaving together the strands of the supernatural and the religious until it’s impossible to separate the two.
Riveting, thoughtful, and cool, Midnight Mass knows exactly when to give up the monster, and understands there’s always more to it after that. It also lends itself to multiple watches, as the world is dense with metaphor and deeper meanings, hidden layers underneath the passages of belief, saying the truth is a lot stranger than we thought.