Why ‘Midnight Mass’ Didn’t Reach Its Full, Ripe Potential (Yet)

Spiritual thriller takes its cues from Stephen King for better and definitely worse

Mike Flanagan’s “Midnight Mass” on Netflix Is a missed opportunity, unless Flanagan seriously reckons with the ideas he’s stirred so far for a second season.

Flanagan demonstrates he is in great command of the syntax and grammar of his supernatural content, but he shies away from its deeper meaning.

This bodes ill for a series that begins with such promising material. One hopes the creator comes to terms with his own fears and rights his ship. His characters (and actors) deserve that—even if his plot, so far, doesn’t.

“Midnight Mass,” as articulated, is a “patient with Covid” in ICU dying of other conditions.

The Netflix show opens on a remote island that lost a respected Catholic priest to dementia. He’s replaced by a younger man (Hamish Linklater) who says that he is there temporarily.

At the same time, strange things begin to happen and an evil presence is noticed by the some of the island’s inhabitants. Others experience what are accounted by some as “miracles.”

  • A woman sheds her own dementia symptoms and becomes younger.
  • A young girl, paralyzed by a gun shot wound in the spine, starts walking again.

The towns people believe that “old faerie tales,” as I say, “after all, are true.”

Of course, things are more sinister than anyone wants to believe and matters quickly grow worse.

In a recent interview on Geek Ed with co-producer Trevor Macy, Flanagan discusses his influences for “Midnight Mass,” primarily horror maestro Stephen King.

Flanagan positively mentions King’s “Salem’s Lot” and “Storm of the Century,” and anyone familiar with those stories will recognize their influences in Flanagan’s work here. Flanagan also throws in “Needful Things” as an afterthought.

It’s COVID-era paranoia—set on a remote island and which introduces a virus that portends to save us.

RELATED: Why ‘Gerald’s Game’ Lacks Stephen King-Sized Scares

None of this ought to be surprising for fans of King’s fiction, which specializes in reducing people to hopeful minions in a universe which does not have humanity’s best interests at heart.

In fact, King’s meanness is not quite evident in Flanagan’s work here. Flanagan’s many extended monologues give characters depth and psychological history, at once off-putting and endearing.

The story never mocks the belief that humans might prevail against the great evil over and against which it is ever competing but will always lose, which is King’s point. Instead, it attempts to establish that Flanagan’s characters mean something, even if they face annihilation.

Making Midnight Mass | Netflix

In another creator’s hands, the great contest is to illustrate that human striving has meaning precisely because human meaning is, by its nature, good.

But King doesn’t appear to like human beings if his text is any indication. Flanagan, by contrast, can’t commit to that level of cynicism.

On one hand, “Midnight Mass” suggests the main character’s commitment to his own failure in bringing a contagion to an isolated community. On the other hand, Flanagan attempts to redeem the evil characters to suggest the innate goodness of humanity without offering a believable foundation for their own changes in that choice.

At the end, we simply cannot believe those changes because they have not been provided for for those characters—though, in a couple of cases, Flanagan’s narrative turns are brilliant and very satisfying.

In “Midnight Mass,” like all of King’s works, the characters often get crushed. Unlike King, Flanagan likes them at the same time—and this is a problem. They are sacrificed to the exigencies of a theme they themselves do not seem to support.

This may be his way of saying that the world does not mean what you think it means – and we may say, “Okay, fair enough.”

In King’s fiction, the senseless evil—never completely explained but ever present—will prevail because the human need for meaning is a fever dream of absurdity. Whatever suffering ensues as a result of the pursuit of “goodness” (King’s quote marks, not mine) is futile.

But, in Flanagan’s “Midnight Mass,” while the world remains senseless, the people (almost uniformly) remain good. Not all of them, but most. Because it reveals an illogical reversal of the relation between good and evil that undermines Flanagan’s original conception.

A Taste for Blood | The Angel of Midnight Mass | Netflix

This is not to say that the performances are less than exceptional. Linklater is especially effective in his role as the enigmatic priest who comes to replace the mysteriously disappeared priest, Father Pruitt.

Excellent also are Zach Gifford as Riley, Rahul Kohli as the Muslim Sheriff on the island, Samantha Sloyan as Bev Keane, and Kate Siegel as the island’s schoolteacher and Riley’s onetime sweetheart.

The show’s fictional Crockett Island, located 30 miles from nowhere off the coast of Vancouver, is populated by locals who call it the “Crock-Pot.” They share a humble recognition of its removal from the hustle and bustle world on the continent—to which they go for supplies from time to time.

They are, however, somewhat like the Puritans of old, content with living a simplified life that is deliberately separated from their citified cousins in the “real” world.

There is legitimate tension there at the character and cultural levels. Of course, those who settled on the island are at odds with the younger generation who wish for more excitement.

Such tension remains under-developed and unresolved (not necessarily a sin), but the series ends in a teasing way that suggests fodder for further exploration.

The problem with the series, however, is the depth of care Flanagan has for the characters is betrayed by his own story.

The problem with philosophy itself—every philosophy—is that it insists upon being totalizing. And Flanagan is interested in philosophical and even theological ideas. But philosophies must answer every question.

This is the difference between philosophy and religion. Forget the ritual for a minute and note that religion is comfortable with the one thing a philosopher cannot abide: mystery.

Flanagan needs to reckon with mystery as he goes forward because it offers him riches in fiction he currently denies his story.

Nic Pizzolatto allowed himself (especially in Season 1 of “True Detective”) the possibility of mystery as a force in a universe bigger than the individual’s ability to comprehend or invent. That’s a kind of humility. Flanagan’s maturity might be graded on that curve.

He’s got the tone and the story, but he cannot commit to the real result. He should do that—because then “Midnight Mass” could not only be good but important and controversial.

Aye, there’s the rub.

Jacques Derrida became quiet at the end of his career. He posited that language itself, in a way, was sacramental. When one writes they write to an ideal reader who does not yet exist. As a result, writing is an act of hope.

PHILOSOPHY: Jacques Derrida

A hope that throws itself into a future that it wants to create, a future that cannot be realized unless some unknown reader finds the message and reads and understands it and thereby creates a future (which becomes a present) that cannot exist unless that connection is realized.

It is for this that some called Derrida’s conception the “philosophy of hesitation.”

I think Derrida paused at the end because he realized the implication of what he was saying about reality. That language itself, as St. Augustine had already described in his rumination on time, is sacramental in the Catholic sense: that it is a sign that effects that which it signifies.

Every defilement of the real meaning of human being is an overturning of this understanding of the sacramental reality of human existence.

Flanagan’s story goes right up to that line in “Midnight Mass” only to turn away from goodness and redemption. To the point that his own story betrays and under-serves the characters he has created, and he seems to so love.

He’s like an alcoholic father that, in the end, chooses whiskey instead of his children—but not after, cruelly, expressing that he loves them.

My question: Does he do so because he agrees with King? I.E. That his ideas themselves must be favored over the meanings to which they actually point?

Or does he do so because he fears, like King, that if he pursues it, it will lead him down paths HE fears to go? That is, does Flanagan fail because he fears that if he commits to where his material is leading him truly, he might have to change his mind?

Gregory Borse teaches film appreciation, history & development, philosophy, literary theory and a variety of literatures on a small campus in a large university system in the South. His short story “Joyellen” was selected as an online exclusive for West Trade Review’s Summer 2021 issue. He has published or presented in the past on Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” Stephen Frear’s “The Grifters” and seminal horror films ranging from “Nosferatu” to “Halloween,” “The Silence of the Lambs” and “The Strangers,” among others.

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