“Do you not think that there are things which you cannot understand, and yet which are; that some people see things that others cannot? … Ah, it is the fault of our science that it wants to explain all; and if it explain not, then it says there is nothing to explain.”
— Bram Stoker, “Dracula”
“Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.”
— Mark 9:24
The exact midpoint of Midnight Mass comes halfway through its fourth episode and spends about eight and a half minutes on just two shots. Riley Flynn (Zach Gilford) and Erin Greene (Kate Siegel) are sitting in Erin’s house on Crockett Island, the small fishing community off the Atlantic coast where they both grew up. Riley has recently returned to Crockett Island on parole after spending four years in prison for killing a young woman while driving drunk, and he and Erin have spoken already about the role reversals that have settled on them in adulthood: he was an altar boy and she was the wild child, but now she’s the devoted attender of mass and he’s come out of prison an atheist. For all this and several other reasons, he and Erin find themselves wrestling that night with the weight of the understanding of mortality that begins to settle on you in your late 30s.
Erin asks Riley what he thinks happens to a person after death, and for a little over four minutes, he tells her the best he’s been able to come up with: your body shuts down one organ and cell at a time, and then your brain releases a final flood of dream chemicals that send you into the blackness on a wave of peace, erasing all pain and shame and disappointment, after which your body is broken down to feed the world around it. It’s a moving, haunted monologue, by turns gentle and angry and frustrated and hopeful. Gilford delivers it with the sense of resilience and questioning, of yearning, that made him the standout in Friday Night Lights, and the filmmaking expertly supports every moment—the gentle beginning of the camera push in around the two-minute mark, the mournful piano plucking out an old hymn one note and chord at a time, everything designed to visually and aurally connect the viewer to this moment. It’s one of those things that people wind up talking about in cliches like “quiet tour de force” because it careens into the side of you so suddenly that you don’t even know it’s happening.
Then it’s Erin’s turn to answer the same question. Although Riley has left behind the Catholic faith they grew up with, Erin hasn’t, and her response is spiritual where Riley’s was physical. She imagines a place with everyone returned to the age they were in their truest selves, surrounded by the family that has gone before. She tears up, but doesn’t cry, when she thinks about seeing her father, and her grandmother, and all the other parts of her that aren’t around anymore. “That’s what we mean when we say heaven,” she says. “You are loved, and you aren’t alone. That is God.” Just like with Riley’s explanation of the afterlife, this entire monologue (again a little over four minutes) is delicately handled, with the camera moving in to gradually reframe Erin so subtly that it’s almost unnoticeable, paired with the same simple music. The entire sequence is beautiful and dream-like, but in the way that dreams allow you to feel and understand things at levels deeper and higher than words can express. It’s the moment these two characters truly connect on a level that could be called the soul.
This is as close as I can likely get to describing what makes Midnight Mass so special, and every subsequent attempt throughout this piece will basically be another run at the windmill. Creator and director Mike Flanagan (who also wrote each episode and is listed as the sole writer for the first and last installments) has poured every ounce of himself into this, and the result is a story that marshals every one of his talents—filmmaking, dialogue, suspense, drama, horror, character, structure, emotion—and carves something beautiful and frightening out of the stone of his own life.
But all that comes later. What sets the story of Midnight Mass in motion is the second of two arrivals on the island: in addition to Riley, there’s Father Paul Hill (Hamish Linklater), who’s been dispatched by the diocese to oversee the tiny St. Patrick’s Church as a temporary replacement for their regular leader, the elderly Monsignor Pruitt, who was off on sabbatical to the Holy Land but became sick and is recuperating on the mainland. Heading to the rectory upon arrival, Father Paul hauls in a large, potentially human-sized trunk that he shoves into a corner of his main room. He taps his hand twice on the lid, and two knocks return from inside.
To all appearances, though, Father Paul is young and kind, radiating a compassionate warmth, and Flanagan spends about 10 percent of the first episode just on the church service where Father Paul introduces himself to the small congregation, offers his services, and performs the communion. Part of this is because Flanagan is taking his time setting up what will be one of the story’s core dynamics, charting the relationship between Father Paul and the parishioners as the church grows under his presence. But part of it is also because Flanagan, more than maybe any other working filmmaker, seems to have a dedication to portraying complicated, intellectual dialogues that force the characters to examine their beliefs on screen and grow in the moment. The secular version of this would be therapy, group counseling, or a meeting of recovering addicts. And that’s where Flanagan goes next.
Part of Riley’s parole condition is that he attends AA meetings. To save him the lengthy ferry trip, Father Paul offers to start a chapter there on the island, in the rec center. It’s just the two of them to start, and their first meeting is another lengthy scene in which Flanagan lets these characters really breathe, pushing and pulling each other, actually exploring their feelings in a way that simultaneously reveals things about them while also pushing the plot forward by way of the things they decide to do, say, or confess. And what makes it such good filmmaking is that Flanagan doesn’t for a moment rest on his comfort with or confidence in the material, but uses dynamic changes in framing, lighting, and body language to create a visually compelling sequence.
That first meeting is just Riley and Father Paul talking about guilt and responsibility for eight solid minutes of screen time in a 60-minute episode, but it’s handled beautifully: the men sit facing each other in cheap folding chairs, and we get alternating over-the-shoulder shots of their perspectives as the conversation warms up, shifting to profile shots that accentuate the opposition in their views as Riley gets defensive, back to a wide shot of both of them alone in the rec center, then returns to those alternating almost-head-on views that now find each man down in the corner of the frame, adrift, working to cut through the vines that are growing up at their feet. There’s no visual resolution to the sequence—the last images are of Riley and Father Paul each looking past the camera toward each other, still trapped in their own ways—which is part and parcel of the beautiful way Flanagan handles all these moments. It’s not just about the story, or just about what could look good; it’s real filmmaking, the pure fusion of the two, a cold, thick draft of water after weeks in the desert.
Some of this is because Flanagan is just a good filmmaker, and this is not his first rodeo. But it’s also because he’s found a way to pour a fraction of the essence of himself into something, which is how all great art is made. Flanagan, whose father was in the Coast Guard, grew up as an altar boy at Our Lady Star of the Sea on Governors Island. He, too, left behind the faith he grew up in but held tightly to the examples of community and humanism he’d been given. And he, too, realized he was an alcoholic, finding sobriety in 2018. What comes through in his depictions of church and AA is not fealty or deference, but respect: a genuine understanding of the things that work for people to help them find their way in the darkness, and a consideration that there’s no one way out of that darkness, but many.
All of which might make this sound like the kind of straightforward (if well made) prestige drama that seems to come out every few weeks in the streaming era. But it’s not, or rather, it’s got the confidence to be more than that, and to be more than one thing at one time. This is a horror story with some genuinely terrifying, even haunting, moments; this is a vampire story where no one ever says the word “vampire”; this is a story about supernatural evil, death, and destruction at war with hope, peace, and forgiveness. But like all great genre stories, the genre is there in service of a tale that the viewer can relate to and see themselves in.
That’s because, again, Flanagan excels at matching his story to the medium. Midnight Mass runs seven episodes, and they’re actual episodes, each with a beginning, middle, and end. In stark contrast with the assembly-line streaming-era gruel that’s designed to be binged and is tonally pitched at the same level for a dozen hours, Midnight Mass has an actual ebb and flow. There’s an understanding and respect (there’s that word again) for what each hour of the story needs to do, which also lets Flanagan take the plot in unexpected directions. I won’t spoil them here, but I will say that it was refreshing—more than that, enriching—to watch a story that consistently defied expectations in where and when the turning points would happen, right down to who would live or die. Shows like these are called “limited series” these days, but the concept isn’t new. It’s a miniseries, and it’s been around for decades. Flanagan knows what kind of story he’s telling and what kind of product he’s making, and he nails every single moment because he seems to have a bone-deep understanding of the history and power of this specific format. (This is one of the many reasons his miniseries The Haunting of Hill House was spectacular.) This isn’t pabulum designed to build buzz or spin off into a dozen origin stories or do any of the exhausting things that televisual media seems to be required to do now. It’s its own thing, amazing and good, self-contained.
That sense of having nothing to lose, of putting everything on screen, comes through in the performances, too. Gilford is wonderful: uneasy with himself and the world around him, never quite able to sit still, always walking with a slight hunch, looking out from under his brow like he’s still in prison and treating everything in sight as a potential threat. It’s a hard thing, to be sad on screen but still be compelling, to be able to mourn in a way that still invites the viewer to bear witness, and he does it expertly.
I’ve been trying for a few weeks to define what Siegel does, and the nearest I can come is to say that she is a human manifestation of the Wall of Sound, emotion and presence coming through every part of her, using her entire body as an instrument in ways that few other actors do. You get the sense that when she’s talking in a scene, she’s not just aware of, say, what her hands are doing, but that she as her character is aware of what her hands are doing, and also her left leg, and her shoulder, and the light three feet away. It is not an accident that she was able to so deftly carry the movie Hush (co-written with Flanagan, who directed), in which she played a woman who could not speak and was often the only person on screen but who remained endlessly watchable. She’s the heartbeat of the story.
As Father Paul, Linklater is outstanding. His voice reaches a certain tenor when he preaches, a sustained note of hope and conveyance and worry, that’s a thousand times more interesting than any other filmed representation of any kind of religious leader or speaker in recent memory. Because Father Paul, of course, is not as he seems, but for the story to work, this hand can’t be tipped right away. There has to be an actual build, a sense of people falling so slowly into a trap that they don’t even realize it’s been sprung, and Linklater’s ease and rangy charm are perfect for the part.
And there are so many more: Rahul Kohli as Sheriff Hassan, whose role as the town’s ranking (and sole) law enforcement officer is complicated by the way many of the residents attempt to convert him out of his Muslim faith. Henry Thomas and Kristin Lehman as Riley’s parents, Ed and Annie, each dealing with the fallout from Riley’s actions in their own ways, trying to find out how to forgive him or forgive themselves. Samantha Sloyan as Bev Keane, zealous, prim, overbearing, untrustworthy, situated in St. Patrick’s as the right hand to Monsignor Pruitt and now Father Paul, whose allegiance to dogma is capable of leading her to terrible things. And on and on. Every character is given the gift of true humanity, both strength and weakness. The kindest are sometimes damnable; the cruelest, sympathetic.
“We have all forgotten what we really are. All that we call common sense and rationality and practicality and positivism only means that for certain dead levels of our life we forget that we have forgotten. All that we call spirit and art and ecstasy only means that for one awful instant we remember that we forget.”
G.K. Chesterton wrote that more than a century ago in Orthodoxy. An Anglican who later converted to Catholicism, Chesterton wasn’t trying to proselytize, only to chart his own personal journey from doubt to faith. In a way, that’s what Flanagan is doing with Midnight Mass, vampires and all. It’s a horror story, and a drama, and a love story, but it’s really about belief. To believe what’s right in front of you: the monster, the supernatural, the person, the consequences of your actions, the truth of your situation, the love you feel, the people you have; these things so often—maybe only—exist beyond words. There is so much heart and love and pain and trying here, so much of a person. There are many ways out of the darkness, and Flanagan’s made a story about how belief will deliver you from it. The path is wide enough for everyone who wishes to walk it.