Finished watching Mike Flanagan's Midnight Mass last night and was just blown away. Over the course of 7 hour long episodes, Flanagan and his team have crafted one of the most deeply affecting and profound shows of recent years. And by that I don't simply mean 'horror' TV shows. The limited series was a real slow burner, with much of the dialogue devoted to discussions on the nature of addiction and death, faith and religious experience. The scenes between Riley (Zach Gilford) and Father Paul (Hamish Linklater), and between Riley and Erin (Kate Siegel), were beautifully scripted, conveying a real sense of ordinary, flawed men and women grappling with their beliefs, trying to make sense of a God whose actions seem, at times, so cruel and arbitrary. After 4 years, Riley is still consumed by guilt for having killed a girl while drunk driving; Erin has her own share of self-recrimination after a failed (and abusive) marriage, and flirtations with drugs and a lifestyle at odds with her religious ubringing. Father Paul too harbours secrets that carry a burden of shame.
Without resorting to unnecessary flashbacks, Flanagan, through the carefully crafted interactions between the island's inhabitants, allows us to build up a picture of their lives and the history between them. The loves and betrayals, the jealousies and lies, the venality and pride, that can undermine and corrupt even the most seemingly devout of communities .This was refreshing, when so much contemporary television relies on inserting great wodges of backstory into the narrative in order to spell things out for us dimwitted viewers. Flanagan instead pays us the compliment of accepting that we just might be willing to fill in the gaps for ourselves.
I can't recall another show since the excellent The Leftovers, which has explored the reality of grief to such an extent. Though largely implicit, Riley and Erin's relationship, replete with an unbearable sense of loss and of regret at missed opportunities and time lost, is as intensely moving as that between Kevin and Norah in Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta's visionary SF series.
Although some horror fans may be deterred by the deliberate pacing and the religious dialogue, these are integral to the story, helping foment a sense of dread that makes the plot payoffs all the more powerful, particularly the climaxes to episodes 4 and 5. There's plenty of the more visceral stuff in the later episodes to satisfy hardcore horror fans, but the scenes that will linger longest in the memory, are those quieter ones, where characters are questioning their faith and finding unexpected and disturbing answers.
There comes a point in many shows where the story's inherent logic indicates where and how it might resolve itself. Yet how many times have we seen writers and producers, perhaps because of narrative conventions or fear of alienating viewers, retreat from the implications of their own work and resort to a 'happy' if deeply unsatifying ending? Flanagan holds no truck with such conventions, instead having the courage to allow the story to play out according to its own imperative. It might be downbeat, even bleak, but the ending to Midnight Mass strikes precisely the right emotional chord, leaving us to ponder the implications of what we have just witnessed for religion in general and the catholic church in particular.
It was always going to be a big ask for Flanagan to top his adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House, but with Midnight Mass, that's precisely what he has done. It stands alongside The Exorcist and Rosemary's Baby as among the very best works of religious horror. Watch it now on Netflix.