When it comes to horror television, I think it’s safe to say that Mike Flanagan has cornered the recent Netflix market with five fantastic series on the streamer. But with great influence comes great debates about which show of the five is the best. Ultimately, that honor should go to Midnight Mass, Flanagan’s 2021 series about a small island that is rocked by a religious revival with deadly consequences.
Yes, The Haunting of Hill House, The Haunting of Bly Manor, The Midnight Club, and this year’s The Fall of the House of Usher are all great in their own right, particularly Hill House, but there is just something so special about Midnight Mass, which out of the Netflix TV mix is Flanagan’s only fully original work. While Hill House set a high bar as Flanagan’s freshman TV outing, Midnight Mass takes the elements fans have come to love in his work and elevates it to a level I have yet to see again.
While all of Flanagan’s other shows take inspiration from literary works and figures, with The Fall of the House of Usher most recently paying homage to Edgar Allan Poe, Midnight Mass takes a common horror element and transforms it into something mind-bending and new. Following a dwindling community on Crockett Island, Midnight Mass tells the story of Riley Flynn (Zach Gilford), a young man who is returning home after spending years in prison for killing a young woman in a drunk driving accident.
Upon his return, Riley finds himself to be an outsider among his judgemental islanders, and he isn’t the only outcast. Sheriff Hassan (Rahul Kohli) and Erin Greene (Kate Siegel) also find themselves on the outs in the predominantly Catholic community with him being a Muslim and her being a pregnant single young woman.
When a mysterious man who calls himself Father Paul Hill (Hamish Linklater) greets parishioners at St. Patrick’s Church for Sunday mass though, everything is changed. He ignites a renewed religious fervor in the absence of the church’s elderly Monsignor John Pruitt, delivering impassioned sermons and seemingly performing miracles, among which include paralyzed teen Leeza’s (Annarah Cymone) unparalleled recovery.
Each passing week the pews grow fuller and fuller with Crocket Island’s inhabitants, making believers out of naysayers, but not all are convinced of these miracles. As the mystery behind Father Paul unfolds, viewers learn he is Monsignor Pruitt, transformed after an encounter with what he calls “The Angel,” during a pilgrimage in Israel.
The Angel in question is a vampire though, which Father Paul brought back with him to Crockett Island, explaining an odd array of events like a mysterious figure walking around the island in Monsignor’s jacket and hat, as well as a beach filled with blood-drained stray cats after a major storm. It also explains the seemingly miraculous occurrences, most notably evident in the de-aging of Dr. Sarah Gunning’s (Annabeth Gish) mother, Mildred (Alexandra Essoe) who begins the series as an elderly woman in the throes of dementia and finds her younger and fitter than ever. The truth is that The Angel has been draining its own blood into the Sacramental wine for the consumption of St. Patrick’s parishioners, changing them in unimaginable ways.
As with most secrets, they can’t stay hidden for long, and what begins as a well-intentioned, but misguided effort to bring positivity to the island, turns into something hideous and devastating. Linklater’s performance is so riveting and layered that you can’t help but feel the conviction with which he speaks to the churchgoers. His actions juxtapose these good intentions though as he’s changed by The Angel’s blood, making him a remorseless killer under the guise that The Angel’s miracle will save Crockett’s people.
Feeding the flames is Bev Keane (Samantha Sloyan) who is without a doubt Flanagan’s best villain to date. A bigot and a schemer, she forces her religion upon all she encounters, and when she learns the truth about Father Paul, she uses that unyielding fanaticism to explain away her bad deeds, past and present. She helps Father Paul on his mission, but when even he realizes the errors of his ways, Bev does not relent, even playing god in when it comes to the fates of others.
She’s a perfect embodiment of the dangers of religious radicalization, which is an overarching theme in this thought-provoking series. While Father Paul represents this as well, his ability to step back and see the bigger picture proves that not all who are radicalized in anything are beyond repair, but the lesson or hope is that you’ll come to this realization before it’s too late, unlike Father Paul.
Riley, Erin, and Sheriff Hassan also symbolize aspects of society that are often overlooked or ostracized, with Riley representing addicts and incarcerated people, Erin representing women’s health, and Sheriff Hassan as the receiving end of Islamaphobia. Ultimately, it’s these figures who are responsible for taking action to prevent Father Paul’s plans from following through.
The way Flanagan builds this mystery and pays it off is both satisfying and completely mesmerizing because it keeps you thinking long after the credits roll. And don’t get me started on the monologues! Flanagan’s shows are always great at delivering enticing dialogue, but Siegel really gets to shine alongside Gilford when delivering minutes-long monologues about life and death.
Midnight Mass feels like a literary tale that has come to life onscreen, and in some ways, it is, as Flanagan initially came up with the concept as a novel before transforming it into a film script, and later this series. The title appears as far back as 2016 in Flanagan’s film Hush, in which Midnight Mass is a best-selling book by the character Maddie Young (also played by Siegel).
While Flanagan has leaned on literary references for his other shows, Midnight Mass stands as an original creation, which is still his best. As horrible as some of the characters are, one thing Midnight Mass gets us to do is care about its characters, no matter their flaws. Even Father Paul has something redeemable deep down as a man who is ultimately desperate to keep a family he never had the courage to claim, together.
As for Bev and The Angel? They’re still bad, but doesn’t every horror story need a monster or two? If you’ve yet to tune into this Flanaverse title, do yourself a favor and binge his best Netflix show to date, because being a Flanagan fanatic is far less dangerous than being a fanatic on Crockett Island.
Midnight Mass, Streaming now, Netflix