Mike Flanagan, the critically acclaimed writer-director of films and TV shows, has created a riveting TV series with poignant themes in a narrative layered with symbolism and allegories
The story is set on a small maritime island called Crockett Island which is struggling to keep up with the changing socio-economic climate, whilst struggling with a dwindling population. The mundane lives of its inhabitants begin to change, with a series of unexplainable events after a young priest moves into their parish.
Midnight Mass is not essentially an authentic representation of a horror production, which audiences have become accustomed to over the decades. It is, in fact, a layered story, which uses horror as a conduit, rich in philosophical themes ranging from biblical allegories, philosophical conundrums on theism and atheism, life and death, alcoholism, religious fundamentalism, racism, and several others. The show is packed with symbolism from the very opening scene of the car crash involving the protagonist, Riley Flynn (Zach Gilford), where he kills a woman after driving under influence.
Mike Flanagan, the creator and showrunner, has earned a reputation as one of the finest storytellers after having helmed critically acclaimed projects such as The Haunting of Hill House, Gerald’s Game, and Doctor Sleep. But Midnight Mass might just be his magnum opus. Even though it takes time to build up to its main story, the pacing of the narrative is perfectly balanced to give breathing space and properly flesh out the setting and the characters. The series also relies on long monologues which could have been tedious to sit through, but the crisp screenplay and excellent performances by Hamish Linklater, Rahul Kohli, Zach Guilford, Samantha Sloyan, Annabeth Gish, and Kate Siegel, have helped turn into an engrossing watch.
Some of these long monologues are taken in a single shot, and would usually involve just two people walking down the street, reminiscent of the iconic episode from the anime Death Note, albeit without the same levels of tense moments and intensity. However, the monologues in Midnight Mass are a plot device to foreshadow events in the story layered with philosophical undertones. It also firmly establishes the characters and their roles in the narrative. Linklater as the young priest, Kohli as Sheriff Hassan, Guilford as Riley Flynn, and Sloyan as Bev Keane excel in their roles. Sloyan's portrayal as the conniving Bev Keane is eerily similar to Dolores Umbridge from the Harry Potter franchise, and her character is also one of the most well-written characters for television.
Flanagan has added several references to Stephen King novels and most significantly a nod to Bram Stoker’s Dracula. He has also added historical tales about science and medicine to juxtapose with the biblical references scattered across the narrative, primarily about death and resurrection. There is also a nod to the Mesopotamian legend of Gilgamesh and his search for eternal youth. Some nuanced dialogues work as an excellent critical analysis of religion itself, weighing in the pros and cons of having faith. Sheriff Hassan’s religious beliefs as a Muslim - which he believes helps him find inner peace, to Bev Keane’s blind faith in catholicism and irrational fundamentalism, and Riley Flynn’s atheism, the TV series opens up balanced debates on what it means to have faith. It also explores the ideas of cult leadership with subtle hints to the mass suicide event known as the Jonestown massacre.
The finale of the mini-series also explores the themes of individuality and what it means to be human as part of a larger collective. It also questions the responsibilities of civilians, especially during a pandemic, and the sacrifices a person is willing to make for the greater good.
Midnight Mass is a slow and methodical masterpiece that is a unique attempt at a horror story critiquing religion and exploring several social themes relevant to contemporary society.