I don’t usually bother with series anymore; I work, I socialize, I love games, movies, books, I write and try to learn how to be a better writer, and I read. At some point, I had to accept that I can’t keep up with series anymore because they are a large commitment, which I usually don’t want to make because I could watch a handful of movies in the span of a season. There are bound to be exceptions though; Squid Game is going to be an exception, but there was one earlier from Netflix that I just finished.
Regardless of the medium, I’m not going to miss out on Mike Flanagan’s latest offering as he is one of my favorite directors working today and without a doubt the best horror director, well and truly on his way to achieving legend status in the industry. So, when his passion project that he’s been pitching for ages finally gets released, I am not going to pass up the opportunity to see what he describes as “deeply personal”. Created, written, directed, and produced by Mike Flanagan, Midnight Mass stars Kate Siegel, Zach Gilford, Samantha Sloyan, and Hamish Linklater amongst others as residents of the small island community of Crockett that have to deal with some strange phenomena and the return of a disgraced resident alongside a charismatic new priest to replace the aging one prior.
A lot of the discussion I’ve seen surrounding the series has been about preventing spoilers for people who haven’t seen it yet, and while I completely agree on this for every entertainment property, I also don’t think the series’ strongest point are the plot points or the surprise of them; I think talking about Midnight Mass is one of those conversations that is has as much to do with the person experiencing it and discussing it as it has to do with the writing or the quality of the show. This is a series that wants to create questions and doubts, not only of a religious nature, but also of a humane one; how to deal with grief or the inevitability of death; how does one come to terms with life’s many mysteries or the things they simply can’t explain. That is what Midnight Mass is all about and it is a heck of an emotional ride to experience; as time passes, I don’t think Midnight Mass will be my favorite work of Flanagan, but it will certainly be the one I enjoy discussing the most.
That will come down to the timeless nature of the questions and themes raised, but first I want to praise the effort and talent on display. Without a doubt, Midnight Mass has the best performances Flanagan has gotten out of actors; in fact, each actor portraying the main characters can (and should) demand a whole examination of their performances. I’m going to highlight my personal favorite of the show Samantha Sloyan as Bev Keane. Sloyan’s performance, at first, seemed cliché, considering what type of role her character seemed to have and the clear direction she was heading in, but as the episodes kept going, I appreciated the decisions she made. Without getting into spoilers, her character is not a likeable one and Sloyan’s portrayal never allowed for any sympathy towards her, but in the final few episodes that’s revealed to be the brilliance of her acting; she is who she is for specific reasons and those reasons hit hard when her facade and confidence start being seriously tested. Those details that allow the audience to ponder her true feelings and her acting in the final episode make Bev Keane into a memorable, well-rounded character that has one of the most memorable scenes of the series.
There’s quite a few of those memorable scenes in the series and a lot of the praise should go to the crew behind the camera as well. Longtime collaborators of Flanagan contribute their excellence once again, including the Newton brothers for music composition and Michael Fimognari for the cinematography, delivering a horror knockout; the brothers set up the scene with dreaded chords and Fimognari creates visually impactful and gorgeous scenes that stick with you and are disturbing. Furthermore, the whole production effort was stellar; the sets, the clothes, the make-up, it all works as intended and it all adds to the experience being as good as it ended up being.
It should be noted though that if you expect a thrilling, continuously scary experience, Midnight Mass will disappoint. That’s not to say it doesn’t have any scares or that the subjective “dread” feeling isn’t there, but people expecting to have stains in their pants after finishing the show will be disappointed. Midnight Mass is one of those shows that knows the best horror experience it can provide is by getting you to engage with the questions and themes it raises, by emerging you into that world with those characters and not by strategically planting scares every few minutes to serve the audience’s thirst for a good scare. Like all of Flanagan’s work, it’s a drama that has outstanding elements of horror when it most benefits the story and the dramatic pacing. In that sense, Midnight Mass is an undeniable success. Having not seen too many series in the past few years, I had forgotten that feeling good shows create at the end of a good episode – that understanding that you should turn off the TV and go to sleep like a responsible adult, yet you know that you can’t do that you have to see what happens next. A lot of that binge itching is down to Flanagan’s stellar work; he sets up all these little details and presents threads that you know will lead to something interesting at the end and you want to get to that point as quickly as possible. In terms of twists and surprises, I found Midnight Mass to be pretty tame, but in terms of subversions and satisfying conclusions to characters and their stories, I found Midnight Mass to be excellent.
That leads me to the standout feature of Midnight Mass and what I think is its biggest drawback. The writing is excellent and Flanagan saying it’s a “deeply personal work” can be clearly felt; there’s so much energy, research, and thoughtfulness put into every line of dialogue and every scene that it is engrossing and captivating. You start to question these ideas and doubting alongside the characters or even becoming more resilient in some beliefs. You become the protagonist of the series, simply because the way you interpret themes of belief, grief and the nature of death, coping with guilt and remorse; as an atheist myself, my experience was not one of questioning my religious belief but one of understanding and sympathizing with individuals whose religious beliefs are as strong and definitive as mine. As someone who loves studying existentialism and has tried to come to terms with mine (and my loved ones) finite mortality, my experience was not one of dread for my own limited time on earth but one of dread for what happens when the people I love are gone, how does one deal with that and the guilt we feel for things unsaid or actions not taken. This is why, in my opinion, the protagonist of the story are these themes; the characters are there to lend perspective, ideas, dramatizations of opinions and human stories. Your own experiences and opinions will shape how you experience the show and that is something that is remarkable and worthwhile. It’s a shame then that a lot of these are delivered through overtly long monologues by various characters. While those sequences are expertly acted, directed, and written they do become grading after a while; some will point at a few of them and call them preachy, but I found them to be simply disappointing. I do think that for a few of them, there was a more creative way to pass that information and had there been just a few memorable monologues rather than a lot of memorable monologues, I think Midnight Mass would be even more engaging than it already is. Furthermore, some of the visual effects look dated and cheap, which is a real shame as they contrast the brilliant production value of the rest of the show.
My articles have always tried to walk the fine line between reviews and critiques; unless they are the rare exception of being only one of the two, I want people to be able to tell whether their time and monetary investment will pay off (review) and if it is worthwhile compared to other similar stuff or what it does well and badly (critique). Midnight Mass, on both levels, is an overwhelming success. There is room for improvement and there are going to be people that will dislike the direction and decisions made, but that is part of the charm for entertainment, especially for Flanagan’s projects. I feel like he aims for finding that perfect balance of delivering something that is fun and scary and entertaining, but also deep and challenging and rewarding for those wanting to take the time and analyze it. He’s done better work (as a series I still find Hill House a better offering), but I don’t think he’s done something that is as interesting to dissect and engage with as Midnight Mass…yet.