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Mike Flanagan Swings for the Heavens

Combining horror with profound questions about spirituality, ‘Midnight Mass’ is one of the best shows of the year

Netflix/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Over the past five years, Mike Flanagan has developed a reputation as one of horror’s most industrious auteurs through a prolific output defined by successful literary adaptations. Credit where it’s due, he hasn’t made it easy on himself: Between the two Stephen King novels he’s turned into films, one spent the majority of its running time with a woman handcuffed to a bed (Gerald’s Game), and the other was a sequel to The Shining that had to appease fans and align with Stanley Kubrick’s vision (Doctor Sleep). Despite those obstacles, both movies are among the best entries in the ever-growing cottage industry of King adaptations—Flanagan even got the stamp of approval from the king of horror himself, who wants the filmmaker to adapt more of his work. Meanwhile, Flanagan’s small-screen reimaginings of The Haunting of Hill House and The Turn of the Screw (rebranded under the Haunting banner as Bly Manor) are two of Netflix’s most acclaimed genre efforts. None other than Quentin Tarantino said Hill House is his favorite Netflix series.

But now that Flanagan has built considerable goodwill with this string of well-liked literary adaptations, he’s finally been given the green light to pursue an original, and long-gestating, passion project. (A passion project that, it’s worth noting, he’s teased with Easter eggs in his work for years.)

That passion project is Midnight Mass, a seven-episode Netflix miniseries that explores religion and faith with Flanagan’s usual trademarks, prioritizing characters and emotions over cheap scares and shock value. It’s the type of show that will sooner make you teary-eyed over a discussion about the afterlife than jump off your couch from something going bump in the night. But as long as expectations are in check, the series’ long spells without scares are by no means a bad thing. Stick through a slow opening, and Midnight Mass unfurls into a nightmare of apocalyptic proportions on the way to becoming the new benchmark for Flanagan’s stellar body of work—and one of the best shows of the year.

Locations have been so essential in Flanagan’s projects—Hill House and Bly Manor are literally named after theirs—that it’s only fitting Midnight Mass’s eerie atmosphere rests on its own. Almost the entire series takes place on Crockett Island, a fictional hamlet 30 miles off the coast of New England with dwindling economic prospects. The island’s main source of income, fishing, has been decimated by a coastal oil spill that taints the waters. With just 127 residents, a number that’s only getting smaller as better opportunities beckon elsewhere, Crockett and its predominantly Catholic population are desperately searching for a little hope. Enter the mysterious Father Paul (played by Hamish Linklater), who shows up after the island’s elder monsignor develops symptoms of dementia on a sabbatical to the Holy Land. Or so Father Paul claims.

The priest’s arrival coincides with the sudden emergence of strange—one might even say biblical—phenomena on the island. Some of the events, like a bunch of dead cats strewn on the shoreline after a huge storm, are harrowing; others, like a girl who was paralyzed from the waist down suddenly walking on her own in the middle of a church service, give the impression of a miracle bestowed upon Crockett’s devout inhabitants. The possibility of a divine power working through Father Paul reinvigorates the island’s faith: It doesn’t take long before most of Crockett’s residents are attending his sermons, hoping for a miracle of their own.

But Father Paul isn’t the only newcomer to the island. He’s joined by two former residents looking for a fresh start: Riley (Zach Gilford), who became a start-up mogul before spending four years in prison for killing a teenager in a drunk driving accident, and Erin (Kate Siegel), who escapes an abusive relationship and takes over her late mother’s teaching position at the island’s school while eight months pregnant. (As it so happens, Riley and Erin also used to be high school sweethearts.) Along with the village’s doctor, Sarah (Annabeth Gish), and sheriff, Hassan (Rahul Kohli), these characters bring a more clear-eyed perspective to the bizarre happenings on Crockett—their reactions are filtered through the prisms of atheism, science, and, in Hassan’s case, Islam, which in some corners of the island is demonized. As they discover, what’s terrifying is that Crockett’s biggest appeal, its isolation, can also make it hard to escape if something is actually wrong.

A lesser series might paint the many residents enraptured by Father Paul with a broad brush—ignorant sheeple giving themselves over to something that’s too good to be true. But while some of Father Paul’s parishioners do embrace fanaticism to a loathsome degree, Midnight Mass also makes a humane argument for the comforts of renewed faith in the face of economic and personal hardship. (Flanagan, for his part, wrote in a letter to critics that the series is informed by his own experience as an altar boy and being three years sober.) It doesn’t matter if you’re Catholic, Muslim, or atheist: It’s about what you put out into the world through that belief system, good or bad.

To that end, Father Paul isn’t an antagonist so much as the catalyst for the show’s mysterious plot. Whether it’s through miraculous “healing” or going out of his way to lead Riley’s AA meetings by starting a chapter on the island, his compassion is genuine. Even when the show, in the third episode, reveals the real motivation behind his appearance, it comes with well-meaning—albeit extremely misguided—intentions. In fact, the only true villain of the show’s ensemble is Bev Keane (Samantha Sloyan), a local zealot full of self-righteousness and bigotry. Perhaps the most shocking aspect of the character is that she restrains herself from calling Hassan a “terrorist” until the finale.

While Midnight Mass does, slowly, begin to embrace genre conventions—dabbling in old-school horror that suits the show’s religious themes and the more supernatural elements of the Bible—it works because the series takes so much time to make the island’s community feel lived-in. (With how much he’s dabbled in the works of Stephen King, it seems Flanagan has picked up some of the author’s penchant for world-building.) Every character in the sprawling ensemble gets their time in the spotlight—from Hassan explaining how working as a Muslim police officer after 9/11 and the loss of his wife compelled him to uproot his life to the middle of nowhere, to Riley reckoning with his guilt over killing someone and whether he deserves a second chance. (This being a horror series, every night before drifting to sleep, Riley sees the teenage girl he killed, splintered with flashing shards of glass that reflect off the red and blue lights of police sirens, staring right into his soul.)

That the characters mainly express themselves with lengthy monologues might put off some viewers, especially when so many of the conversations circle the same broad subjects of faith, addiction, and forgiveness. (These discussions certainly play a part in all but one of the show’s episodes clocking in at over an hour.) But if Midnight Mass weren’t so emotionally invested in its wounded characters, well, then it wouldn’t be a Mike Flanagan joint. The humanity of Flanagan’s work is always evident—Doctor Sleep, after all, begins with a grown-up Danny Torrance falling prey to the same vices as his father before seeking redemption. In Flanagan’s hands, horror unlocks the pain, doubt, and, ultimately, hope that is inherent to the human experience.

It might come at the expense of more traditional frights, but Midnight Mass’s slow, character-driven approach to a religious community trying to explain the unexplainable achieves an emotional resonance that puts the series more in a category with The Leftovers than American Horror Story. But while it doesn’t reach the highs of Damon Lindelof’s HBO drama—few shows do—Midnight Mass effectively captures both the joy and desperation that comes with wanting to believe in a higher power, and in being chosen for something greater than ourselves. Because if we aren’t, or if something less benevolent is hearing our prayers, what could be scarier than that?