If that sounds like a lot, well, it is, but rest assured there is also a monstrous element that I will not spoil, but does categorize Midnight Mass as, first and foremost, a horror show. That also makes discussing the plot a bit tricky, so here are the opening beats: Riley Flynn (Zach Gilford) returns in disgrace to his tiny isolated hometown of Crockett Island four years after a drunk driving accident took the life of a young woman and landed him in jail. Riley’s homecoming coincides with the arrival of Father Paul (Hamish Linklater), a charming young priest taking over for the town’s elderly parishioner. Father Paul’s fiery homilies stir a new religious zeal across the island, which only grows more intense as actual, tangible miracles start happening.
The fact that Midnight Mass constructs such a bingeable, multi-faceted mystery at its center is both blessing and curse. This show unfolds itself so slowly, all the way down to its visuals. Cinematographer Michael Fimognari—returning to work with Flanagan after The Haunting of Hill House and Doctor Sleep—paints an effective portrait of a sleepy town, Flanagan often just settling on the light blues and deep oranges of an ocean in the morning or the hazy greys of a seaside community at night. It’s unsettling in its stillness, capturing the claustrophobia—and the innate boredom—of living your life surrounded at all times by endless, beautiful nothing. It’s that same disquieting stillness that audiences will have to either get used to or give up on. Midnight Mass is not afraid to bring itself to a complete halt to settle on a single performance, to let a character meditate on everything from institutionalized racism to what happens in the millisecond before you die. Put another way, Midnight Mass is absolutely the kind of show in which a character will start their answer to a question with “do you want to know where I was on the morning of September 11th?” It’s the type of overly-purple screenwriting that should, in most cases, be frustrating, especially as the plot continues to roar along around it.
And yet. And yet! The majority of the time, what follows is so profoundly beautiful your frustrations fade away. You can’t help it. Flanagan—along with co-writers James Flanagan, Elan Gale, Dani Parker, and Jeff Howard—so earnestly craft these monologues, you don’t hear over-writing, you hear achingly human characters circling the vast truths of the universe and, because they are human, coming up short.
The cast, operating on another level top-to-bottom, helps in this regard more than words can say. Not a single performance rings false, not one character feels anything else than lived-in. As Father Paul, Linklater is the show’s driving force and its most vital presence; in lesser hands, a role this devoted to scripture could be a turn-off, but Linklater demands your attention, even in quiet moments, proving the show’s point about the razor-thin line between salvation and seduction. Kate Siegel, playing a Crockett Island native who also left home only to return with memories she regrets and a pregnancy she does not, is trusted with selling this show’s most flowery diversions; she has this wonderful way of making it look like the most complex material is something she just thought of, in that moment, and it’s a surprise to even herself. Truly, this review could have just been a list of cast members’ names followed by several exclamation points. It’s a show made up of Emmy reels. Samantha Sloyan creates one of the most compellingly hateable characters in recent memory, just fully committed to the stone-faced hypocrisy of the town’s most enthusiastic zealot; Robert Longstreet is downright heartbreaking as Crockett’s resident drunk, who drinks to forget an unforgivable mistake; Rahul Kohli maintains his status as the internet’s most talented boyfriend as Crockett’s new sheriff, so sturdy a presence it takes a few episodes to realize he’s tamping down a hard-earned rage every second of the day.
It’s almost impossible to recommend Midnight Mass without coming off like the religious hucksters it seeks to condemn. I’ve omitted some pretty major details here (it’s for your own good), I’m telling you it’s occasionally a laborious, frustrating undertaking (except when it’s not), and, it absolutely must be mentioned, you’re about to experience some truly ill-advised old age makeup (it serves a purpose, but big yeesh). But I’m also telling you to dive in anyway, because what you’ll find on the other side is worth it.
KEEP READING: New ‘Midnight Mass’ Trailer Shows Faith Leading to Madness in Mike Flanagan’s New Netflix Horror Series