There’s something a little infuriating about a seven-episode series that has some sparse but brilliant commentary regarding the state of the world we exist in, but takes far too long to get to the point. Mike Flanagan’s latest Netflix horror installment, Midnight Mass, does offer some jump scares while providing a comparison of the rampant misinformation and zealotry of today. It also addresses how far too many are now using religion as a way to excuse their biases. But after a beginning that is too drawn out and a complete lack of awareness regarding how the show’s intended message omits those most affected by these behaviors—people of color and marginalized communities—what’s left is a lackluster, poorly executed tale of disenfranchised white people.
Crockett Island, aka “the Crock-Pot,” is a tiny island located somewhere in the Northeastern part of the United States that is home to a few hundred or so residents. After an oil spill nearly gutted their fishing industry, the island and its residents have been on a steady decline in their way of life. But, they are a profoundly Catholic bunch and devoted to the town church, St. Patrick’s Church, which also serves as the town’s center of everything. But, unfortunately, their longtime priest has gone on a journey far from the confines of the tiny island and has yet to return. That brings the arrival of a mysterious, young priest, Father Paul Hill (Hamish Linklater).
Father Hill starts to invigorate the residents—bringing a feverish rise to the town’s Catholic way of life. But, while Father Hill has infused a religious revival of sorts, his arrival also brings some strange occurrences. One example is a coast full of dead cats, which is curiously not addressed beyond the five minutes of imagery it receives. But then, “miracles” start happening; an elderly woman begins to de-age, a young girl who uses a wheelchair walks again, and couples start to reignite their marriages. Other residents, like Riley Flynn (Zach Gilford) and Erin Greene (Katie Siegel), approach the “miracles” with more caution, questioning how much the church is asking of them in exchange for salvation.
The ensemble cast does some great work with the material given, and Linklater gives one of the best performances of his career. But it lacks the enveloping nature of Flanagan’s previous horrors, The Haunting of Hill House and The Haunting of Bly Manor. Instead, much of the show’s terror is derided from simple jump scares, and they aren’t very good ones at that. It’s a very one-note kind of fright, and it lost me pretty quickly, which is sad because I watched this after midnight when I was home alone and didn’t even blink when the scares (finally) arrived.
Midnight Mass feels like Flanagan preferred to ‘tell’ most of the story versus ‘showing’ us much of anything. It takes roughly three episodes to get to what the show is about, and much of the first two episodes are loaded with unnecessary dialogue and back story. For a series that wants to examine zealotry, it sure is preachy! Not just in the Father’s sermons, either. Throughout the series, it felt like Oprah showed up on set one day and exclaimed to everyone, “And you get a monologue! And you get a monologue! And you, you get TWO monologues!!”
Luckily, the cast of actors knows how to deliver on the over-explicative script. Aside from Linklater, the clear standouts are Rahul Kohli, who plays Sheriff Hassan, a Muslim and former NYPD cop, and Samantha Sloyan, who plays Bev, the ultimate white woman Catholic zealot. Kohli and Sloyan play entirely different characters, yet, they elevate the contrast while not minimizing the other to connect to our reality. These roles are complicated and, in lesser performers, can become reductive. But here, they are the most fleshed-out, believable characters that I wanted to see more of. The rest of the ensemble is excellent, but the material doesn’t carry them too far.
Somewhere around the fourth episode, the message of the series is finally felt and delivers an exciting contrast between religious zealotry and addiction. The central theme is strong and defined, and it sparks a worthy discussion. Yet, it feels obtuse when the focus is yet again on disenfranchised white people. After living through the 2016 election and watching as a person of color, it’s surprising to see today’s focus continue to rest on that same group—the disgruntled white communities. We really do not need to keep hearing about that same sect when marginalized communities are still fighting for rights, recognition, and sometimes, their very lives.
If Flanagan wants the audience to question their beliefs and their judgment-filled religious leanings, the cast would be far more inclusive and diverse. But, instead, Sheriff Hassan has to do the heavy lifting in speaking up for all marginalized people—a weight that is too much for one character to carry and a responsibility that is unfair to place on one of the three people of color in the whole cast.
Midnight Mass is a bit like an unfinished home—the bones are there, and the path is written, but aside from some necessary tools, it’s far too empty.