Mike Flanagan’s limited Netflix horror series, Midnight Mass, is a tale of redemption at its core, along with the horrors that are inherent within religious extremism and bigotry. Over the course of the last decade, Flanagan has managed to position himself as a storyteller with a penchant for emotionally rich, character-driven narratives, reflected beautifully in The Haunting of Hill House and The Haunting of Bly Manor. While Midnight Mass is a dizzying odyssey chronicling the terrible things that people can do to each other in the name of religion, it is also a saga of hope and the sacrifices that spring forth from genuine love.
By virtue of being a Catholic horror and the premise being a small maritime island desperately holding on to their faith amidst all odds, Midnight Mass deals with the tropes of sin, guilt, and redemption. While the biblical connotations of these terms are applied within the ambit of character interpretation, what do these concepts mean in the greater context of the human soul? At the nexus of Midnight Mass is Riley (Zach Gilford), who acts as a catalyst in the show by leading audiences to the heart of Crockett Island and the events that occur there.
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The Unflinching Bravery of a Selfless Sacrifice: Riley’s Guilt & Redemption
Midnight Mass opens with an act of cruelty, albeit unintentional, wherein Riley crashes into another car whilst being drunk behind the wheel, which leads to the death of a young woman. As Riley watches the scene and realizes that the girl will not survive, he immediately turns to prayer, only to be reminded by an officer that the abject cruelties of life involve careless individuals like him walking away with barely a scratch, while the innocent die for no reason. This scene sets the tone for the rest of Midnight Mass, along with Riley’s inner journey, as he serves jail time for a period of four years, wracked with immense guilt every waking moment. For Riley, even sleep does not offer respite – whether he’s wide awake or dreaming, he is haunted by the fatal image of the young girl, her face pierced with glass shards, while sirens blare in the distance. Renouncing the Bible on the first day in prison, Riley launches himself in the search for God but ultimately emerges as an atheist by the time he is set free.
In Crockett Island, the church is an integral part of the community’s identity, even dictating the ways in which each individual is treated, based on religious belief or non-belief, for that matter. An example of the same is the extremely bigoted way in which Beverly Jean (Samantha Sloyan) treats Sheriff Hassan (Rahul Kohli) and the often-overt ways in which Christian indoctrination is thrown the way of the Hassans, purportedly the only Muslims on the island. The same goes for agnostics and non-believers, as evidenced by the way in which Bev turns away a non-believer at the end of Midnight Mass, deeming him unworthy of the Lord’s glory and grace. While Riley struggles with his faith, questioning the scriptures and the way in which it is interpreted by the church, his final act on earth is that of utmost love and sacrifice, which is rather telling of the pure-hearted nature of his soul, even though he lost his way some time back.
Personal accountability plays a critical role here, as Riley is acutely aware of the monstrosity of his past actions. “I killed an innocent child,” he tells Father Paul (Hamish Linklater) during one of his AA meetings at the rec center, underlining the fact that he is ready to take responsibility for his actions and work towards betterment. This is in stark contrast to Bev and Father Paul’s actions, which inherently stem from selfishness, that is justified at the cost of endangering an entire community. After the “angel” attacks Riley and essentially turns him into a vampire, Father Paul urges that he should embrace this change as a grace from God, as he is “chosen” to be a part of his army and help bring about revelation. Despite his altered physiognomy, and the urge to feed on human blood, Riley chooses to ride out in the middle of the sea with the woman he loves, Erin (Kate Seigel) – a manifestation of his longtime vision of his dreams. Before deciding to sacrifice himself, Riley opens his heart to Erin, accepting his sins and deciding to burst into flames at dawn rather than becoming a true monster that feeds on self-tailored lies.
The Tale of Self-Acceptance & Sacrifice Continues
While Riley’s death is tinged with great pathos, it is also heartbreaking to witness the ways in which Erin and Annie Flynn sacrifice themselves in the face of danger, for the greater good. On realizing that the islanders intend to travel to the mainland to spread the virus, Erin prioritizes the lives of the surviving children, Warren and Leeza, promptly deciding to fight to the best of her abilities. While Annie slices her throat in order to stall Bev and Sturge, Erin allows herself to be fed on by the creature, clipping its wings in the process. These acts not only save the lives of innocent people but also help prevent the utter madness that the inhabitants of the island have been subjected to from spreading. “There’s no greater love,” Erin muses, highlighting the importance of loving and saving those they will never know or meet. In her final moments, Erin arrives at an epiphany about the nature of life and death and the value of her existence within the greater scheme of things.
The same can be said about Sheriff Hasan, who, having faced systematic racism throughout his career, initially decides to remain as little involved in the events of the island. However, despite his best efforts to remain diplomatic, people like Bev Keane and the mayor launch their shielded, religious passive-aggression at him. This reaches a turning point when the Sheriff’s son, Ali, gives him the Muslim prayer and starts going to church, creating an understandable tussle within the Sheriff’s mind, who is no stranger to communal ostracization and persecution. While Ali ends up drinking the poison and comes back as a vampire during midnight mass, he finds his way back to his faith and his father by setting the last shelter on the island on fire. The Sheriff stands tall in the face of Bev’s heinous racism and bigoted militantism, too, standing firm on his beliefs despite being fatally shot by her.
Can Love & Forgiveness Redeem The Most Anguished Souls?
Forgiveness is integral in the journey of redemption and self-acceptance, as seen in the vision of the girl Riley sees right before his death, who extends her hand towards him in the act of forgiveness. Another figure mired in guilt and misery is Joe (Robert Longstreet), who accidentally shot a young Leeza whilst drunk, rendering her unable to walk for the rest of her life. However, after Leeza regains her mobility due to the creature’s blood in the communion, she confronts Joe and verbalizes the intense hatred she felt for him all her life. Despite how she felt, Leeza finds in herself to forgive him, which affects Joe in a rather heartbreaking, beautiful way – for the first time in his life, he wishes to take accountability and do better. After talking to Riley during his first AA meeting, Joe is able to cling to hope and the idea of redemption, which is rather cruelly dashed by Father Paul when he feeds on him later.
Father Paul’s trajectory in Midnight Mass is both tragic and complex to parse, as the man genuinely begins his journey with the intention of reviving his fading community. However, blinded by the way in which he interprets the monster as an angel while ignoring the ramifications of bringing such a being to the island, Father Paul allows himself to be consumed by the darkness. Willing to go to any lengths to save Mildred Gunning (Alex Essoe), the woman he loves, and his daughter Sarah, Father Paul/Monsignor Pruitt pushes Crockett Island towards death, destruction, and utter chaos. While the sight of a young Mildred Gunning towards the end makes him realize the error of his ways, his sins are too great to be undone or purged. Having lost his daughter too, Paul decides to give in to the idea of death, forsaking his own mad vision of a world forged in blood, fire, and hypocrisy.
Midnight Mass is a 2021 is a Drama Horror Television mini-series created by Mike Flanagan.