Idk, I think waterfalls sound pretty cool, actually
What if there was a Mass..... at Midnight???
originally published oct. 9th, 2021
One of the professors of one of my film studies classes in college got frequently annoyed about “themes.” To his mind (at least, as best as I can remember it, being genuinely a full decade ago) the way most people are taught to talk and think about theme in the context of narrative arts was basic and near-useless. That theme was little more than a synonym for “topic.” What, if anything, does it tell you about the work to say that Lord Of The Rings is about magic, or about quests, or about heroism? That’s really just a categorization system. Instead he thought of (and had us exclusively use) theme as “the answer to a question.” In the LotR example, instead of saying it’s about “heroism” one could say its theme is the answer to the question “who gets to be a hero”, the answer being “anyone, even the smallest and most humble.”
Now I don’t fully buy into the idea that this is the exclusive way to consider thematics in narrative, and also it kinda reads like he was just repurposing the term “theme” to mean something else he wanted to rant about. But I do like it as its own idea, and as an additional lens for thinking about what a work is trying to say.
To that end, I’ve been thinking about what the professor-approved theme of Mike Flanagan’s recent Netflix miniseries Midnight Mass might be.
If theme is “the answer to a question”, what’s the question? I think for this show it might be what’s (apparently, on googling!) known as the Problem Of Evil: how can there be a good and all-powerful God if evil exists in the world?
I kinda get a cheat code on that one because in this case that’s a question that’s explicitly asked by one of the characters in a pivotal moment early in the series (spoilers abound, by the way.) Riley Flynn, one the protagonists who has recently returned home to Crockett Island—the secluded, sparsely populated island where he grew up—after serving four years in jail for killing a teenager in a drunk-driving accident, asks it point blank to the priest who’s just arrived on the island and is running a one-person AA meeting for Riley in the new church rec center. It’s incomprehensible to Riley to imagine there could be a loving God that would allow the damage Riley inflicted on this young woman to happen while he escaped, comparitively, without a scratch.
That’s the time when the question is explicitly stated, but arguably the rest of the narrative makes an implicit case for it: this is a show full of cruelty, violence, and death, often driven by the religious characters.
After a reveal in episode three, the arc of the show comes into focus, where the “new priest” who arrived is revealed to be island’s elderly Monsignor John Pruitt, revitalized by an encounter with a vampiric monster he believes to be an angel. And Pruitt has brought the “Angel” with him back to the island for the purposes of spreading what Pruitt believes to be a genuine miracle. However this miracle comes at the cost of Pruitt lying to the townspeople; about himself, what is going in their communion wine (spoiler: Angel blood!!!), and what is causing these seeming miracles like people getting younger and age-old injuries healing. That, and also at the cost of many, many, many deaths. And almost all of this horror can be tied back to the monstrous “Angel”, Pruitt’s misguided decision to bring it to the island, and influential church member Bev Keane’s decision to full-throatedly help cover up for Pruitt and use his discovery to usher in what she believes to be the Second Coming.
Tying that violence, deceit, and murder to the religious leaders, and making them the primary antagonists for much of the story, pulls that capital-p Problem of Evil to the center. It’s one thing for Riley to question whether a just God is compatible with evil when he’s referring to the evil of his own actions, it’s another when secretly he’s saying it to a priest responsible for dooming his community under the guise of doing God’s work.
There are two answers the show plausibly gives to this question, this Problem of Evil. The simplest is: a just God doesn’t exist.
For a show deeply enmeshed with the supernatural and the religious, there is nothing explicit in the text of the show confirming or denying the truth of any character’s religious beliefs. Every “miracle” is suggested to be caused by the townspeople's unknowing exposure to the pathogenic healing power of the Angel’s vampire blood; a power which Flanagan goes out of his way to provide a plausible (or at least, non-religious) scientific explanation for. And even if one scoffs at the hand-wavy science and takes the Angel to be supernatural and non-scientific, it’s fully reasonable to read it as a monster that characters like Pruitt and Bev misinterpret as religious, rather than religious in and of itself.
A Vox piece making the rounds calls out the show for playing it both ways with regards to its critique of Christianity, and in particular how the ending features characters that are coded as good that, in the face of all this horror and death and violence, are still taking comfort in their Catholic faith. This critique comes through the lens of an atheist critic having problems with a horror series that seemingly comes to a conclusion of at least partial validity of faith, Catholicism specifically.
But crucially, even if the faith is bringing comfort to these characters, that in no way validates the reality of their belief, at least in the text of the show. As a specific example, the parents of Riley, both turned into vampires themselves, lead the faithful remainders of the vampirized town in a hymn as they wait for the sun to come up, knowing that the sunlight will kill them. The fact that this belief brings them inner peace does make an argument for faith as a healing and beneficial force, but like a placebo the belief doesn’t have to be true to be helpful.
So in this world without textual evidence to the contrary, it’s entirely plausible to take Riley’s view and resolve the paradox by just saying “yeah, no God.”
However I think there’s an alternative answer the show provides, and it comes through from the way the show thinks about death.
Death is something ever-present for many of the characters, but (at first) something to be fought or to something run away from. For Riley, we’re introduced to him in the moment immediately after he’s killed the young woman, and for the rest his runtime he’s periodically haunted by the horrific vision of the woman in the immediate aftermath of her death.
Sheriff Hassan, the Sheriff and (with his son) lone Muslim among the heavily Catholic town, delivers a monologue about how the death of his wife from illness was the final straw that motivated him to run from New York City and seek out a post in a sleepy island town at the end of the world.
Though we don’t know it for much of the runtime, in the final episode Pruitt tells a story about a time on a mission trip when he was younger about how the sound of a waterfall made him realize that if God can hear and perceive every death, it must sound to him like the constant overwhelming roar of a waterfall. It must be horrible and torturous. And that therefore death is a thing to fight against and to stop, and so that was his high-minded rationale for importing the Angel to the island: believing he had a way to stop death. He later reveals that while that was true, it was secondary to his real motivation: to prevent the death of Mildred Gunning, the woman he loved and with whom he secretly had a child years earlier. In both cases though, his fundamental motivation came down to a fear of death.
And not just them. Riley’s childhood sweetheart Erin returns home to the island after the death of her mother, local town drunk Joe attempts to get sober in part due to the death of his sister, etc etc etc. Death is a primary, if not the primary motivation for almost the entire cast.
One framing of the story, in terms of thinking about antagonist vs protagonist and what actions they take and how we then code those actions, is that we see the antagonistic forces of Pruitt, Bev, and the Angel as the forces fighting against death. This in contrast with our protagonists, who while all start the show running from death just like the antagonists, for the most part end up embracing death, and doing so as their major dramatic moment.
Midway through the show, Riley sacrifices himself on a boat out in the water in front of Erin, letting himself be burnt up in the sun to prove the reality of his story and dangers to her before it’s too late, in an attempt to get her to save herself. Sarah Gunning, the town doctor and secret daughter of Pruitt, refuses his offer of vampire blood to save her after being shot, choosing instead to die human. Erin, when attacked by the Angel, pulls him in close to keep him drinking from her so she has enough time while it’s distracted with bloodlust to injure its wings and prevent its escape. Riley’s parents follow Riley’s example and welcome the morning sunrise while literally singing hymns.
The text’s argument for embracing death is even more strongly highlighted in our three antagonists: Pruitt, Bev, and the Angel. In the case of Bev and the Angel, as the sun comes up and they know they’re at risk of death, they continue fighting and fleeing, trying for any last hope to survive (Bev even pitifully attempting to bury herself in sand to do something, anything, she can.)
Pruitt, by contrast, faces the dawn at apparent peace, kissing Mildred and willing to burn. Comparing Pruitt’s final moment of serenity and love to Bev’s final moment of loneliness and pain shows just how much Pruitt's turn towards death-acceptance is tied into what little redemption he gains.
(For completeness sake, there is some muddiness here that I’ll admit I don’t fully have answers for, in that Pruitt and Bev do a version of "embracing death" in the sense that 1) Flanagan's mythology makes it so death is required in order for the vampiric transformation to fully take hold, and 2) Bev especially is fully willing to sacrifice and kill those who are not worthy in her eyes of salvation. But I suppose I could argue that 1 is means to an end and/or they don’t believe in it as “true” death, and that 2 highlights Bev’s belief that death is bad, that death is a punishment that the worthy can transcend.)
Anyway, this is idea 1: the coding of the antagonists and protagonists, and the turn one of the antagonists makes toward redemption at the end, suggest that fighting death is foolish and it is instead something to be embraced.
Another framing comes through with the character of Erin Greene, the aforementioned childhood sweetheart of Riley, who’s returned to the island a little bit before Riley does after her mother dies. She’s pregnant at the start of the show, but around the midpoint she discovers that not only is her unborn child gone, it’s as if she was never pregnant in the first place. Eventually this is explained, or at least theorized, to be a result of her drinking the vampiric Angel blood and the blood treating the fetus like a parasite or illness to be cured, same as it cures other townspeople’s ailments.
(A side note: To not wade too deeply into the metaphysics of whether a fetus can be considered “alive”, “conscious”, a “person”, etc, in the text of the story Erin was hoping to give birth, refers to the unborn fetus as her “baby”, and considers it as at various points “dead” or “murdered”, so that’s the terminology I’m using in this case.)
After the death of Erin’s unborn baby, we get Midnight Mass at arguably it’s most monologizing (which is uhhhhhhhhhhh saying a lot! Love you Mike, almost as much as you love a speech!) Erin and Riley are sitting together and, motivated by wondering about what happened to her child, Erin asks what he thinks happens when we die. Riley launches into a poetic vision about how in the moment of death, the brain will flood with untold levels of DMT, slowing time and causing the experience of a vivid dream. Riley, being an atheist, sees it as an entirely physical process.
Erin's version focuses more on her child, but she imagines a vision of heaven not as pearly gates and St. Peter, but as the idea of being loved and of not being alone, and it is deeply tied in to her idea of God.
As mentioned above, Riley sacrifices himself by burning up in the sunlight. And when he does, we see two perspectives: one of Erin, screaming as she sees Riley burn up, but one of Riley, as he is transported into a realistic, serene, dream, where the young woman he killed is whole again and reaches out for his hand, smiling. An implication is that Riley gets exactly what he thought would happen: the final, overpowering dream that the flood of DMT grants as he dies.
At the end of the show then, again as mentioned above, Erin also sacrifices herself to wound the Angel, and as she dies we see her perspective, which flashes her into her own dream: she’s back on the couch with Riley, again talking about what happens when they die, and they’re both smiling sweetly.
One view is that Riley gets his version (a vivid dream from a rush of chemicals) and Erin gets hers (a moment of being loved and together.) But they also though end up getting each other's versions: Riley's redemption is a vivid dream, but one of being loved and reconciled with the young woman he killed, while Erin's is her vision of a heaven as togetherness, but could plausibly be only happening because of a flood of DMT as her brain shuts down.
I think these two examples give us idea 2: death is redemptive not just because the good guys say so, but because it gives a private moment of peace, and it does so whether you come from a scientific or religious perspective.
The third framing, and the thing that kinda clicked this view for me, comes in the last episode, as the vampires are raging around the town and the last humans are trying to figure what to do. Annie Flynn, Riley’s mom, goes out and confronts Bev Keane, saying “you are not a good person” and delivering both a deserved dressing-down, and also trying to buy time for the others to escape.
And the central idea she hits on is that Bev “can’t imagine that God could love everyone as much as he loves you.” That Bev’s view of religion is not egalitarian, it’s a question of worthy vs unworthy, and of course Bev is the "worthiest." And both in the moment of that scene and also the show more broadly, Flanagan makes it pretty clear: yeah Bev is wrong. Her view of religion is dangerous and destructive, in contrast to the more loving and egalitarian views of religion from the good-coded characters. And it's even further driven home by her final moments, where she's on the beach on the island looking out at the sunrise, and next to her is Sheriff Hassan and his (now-vampirized) son, whom Bev has treated with barely-coded-to-at-times-full-throated Islamophobia throughout the series. All three are praying, all three are about to die, and at the end it's all equal. Though as mentioned before, Bev tries to fight it, and so her death from the outside is much more full of screams and fear than the more peaceful deaths of the "unworthy" next to her.
So idea 3: if there is a God, he loves everyone equally.
Those three together, I think form the second way out of the Problem of Evil: death is to be embraced, death is redemptive, and God loves everyone equally, so it follows that death (the one thing that comes for everyone) would be the ultimate redemption, and equally redemptive for all.
To go back to Riley’s original question of how can there be a good and just God if he let me kill this young woman, if the redemption comes with death then the “evil” of the world before that is the place setting, is a secondary concern. Death is where God is.
.....Now. Here’s where I’ll say I don’t actually believe this as a matter of personal theology, both because of my general agnosticism(? Is probably the closest word for it?), because said agnosticism isn’t motivated by the Problem of Evil, and because there are some perverse implications of taking this thesis to its logical end point. As an example, one could even say that if death is where God is, then Riley arguably didn’t do anything “evil” by hastening the young woman’s death, which uhhhhhh feels gross!
But as “theme”, in the professor-approved sense, for a single show, and one that feels coherently wrapped into the construction of its plot, characters, and images, I do find it really interesting! And a big part of what I love about Flanagan, that he builds his stories around questions and concepts and leverages a horror frame to explore them to a particular end.