This article contains spoilers for Midnight Mass.
Mike Flanagan has been thinking about Midnight Mass long enough that the main character of his 2016 movie Hush is writing a book with that title. If you look closely, you can even catch shards of the plot in her manuscript. But it’s fortuitous that it’s taken him this much time to get it made, both because, despite its long gestation, it’s uncannily in tune with the present moment, and because the Haunting of Hill House and its successor have earned Flanagan enough pull at Netflix to tell Midnight Mass’s seven-part story at its own methodical but highly effective pace. That can make for slow going, even by Netflix standards, in the early episodes—it takes nearly three hours for the series to reveal its central premise. But the wait allows the genre beats to hit with greater force once they start landing, making the ending feel like the culmination not only of this story, but of a larger one that Flanagan has been telling for years.
Set in the isolated fishing village of Crockett Island, located 30 miles off the U.S. coast, the story of Midnight Mass centers on Riley Flynn (Zach Gilford), a fisherman’s son who left the island, made a bundle in finance, and has just been released from prison after killing a young woman while driving drunk. Although he was a former altar boy at St. Patrick’s, the Catholic church that is the island’s only house of worship, Riley has emerged from prison as a devout atheist, spurning the higher power–driven methods of Alcoholics Anonymous in favor of science-based rational recovery.* Nonetheless, he finds it difficult to stay out of St. Patrick’s, especially once the church’s pulpit is taken over by the charismatic but mysterious Father Paul (Hamish Linklater). Father Paul arrives on the island without fanfare, arriving at Sunday mass as an unannounced replacement for the church’s aged and infirm Monsignor Pruitt, but his impassioned, off-kilter sermons quickly energize the tiny community’s faithful—and besides, a dying fishing town doesn’t offer much else to do on Sunday mornings.
[Read: How Scary Is Midnight Mass?]
The novelty of Father Paul’s arrival soon wears off, however, and it isn’t until he starts performing what seem to be bona fide miracles that the pews are permanently packed. But Riley remains a skeptic, and he views what Father Paul’s chief acolyte, the lay minister Bev Keane (Samantha Sloyan), enthusiastically calls “a full-blown religious revival” with increasing alarm. Even if you don’t know Flanagan as a horror director, the glowing eyes that lurk in the dark and the line of cats strewn along the beach with their throats torn out are a fairly strong indicator that something other than the Lord’s mysterious ways are at work here. But what makes Midnight Mass work is that Father Paul is a true believer, misled by his own desperate needs and the enablers around him. In other words, he’s an addict.
Mike Flanagan used the director’s statement for Midnight Mass to reveal that he recently marked his third year of sobriety, which casts the presence of addicts in The Haunting of Hill House and Doctor Sleep, his film version of Stephen King’s sequel to The Shining, in a different light. Both Hill House’s Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) and Doctor Sleep’s Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor) started using drugs as a means of deadening childhood trauma, Luke’s from encounters with Hill House’s ghosts, Danny’s a result of—well, you’ve seen The Shining. Riley never talks about what drove him to drink, but when his estranged father, played by Henry Thomas, vaguely apologizes for “whatever I did,” Riley just glares into the distance as if he can’t even imagine where to start.
Apart from the vodka bottle that’s pulled from Riley’s smashed car in the opening shot, the only drink that plays a meaningful role in Midnight Mass is communion wine, which flows in ever-greater quantities as Father Paul’s congregation grows and the liturgical calendar approaches Easter Sunday. But the sacrament at St. Patrick’s doesn’t need transubstantiation: From the day he arrives, Father Paul has been lacing it with blood—specifically the blood of the undead “angel” he has smuggled onto the island. As the third episode, “Proverbs,” reveals, Father Paul is actually Crockett Island’s missing Monsignor Pruitt, rejuvenated from his 80-year-old self by the blood of the centuries-old creature that attacked him during his pilgrimage to the Holy Land. (Not coy about its biblical allusions, Midnight Mass places Monsignor Pruitt’s conversion to Father Paul on a literal road to Damascus.) He’s been slipping that blood to the residents of Crockett Island—with the exception of Riley, who’s not taking communion, and the town’s Muslim sheriff Hassan (Rahul Kohli)—and it’s been slowly changing them as well, bringing them closer, as Father Paul sees it, to eternal life.
The “angel” fills a void in Father Paul’s life, returning not just his youth but his congregation, and the faith he spreads around Crockett Island fills a void as well. This isolated community has been gutted by economic hardship, its population dwindling to the low three digits, and what holds it together now is shared history and simmering resentment. The longtime residents are rarely hostile to Sheriff Hassan’s face—in fact, they take overt pride in the idea that the “crockpot” is welcome to all comers, not that there have been many of them of late. But they drop the occasional slur behind his back or cluck their tongues that such a nice man is headed for eternal damnation. With the fish they catch dwindling due to environmental degradation and government regulation, the community has little reason to exist, but Father Paul provides one, and Bev harnesses it into a movement, hurtling forward with little thought to what might lie in its way.
Flanagan’s Netflix shows have always shown a fondness for monologues, but in Midnight Mass, they’re more frequent and less ornamental. Practically every episode features a sermon from Father Paul, or one of the lengthy exchanges between him and Riley that serve as the equivalent of AA meetings. (The town is too small to furnish more than one other recovering alcoholic, and he doesn’t last long.) Flanagan’s actors, to be frank, have not always been up to the challenge, but Linklater in particular is such an engrossing and idiosyncratic presence that you could watch him talk for hours. (Don’t worry, none of Father Paul’s sermons lasts quite that long.) He’s an evangelist, but one who gives the sense that he’s thinking as he speaks rather than unfurling some dusty spiel, animated by a spirit that may be holy or … otherwise. He’s also quite literally high on his own supply, relying on the angel’s “sacrament” to keep himself young and to stave off the hunger pangs whose true nature he writes off as a minor barrier between the faithful and eternal life.
As in The Haunting of Hill House and Doctor Sleep, there’s no escape from addiction, at least not in this life. These aren’t horror stories in which demons are defeated, at least not without paying the highest of costs. For a happy ending, at least relatively speaking, you have to turn to the project Flanagan made amid these others, The Haunting of Bly Manor. That story ends with its protagonist dead, sacrificing herself to placate a vengeful spirit and save the lives of those around her. But her sacrifice is not in vain. The ghost is laid to rest, and the rest of Bly Manor’s residents are freed from its curse. There are happy endings in Flanagan’s world, but in order to get to them, someone has to die first. God, grant Mike Flanagan’s characters the serenity to accept the things they cannot change, the courage to change the things they can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
Correction, Sept. 29, 2021: This article originally misidentified Crockett Island’s church as St Michael’s. It is St Patrick’s.