This Netflix series tells the story of the well-regarded creator’s problems with a late-breaking story structure.
Created by Mike Flanagan (Oculus, Hush, Gerald’s Game, Ouija: Origin of Evil, The Haunting of Hill House, Doctor Sleep)
I remember the moment I knew Midnight Mass hit its peak. It is at the end of Proverbs, episode three. In writer-director Mike Flanagan’s best projects: The Haunting of Hill House, Doctor Sleep– he expertly draws the audience in. Like the charismatic priest at the centre of this show (an electric Hamish Linklater carrying the series on his shoulders) faith in the material only takes you so far. Three episodes in there’s an excitement and energy to the show that’s better than anything I’ve seen in years with a wonder of whether it will last. It doesn’t.
With that in mind, it is best to approach Netflix’s latest project with him (after gems like Hush and Gerald’s Game) in a very forgiving mood.
Immediately following the climax of that episode, almost like clockwork, Flanagan finds a way to undo his complex themes. Characters make way and communicate in a way unbefitting of the complex story he has set up. Characters start making stupid or flukey decisions, and layers of complexity are torn away in favour of Shyamalan-style emotional monologues. Minus all the humour or short running time. Do we really need to know the 9/11 backstory of a non-white character? Not really. We see the racist judgments on the face of Bev Keane (Samantha Sloyan playing Marcia Gay Harden’s character from The Mist). But Flanagan thinks we need more. So he really starts to hand out heavy monologues to the actors to communicate plot points that could be said in a sentence. Favouring his own script over trusting the actors. Subtext becomes text and so the show gets boring like Black Mass or regular mass. Don’t great storytellers understand the life in the mystery of these big questions not sucking the blood out of them? If you watch the show you’ll understand what I mean.
I remember the moment I first looked at my phone. Midway through episode four when the love interest *SPOILER ALERT- loses her baby and asks the protagonist– *SPOILER ALERT ENDS what happens when we die. The protagonist doesn’t believe in anything and hasn’t yet undergone any significant change so his answer is as boring as ours. This is much of the dialogue from here on out which is mostly monologuing. And from there the series takes a nosedive in quality. Characters effectively stop talking to each other. It’s as if Flanagan got bored of his own premise yet still insisted on doing 7 episodes. The actors are fine but they aren’t always up to the task. Flanagan makes the mistake of saddling his wife Kate Siegel with the final monologue that will make you check your phone to look for something else to watch.
Midnight Mass tries to accomplish a lot of things. And it does a miraculous job early on populating an entirely unique world of characters, motivations, and interactions. Flanagan tells a story about a priest navigating his faith and steering his congregation, intersecting with a lapsed Catholic who seeks comfort and is abandoned by his faith. He also ambitiously juggles the stories of their families and peers. Children find faith where they least expect it. An entire town burnt out on hope reacting in different ways to miracles which may or may not be easier to explain. But Flanagan fails to service any of the needs of these storylines. The would-be protagonist and the actual protagonist are out of the story for too long. There are too many narrative dead ends and unsatisfying simplifications bent on questionable character decisions like talking or not acting in the face of mortal danger. Like fellow writing/ directing Catholic M. Night Shyamalan, Flanagan is too proud to ask for help when it comes to steering stories and instead has a hand in every script even when more explanation is unnecessary.
The most memorable parts of Haunting of Hill House were the silences. Where audiences were just taken in by some of the haunting imagery, which this has plenty. Perhaps Flanagan should consider it is he and not the audience of all people that needs to be provided faith. We’ve seen it get away from him before, but at least on Hill House the spirit of the project at least had the decency to exit after communion had been served.