Mike Flanagan, the writer and director of The Haunting of Hill House and The Haunting of Bly Manor, is back. He writes about complex themes of addiction, complicated family relations, and trauma in his new limited series, Midnight Mass. Where he’s uncovering these same themes but with the faith, racism, redemption and religious fundamentalism in the mix.
With Midnight Mass, Flanagan introduces the darkness that reflects our world right now. Racism and systemic oppression are embedded into American society, and he attempts to introduce these themes with respect and consideration of the realities we face. The darkness in Midnight Mass seeps through the shadows at night. It finds a way to hold onto the audience’s expectations of the horror that haunts them.
Riley Flynn (Zack Gilford) returns to his hometown, a small island called Crockett Island with a tiny community. Father Paul Hill (Hamish Linklater) arrives at the island, sent to replace Monsignor Pruitt due to him recovering at the mainland. The islanders are recovering from a devastating oil spill that damaged their ecosystem. As a result, fish are scarce, the families are suffering, and others leave for good. Once a community filled with happiness and laughter, now it’s a ghost.
Upon Father Paul’s arrival, he promises to bring a new sense of hope to the island. He is resurrecting the island from its past sins and wrongdoings. A devout Catholic community with two Muslims living on the island, Sheriff Hassan (Rahul Kohli) and his son Ali (Rahul Abburi), are trying to find their place on the island. After the arrival of a mysterious new priest, strange occurrences and miracles happen in the small community, and the islanders are marvelled at these revelations.
At the heart of Midnight Mass is the small community of people devoted to their faith. With others who are on the path of recovery and redemption. There is a sense of shared heartbreak and empathy towards the people who have suffered loss and tragedy. When Father Paul preaches that good things are coming for them. He paints a rosy picture of redemption from their sins and restoration of the island to its former glory.
Gilford, Linklater, Kohli and the other actors such as Kate Siegel, who has been part of many of Flanagan’s projects, carry an intense emotional burden of their loss, trauma and tragedy. Especially Kohli, who took the task of capturing the experience of a Brown Muslim man in America with such frailty. They express their emotions all too well. Kohli and Abburi’s father and son chemistry is intensely emotional at times. Showing the loss of their past in the most vulnerable and honest ways possible. Many other actors take on emotional experiences and vulnerability that is true to the show’s atmosphere.
Flanagan approaches these characters in the most sensible and caring way possible. Attempting to show the complexities of living in America. But, unfortunately, racism and Islamophobia do not skip over the tiny community of Crockett Island. The aggressions come from one member of the community, Bev Keane (Samantha Sloyan).
After Sheriff Hassan finds a bible in his son’s bag, the parents sit down for a PTA meeting with Erin Greene (Seigel) and Bev, teachers at the public school. In a scene where Sheriff Hassan expresses his concern about finding that the Bible is being passed around in a public school without his parents’ knowledge. He explains that as a Muslim, he does not have a problem with his son seeking knowledge about Christianity; Islam encourages it.
But the way this scene is set is an uncomfortable conversation between Sheriff Hassan and Bev. He explains that in Islam, Jesus is a Prophet of God and the message He sent to the people. To Muslims like Sheriff Hassan, the Qur’an is the final word since priests, kings, and popes have modified the Bible throughout the decades.
Bev refuses to hear what Sheriff Hassan has to say, and when he turns the conversation around to, what if he distributes Qur’an to the public school and he would be chased out of the island. She then turns around and plays the victim to reveal that she would never treat Sheriff Hassan that way. However, she continues to berate Sheriff Hassan by saying that texts in the Qur’an are disrespectful.
This kind of self-righteous behaviour from a white woman towards a Brown man is baffling to watch. Maybe that’s the part of the darkness that Flanagan wishes to explore. Darkness and aggressions towards minorities, especially in this context, religious fundamentalism. The sense of entitlement believing that one religion is better than the other. Bev believes that comparing the differences between Islam and Christian scriptures is not the way to partake in this conversation, and that is the hard truth presented to her. She pleads that she is not evangelizing but continues to undermine Sheriff Hassan and his faith.
Flanagan shows that these characters can also have tender, sincere moments about exploring other religions and young people’s dilemmas despite these flaws. For example, Sheriff Hassan disagrees in a scene where Ali wishes to attend Church to seek knowledge. His son says that he has never chosen what he wants to believe—stating that every decision was made for him. Sheriff Hassan carries the burden of the pain and trauma on his back, not wanting to reveal the truth to his son. He does not believe in the kind of selective miracles that his fellow islanders believe in. Pleading to Ali that that is not the way Allah works.
It’s a painful and honest conversation between the father and the son. Showing the complex relationship with one’s faith and trying to uphold it simultaneously. The internal conflict between Ali and Sheriff Hassan is to not let them forget where they come from. But also, wanting to be part of the community is something they struggle with throughout the series.
When it comes to capturing emotional moments between families, Flanagan does them to the best of his abilities. It’s a story about faith and the difficult toll it takes due to the decisions made in the past. The dialogues are beautifully written, expressing Riley and Erin’s emotional and bubbling reunion after many years and her pregnancy. It cannot be understated that Midnight Mass is a story that is meant to seize the emotionally devastating parts of the islanders on the island, and Flanagan takes his time to explore their stories in each episode.
Midnight Mass is a slow-burn series that explores complex themes that are prevalent in American society. With a touch of Flanagan’s magic, Midnight Mass displays the intricacies of human behaviour, religious fundamentalism and redemption after sinning with great emotional vulnerability. Showing that where there is loss and tragedy, there is also hope and redemption for the people of Crockett Island.
Nuha Hassan is a film and TV writer and reviewer, based in the Maldives. She is a Staff Writer at Film Cred, Off Colour, and Flip Screen. Apart from writing about film, she is a Video Editor at Dead Central. She studied Master of Media at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. Her love for film started with David Fincher's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel. Her favourite comfort film is When Harry Met Sally.