Midnight Mass: The Worst Villains Are The System, Of Course
Decoding Mike Flannigan’s latest horror-thriller limited series is a familiar sort of exercise in media crit. Like his prior work, Midnight Mass is less about a specific topic, and more about how ideas and systems shape groups of people. A societal concept rendered through the lens of a series of interconnected individuals with something to say about both that experience, the individual actors, and the concept. And moreover, the experience of being human. And boy, does Midnight Mass have something to say.
The foundation of the story is simple, and familiar to readers of Stephen King: an insular American town is infested by vampires, and it takes a few individuals to assist in routing them out at a great cost of human life. Like King’s Salem’s Lot, Midnight Mass plays out far more like a chess game than a thriller for most of its run.
The board is simple: Crockett Island is an over-the-hill fishing village clinging to life in the way that only middle-class America can: one bloody fingernail at a time. Two ferries a day at either end of the sun’s journey: the only way in or out. Fishing trade does okay, but not enough to keep the town going long term. Not really.
And so the residents inherit the only hope they can: belief. St. Patrick’s church, a site of catholic ritual, is the heart of the town. The place where all gather to form communion, in the explicitly catholic and the abstractly communal. While it’s unclear if all residents believe the doctrines, what’s certain is that the church is to be respected: it is central to the survival of the town: hope rendered by the collective practicing of liturgy. Community by virtue of doing the same thing at the same time, every Sunday. But the writing is on the wall. Money is bad. People are leaving the island, summer after summer: the town is gasping for air, fighting an unbeatable tide. If Crockett Island has a future, it is not a graceful or long one.
Riley Flynn is our point of view protagonist, returning to his home town of Crockett Island after four years in lockup for killing his girlfriend while drunk behind the wheel. He’s terse, embittered by his time behind bars. After living with his sins, he renounces god. With the logical argument that if a god exists and allowed him to kill a good person, to kill good people every day, and to continue to allow it, then that’s no sort of god for me, no thank you. This rejection of a higher power conflicts with the American tenants of Alcoholics Anonymous, setting up the diad of Riley’s character: he does not believe, but he has faith.
Conversely, Riley’s parents are conservative followers of the church. They do what’s expected, when it’s expected. They go to church. They try not to acknowledge their coming poverty. They keep on keeping on, and they deny their observations to preserve their belief.
Like all of Flannigan’s work, the players are varied, unique, rendered with a careful pen. The most interesting diad is Rahul Kohli’s Sheriff Hassan, a Muslim sheriff living in the wake of America’s war on terror and the death of his wife. Sheriff Hassan represents the island's syllogism. He keeps the peace, and maintains rationality in the face of belief, superstition and denial. Sheriff Hassan’s son, Ali, practices Islam but does not believe, not really. He’s in those malleable teenage years where weed and alcohol feel like spiritual catalysts. Hell, where everything feels like a spiritual catalyst that might crack the ground from under your feet to reveal life’s true meaning that you’d been missing all along. To the community and story writ large, the Hassan’s are the interlopers. They don’t attend church, they are secular law.
And the most important players of all: Bev, the matriarch of the church, and the charming new priest, Father Paul Hill. Bev is a character ripped from the great American novel: the zealot empowered by inherited faith. The blood of Annie Wilkes runs deep in this one. Bev is so indoctrinated, down to the makeup of every cell, that she is incapable of imagination. She can only rationalise how data fits her world view. How it reinforces her beliefs. In a different setting, Bev would be a Q truther, living on the forums and explaining how Q missing a prediction actually proves he’s right and really taking us somewhere.
And, of course, Father Hill, who arrives to replace the ageing Monsignor Pruitt. The chess play is this: while travelling in Rome, Father Pruitt happened upon a vampire living in the holy city. He mistakes the creature for an angel, and the vampire feeds upon him, then turns him. Pruitt finds himself young, healthy. And takes the creature back with him to Crockett Island, believing the creature to be an angel and the herald of the second coming. Or, at least, that’s what the story intimates. Pruitt’s exact motivation for bringing the vampire is never clear, and works to make the chess game even more intriguing.
The vampire begins feeding. It starts with the cats on a nearby island, draining them all dry, before it begins on the town’s folk themselves. The creature watches. Waits. It’s a flicker in the window’s reflection for just a moment. A distant figure on the beach, gone when you turn back to check. Two beady eyes in the dark, never quite there exactly.
And Pruitt enables it. He works relentlessly to help the creature stay hidden, using Bev’s status in the community to do so. Pruitt is not a villain for this, exactly. Rather, he’s doing what the system has told him is the right thing: if it is divine right for these events to transpire, then he should pull all the levers he can to make it so.
Which brings us to the scene. The scene where everything changes. Pruitt is clearly turning. The vampire’s blood has made him young, but as he becomes sensitive to light and comes back from the dead (yes, like the big J man upstairs), Pruitt realises that he’s becoming one of them. An angel, Bev insists. And Pruitt can only agree because the alternative is horrifying.
And so, in a moment of thirst and weakness, Pruitt consumes Joe, a recovering alcoholic. And consume is putting it lightly: Pruitt kills him and devours his blood. It is a ghastly flashpoint that sets Pruitt down a path that he and Bev cannot cry off.
Without thinking, Bev covers up the murder. She enlists the mayor and the local muscle, and they do it. They cover up this murder on the assertion that Pruitt is the second coming. That miracles are happening and there was always going to be a cost. The book says so, afterall.
And this is where Flannigan’s deep understanding of the systematic influence of religion comes to the fore. Because Joe disappearing is so believable. So, so believable to the proletariat. Joe’s a drunk, after all. The town drunk. The church wouldn’t lie to you, so if Joe went to the mainland to visit his sister and found himself dead in a ditch, that’s just how it is. Sinners, you know? The system demands this problem go away, and the system provides.
It’s only Riley’s empathy in AA meetings that end up stopping the vampires. That Riley genuinely cared for Joe and his problems. That Riley exercised compassion for Joe, a man drowning himself for a terrible sin. That this action flies in the face of the system. That Riley remembers Joe’s story of his sister is what allows him to scrutinise Pruitt and Bev’s narrative. Riley questions the system. And gets turned to dust for his troubles.
Riley’s faith in rationality plays against Bev’s questionless belief. And I want to make an arbitrary but crucial distinction between the two here, because the show sure does. Belief is the denial of observation (Pruitt murdered a man and drank his blood) while faith is trusting the process. Trusting that things may not get better, but different. Belief is the need to be promised improvement. Faith is knowing that the world is complicated and bad, but that good things happen too.
As the fourth act begins, the town is lousy with vampires. And it’s terrifying. Both the set up and outcome. After a ghastly suicide ritual in the church, the vampires spread into the town, ripping people from their beds and homes, devouring them in the street, turning everyone they can. Rationality is absent. The hunger the only thing that matters. And it feels good. The townsfolk, the believers, finally give into their base urgents: purge the other. Purge the other and drink deep. I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me as the good book tells us.
Flannigan’s grasp of the subject material is exacting. The townsfolk are not individually evil people. They are susceptible to a system that is designed to impair their critical thinking. New Father was supposed to be temporary but is waylaid for medical reasons? Sure, no reason why Father Hill would lie about that, he’s a man of god after all. The town drunk goes missing? Sure, he’s probably in a ditch somewhere, no reason for Father Hill to lie about that, Bev backs him up. God and the clergy don’t lie. Sure, if they do, it’s all part of his plan, right?
When the system inherently codes actions as beyond scrutiny, you are conditioned to comply. It’s the word of god. And you don’t have the hubris to think you know better than god, do you? But of course that isn’t true. It’s Bev’s word, not god’s. It’s Father Hill’s word, not god’s. But the conflation of the individual actors and the will of the system is the point. When you can mask your own opinions under the veil of a higher power or an undefeatable vehicle for those opinions, your opinions become synonymous with the system.
Bev, the woman herself, is not evil. She sucks, yes. She’s the worst, yes. But her shittiness is enabled by the system that constructed her power. And she is bound by it. Because Bev has no intrinsic merit, her entire value is fused with the power of the system. Of belief. Of denial of observation to preserve belief. Of god. She is nothing without religion, and so she is everything within it.
And so too is Pruitt. Without, an old man waiting to die, and within, a healer and hero and the second coming. To be without it is to be powerless. Except it really, really isn’t.
Because Riley is without and he is mighty: a man who sacrifices himself to force a change that saves lives. And Erin is within the system, but not integrated. She has seen too much of the real world and felt too much and achieves escape velocity on death bed, understanding that to rely on the system for meaning is hubris itself. Erin does not believe, but she has faith. Faith that Riley's sacrifice meant something. Faith that we are all star stuff and return to the infinite, churning storm of molecules that we swim in every day. Faith that things change, and that is the point.
Father Hill cannot save you. Bev cannot save you. Becoming a vampire cannot save you. God cannot save you. All that we have, then, is faith. Faith. Faith that waking up every day and moving the dial a little bit matters. Faith that love is real and you can prove it’s real and it’s beautiful. Faith that love is real and that love matters. Faith that we are part of an ongoing cosmic narrative. Faith that we are the universe knowing itself and that this is a terrifying knowledge, a burden and a gift at once. Faith that all we have is today and that sometimes, on the days when the weather is fair and the stars align, that this knowledge can be enough. And that sometimes it will be enough. That sometimes there are black days and lonely Tuesdays.
Because that’s what Midnight Mass is about. Not vampires or priests or religion. Though it’s a bit about all of those. Really, it’s about our responsibility in the face of systems that don’t have our best interest at heart. And our responsibility is to remain vigilant. To remain critical. To have faith in ourselves when everything around us dissolves into belief. To remain erudite under the weight of existence, and to resist taking the easy option. And to always try to resist, even on our bad days.
For a story that ends with such death, Midnight Mass is hopeful. And the series centres the Serenity Prayer for this exact reason. Because in the face of the unyielding cosmos, the horrifying bigness of it all, our job is not to categorise and control. It’s not to ritualise and make understandable like Bev and Pruitt insist. Instead, our job is to accept that we cannot change our place in it all. That we must know what we can do, accept what we cannot, and fight, every day, to know the difference.