The past few years, at almost this exact time, the world has been privy to another addition to the horror canon from Mike Flanagan. The man has been working tirelessly, giving his audiences two Netflix series (The Haunting of Hill House and The Haunting of Bly Manor) and his sequel to the criminally under-seen sequel to Stephen King and Stanley Kubrick’s versions of The Shining. As a storyteller, he seems to intimately acquaint himself with the deep and tragic lives of his lead characters like Mr. King does. His stories have the room to breathe, never rushing the plot or feeling the force of narrative propulsion as a reason to sideline the internal lives of his characters.

This is all to say that Midnight Mass, for better or worse, is the most powerful work of his career. I don’t say this as a deterrent, but as a soft warning for impatient viewers. Flanagan has crafted his most lived in reality to date with Crockett Island. The seven episodes, save for a very small handful of scenes, take place within the confines of this tiny fishing hamlet that seems to have barely found itself on the shores of the 21st century. Every resident seems to know each other and the closed-door business of everyone seems to sit behind glass.

The seven-episode arc builds slowly. Each episode adds another layer before exploding into a rich and violent end of inevitable tragedy. Outside of the very bare bones of the plot, the show is too spoiler-centric to go into much depth. At the outset though, we follow Riley (Zach Gilford) as he returns home after a four-year stint in prison for killing a young girl in a drunk driving accident. His return coincides with a new priest, Father Paul (Hamish Linklater), who has replaced the ailing Monsignor Pruitt. His youthful presence and powerful homilies lead to the pews adding congregants each day, and then, genuine miracles begin to take over the town, only accelerating his standing in the community.

Riley represents the once faithful seeking redemption while Father Paul represents the possibility of a faith outside of ourselves. The struggle of the two isn’t based on religion as much as it is based on the spiritual and grand fabric of the universe. Flanagan seems to be an optimist at heart. His gentle storytelling finds room for the broken and healed alike. While this is the case, he also seems to have a deep distrust in religious authorities. The doctrines of religion open an avenue to zealotry that scares him even as he finds hope in the existence of some kind of divine presence, whether that be a higher power, science, or our connection with each other. In the middle of this discussions, he builds one of the nastiest villains in recent memory with a faithful servant of the church in Samantha Sloyan, steeped in fanaticism.

The island is photographed beautifully as the unbroken camera drifts with characters during extended conversations. Long scenes between two characters often present as one act plays on the nature of existence, our place in the cosmos, institutional racism, or the nature of addiction taking over a person. This deliberate pacing might turn some viewers off, especially in the bingeable atmosphere of modern streaming TV. Much of the show moves like the philosophical musings of the most emotionally generous person you know. Some of the finest moments of Flanagan’s career are a handful of centerpiece conversations at an AA meeting that is just Riley and Father Paul as each of their philosophies on life is laid bare.

There is a purity in the way actors are given these beautiful monologues and allotted space to find the emotional core of their characters. Rahul Kohli, who plays the town sheriff, is given a nearly unbroken monologue towards the end that would’ve been left out with a different show, but it is essential to the building emotional minefield of the island.

The relatively recently sober Flanagan is no doubt wrestling with his own demons in some way. Many of his character’s, and particularly Riley in this show, need to believe there is some chance at redemption. While this is explicitly answered, Father Paul suffers from his own and potentially more insidious addiction. His hubris is perhaps the most humanizing flaw in a show built like a Greek tragedy.

Hamish Linklater is the show’s standout, bringing a calm and stirring interiority to Father Paul that overwhelms with a beautiful conclusion. Gilford gives a performance that is reminiscent of his exceptional work from the episode of Friday Night Lights, The Father. Kate Siegel, Rahul Kohli, Robert Longstreet, and Samantha Sloyan all round out the cast to make this the strongest ensemble in any of Flanagan’s work. The dense language of the show wouldn’t work in lesser hands and this cast absorbs and lives in the rhythm of the world.

The final episode is built on horror but is rich in human tragedy. The supernatural or religious elements of the show are backdrops for the folly of mankind. And, even in the midst of pure chaos on screen, Flanagan doesn’t mind stopping to let his characters theorize on the idea of our eternal existence as people and how our last moments of life might feel. By the scenes the show has built to a calamity for the individuals and the community that is equal parts horrific and emotionally devastating.

Yes, Midnight Mass is a tale of terror, but Flanagan almost exclusively reserves that for the final episode. The rest of the show follows his characters as they gently live their lives of regret, addiction, and search for some semblance of redemption. This is his most patient work, relying on his audience to stick with him, trust him, and come out on the other side with a deeply profound experience.

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