"Midnight Mass": Disturbing the comfortable
How great fiction allows us to inhabit other lives, and how the Netflix series Midnight Mass exemplifies this.
W H Auden may have thought that poetry “makes nothing happen”, and Wilde might have wanted art for its own sake, but David Foster Wallace believed (as he told Larry McCaffery in an interview in 1933) that the job of good fiction is “to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable”. Elaborating on the idea, Wallace said:
“I guess a big part of serious fiction’s purpose is to give the reader ... imaginative access to other selves. ... If a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside.”
This idea of what art should do directly implies a role for the reader too: if art offers experiences for us to find, then we will have to seek. To be a seeker is perhaps the best practice for approaching art. It is also, not incidentally, how I approach questions of theology – eschewing dogma, suspicious of settled answers, and searching for the many ways others have sought God, and all that the concept of God represents.
This is why I fell so in love with Mike Flanagan’s 2021 Netflix series, Midnight Mass. Here, we have a profoundly Catholic community on an island struggling to find a place for a lapsed believer drowning himself in alcohol, the Muslim sheriff and his son, a prodigal daughter returned to the island pregnant, and a recovering alcoholic recently out of prison for killing a woman in a car crash. The last of these is one of two central protagonists, Riley Flynn, who acts as “man of science” to Father Paul’s “man of faith”.
Though Father Paul and Riley occupy clearly delineated positions on a spectrum of belief, they sit in those places with humility and an openness to uncertainty. They are both sincerely seeking. When a series of miracles begins waking the island to a renewed religious fervour, both sides of the apparent dichotomy between the priest and the atheist are given patient, even loving, portrayals of what it is like to see the world through their eyes.
Some of my favourite scenes in Midnight Mass are set in an empty community hall where Father Paul and Riley come together for AA meetings led by the priest, and where they crack through the surface of subject matter to dig into the foundations of purpose, revelation, and faith. They conversationally dig as if trying to reach philosophical bedrock, and yet the joy of these scenes is in the journey – it doesn’t matter that their spades of enquiry never hit anything concrete.
Here, all views are given fair and honest expression. As the various, often incompatible, worldviews come into contact with each other, Midnight Mass does something far deeper and more important than justifying any of the belief systems, or convincing the viewer of their validity or lack thereof. Instead, Midnight Mass explores why different people hold such views. We may not be convinced with the teenage gunshot victim that God forgives (or even exists to forgive) the man who shot her, but we understand at a felt level how this belief motivates her own forgiveness.
Just as each worldview is given a fair portrayal, they are not let off from criticisms and the exposing of fault lines in their foundations. Bev Keane, religious maniac and advocate for the apocalypse, reads from the same Bible and attends the same church as the moderate, loving Christians. This difficult truth is one all religious moderates must contend with in the face of their extremist brethren. Equally, Riley’s inability to find solace, let alone cogent answers, in Christianity to questions of suffering is counterpoised with the earnest and deeply felt comfort the island’s Christians draw from their shared faith. His subjectivity cannot be taken for an objective assessment of the Bible.
The ability to step out of one’s worldview and appraise its assumptions, and the corresponding ability to step into a different worldview, are both marks of great thinking and great art. They undergird the ability to perform “steel-manning”: representing an opposing idea as fairly and accurately as you would if you actually believed it yourself. This is how serious fiction – cinema, television, and literature alike – allows us to inhabit the lives of others and, by extension and apropos David Foster Wallace, to “identify with a character’s pain”.
There is a particular kind of bad writing that comes from an inability to inhabit the mind of a character opposed to what the writer values. In the film adaptation of If Beale Street Could Talk, one great failure in an otherwise brilliant screenplay is the ungenerous portrayal of a religious family. This has always seemed, to me, to emerge from a failure on the writer’s part to find the humanity in those characters. They end up as absurd, one-dimensional boogeymen for the secular.
This is also one of the failures that make evangelical movies so unwatchable: they represent the world not as it is but as they view it through their own narrow lens, and non-religious characters always end up as caricatures. The portrayal of a philosophy lecturer in God’s Not Dead as a vitriolic atheist angry at God is the kind of weak writing I worried we were going to get with Riley in Midnight Mass – but we were mercifully spared this and given instead a representation of an atheist I recognise and am not embarrassed by.
I also recognised, in Father Paul, the heartfelt conviction of those in service to humanity through their service to the church; I resonated with the quiet confidence of everyday members of the congregation simply trying to survive the hardships of life; I saw, in the cynical and manipulative Bev Keane, the hard-hearted dogma of the fundamentalist Christianity I was raised in. This last character comes closest to being portrayed one-dimensionally, but this is because there is an inherent lack of depth to that form of close-minded certainty. And she becomes fully human in her very last moments, where her faith crumbles and we understand that the seemingly hard veneer of dogma was a fragile shell around an insecure and scared soul – a soul that could not live with its own ambiguities.
Ultimately, it is ambiguity that is allowed to thrive in Midnight Mass, even as its characters seek certainty. Each of them attempts to define and circumscribe the strange events that unfold on their island, which the religious call “miracles” and the materialists take to be “unexplained natural phenomena”. When the doctor began, in one episode, diagnosing the apparently supernatural events as one obscure medical condition after another, my heart sank – until I realised that this was not the show’s way of wriggling out of ambiguity and into the strictures of a straightforward, scientific explanation for the show’s mysteries. Instead, this was an exploration of the very human desire to understand the inexplicable by reducing it to what is already known. The atheists here are doing no more than what the churchgoers do in describing the same strange events with a religious vocabulary.
In the end, Midnight Mass explores our various cultural languages and the stories they tell, noticing the ways that these vocabularies sometimes compete as if in a zero-sum game, even where this makes no sense. Ultimately, we all tell ourselves stories about what happens when we die and what it all means, and some stories are more convincing than others, and some are more rational to believe than others, but all are attempts to find a language that explains ourselves to ourselves – even when it seems as if we are actually speaking to other people. The atheists have a story that unites them, in their finitude, with the expanse of the cosmos; some of the religious have stories that unite them with their God; the island community have a story, expressed in song, that unites them as seekers.
In the apocalyptic final moment of the series, the island comes together to face their own wickedness, finding each other in the midst of their heartbreak and shame, uniting to sing a hymn or say a final prayer. I find this awe-inspiring and, quite simply, beautiful. That I – an atheist – was made to see and appreciate this beauty in spite of my own disbelief is a hell of a thing. And it was a hell of a thing I experienced throughout Midnight Mass. I was reminded that there is much more to contend with in religion than scientific questions of objective truth, and in this way, Midnight Mass disturbed the comfort of my disbelief.
Postscript: No work of art is perfect, and if there is an exception to that rule, Midnight Mass is not it. There are flaws here, but they are not the kind you need to overlook to love the series; instead, loving the series allows you to forgive its few faults. There is, however, one significant error made, one that means I will forever wish for a Midnight Mass director’s cut whose only edit is to remove this single line of dialogue. In the last moments of the show, one of our protagonists monologues about existence and the cosmos, finishing with the regrettably definitive line:
“And that’s what we’re talking about when we say ‘God’.”
The way this line is presented makes it seem that this is the show itself finally picking a position, planting a flag and declaring the hill of messaging it will die on. In this moment, the show’s courage to explore nuance and complexity falters, and it lapses into the unfounded certainty of its most obnoxious character, Bev Keane. Thankfully, this line is not able to undo the masterful work of the rest of the series.
• Midnight Mass, written by Mike Flanagan, James Flanagan, Elan Gale, Dani Parker, Jeff Howard; dir. Mike Flanagan (2021)
• “An Interview With David Foster Wallace”, in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Larry McCaffery (1993)
• Truth and Lies in Literature, Stephen Vizinczey (1986)