"The Midnight Club": Perfection as the enemy of the Good
On Mike Flanagan's new series and the nihilism of insisting people are perfect as they are.
In Mike Flanagan’s latest Netflix offering, The Midnight Club, (as in the novel it’s based on) the members of the Midnight Club gather round a large table to “make ghosts” – that is, to tell scary stories. In the fireplace behind them, a great fire rages defiantly against the shadows swallowing the room, just as these eight teens resist death by giving life to the stories they tell each other. Each of them is living under a death sentence; the library in which they meet is part of the Brightside Home hospice where they spend their remaining days, quickly approaching the termini of their terminal diagnoses.
Tonight, a young man with AIDS makes his ghost for the club. His name is Spencer, and he tells a sci-fi story inspired by The Terminator, in which a young man named Rel (played by the same actor who portrays Spencer) falls in love with an engineer. The new couple eventually discover that Rel is an android from a future that has eradicated feelings such as fear. He’s travelled back in time to escape those who want him dead because of his ability to feel verboten emotions.
The metaphor strains under the heavy lifting it is made to do, and nuance is sacrificed to make room for the message: Spencer’s mother is a fundamentalist Christian who “fears” her son’s diagnosis and sexuality. When Rel stands up to an assassin sent back from the future to destroy him, he echoes the speech Spencer gave his parents, a speech asserting his new-found self-acceptance and love for his judgmental mother. Spencer closes his story by saying of himself and his gay friends (echoing the moral of his tale),
“We weren’t defective, not even a little bit. We were perfect, just like all of you.”
In this we have the ultimate lesson for the young members of the Midnight Club: acceptance. The final stage of grief, a place they must come to in their own conditions of shortened mortality, and the condition they – and all of us – are instructed by our culture to aspire to. Self-acceptance, rather than self-improvement. If we are perfect then there is nothing to change, nothing to develop or even refine. And this, I want to argue, is an awful thing to teach people.
The work of a life is the work of becoming. We reach for things just beyond our grasp, we educate ourselves and learn to do more than we can at present, to be more – to be better. Perfection is an ideal, one worth aiming at while knowing that no one ever truly arrives there. This is what the Divine in religion is all about – a highest value that is beyond humanity, like a mountain top too high for any mortal to ever reach, but whose slopes offer greater heights to climb. As Oscar Wilde’s Lord Darlington says in Lady Windermere’s Fan:
“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”
We will never reach those celestial lights, but we can aim our sight up and climb as far out of that gutter as humanly possible. We can concede our condition, accept that we are inevitably broken, and build our lives around the project of fixing what we can. This is the basis of the Serenity Prayer, which asks God to grant us the ability to accept what we cannot change, the courage to change those things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference between the two. The view that all of us are perfect exactly as we are is to take only the first line of that prayer. This “self-acceptance” is in fact existential resignation. We either cannot or should not change ourselves.
Earlier in The Midnight Club, a doctor gives a young woman some miraculous and bewildering news. In response, she tells the doctor, “I have no idea why I feel the way I feel right now.” The doctor then says what is thought to be empowering by the modern vogue for total self-acceptance. “However you feel is correct. However you’re feeling, whatever it is, is right.” She has no idea what her patient is feeling, has taken no time to help the young woman examine her inner world at that moment. Instead, she simply validates anything happening in the heart and mind of this teen because she is supposedly perfect as she is.
We later learn that a member of the Midnight Club with clinical depression has, in the past, attempted suicide at least once. If this young woman, in the grip of depressive self-hatred and distorted thinking, had expressed confusion at her own feelings, how would it be in any way useful to tell her that however she felt was good and right? How does it benefit any person wrestling with darkness to hear that the darkness is correct and that, rather than overcoming it, they must accept it?
The devil and the divine (to paraphrase the band Brand New) are raging in all of us. The battle between our best and our worst is one we never truly win, though it is one we can lose. It is the purpose of a good life to never stop wrestling, to encourage our better angels and overcome our demons. Great thinkers have argued about what constitutes the Good Life, and the details are necessary, but for the purposes of getting through each day perhaps this is the best conception of what the Good Life looks like: aiming at something higher than oneself and struggling meaningfully towards it.
The work of becoming better is difficult and demanding, which is why it can be attractive to those exhausted by the struggle to hear that we can simply put down the fight. Instead of climbing any higher, you can sit back where you are and describe this state of “good enough” as perfection. It’s not easy to make an a priori argument that refutes this apathy (though I give it a go in this essay) because knowledge of how despairing such a life is – and how rewarding its opposite – comes from lived experience. Each time we get up from a fall or push past a barrier, we understand in our bones how right Dante was when he wrote that we are not made for brutish ignorance, but to follow after knowledge and excellence.
There is a line in the final speech Rel gives in Spencer’s story that comes in two parts. In its first half, we find an incarnation of the double standard that often emerges from the “perfect as I am” ideology. Rel tells his assassin, “I’m not defective – you are.” The only imperfection allowed of a person is the unwillingness (or inability) to see the perfection of others. This is a shibboleth of the political left, for whom intolerance should never be tolerated. So it is that even for those who preach the immutability of identities, there are those who are in need of correction.
By contrast, in the second half of the line, Rel expresses the deep empathy born of the view that all of us are imperfect creatures trying to be better. He declares that his assassin is defective – “and I love you anyway.” This is the heart of humanity, a commitment to love others even in their imperfection. We are all broken and we are beautiful. Possibly beautiful even because of our brokenness. I’ve never been able to believe in the humanity of the first couple in the Garden of Eden, who seem more like automatons because of their flawless nature. Adam and Even came into humanity with their fall from grace; the human soul was born at the moment of making its first mistake.
“To err is human,” as Alexander Pope wrote. “To forgive divine.” In other words, the road to improvement lies not in telling ourselves we are perfect as we are, but saying, “I am broken and I am beautiful – just like you.”
• The Midnight Club, dir. Mike Flanagan (2022)
• Lady Windermere’s Fan, Oscar Wilde (1893)
• An Essay on Criticism, Alexander Pope (1711)