The Daily Stream: Midnight Mass Grapples With Big Questions Under The Guise Of Religious Horror

(Welcome to The Daily Stream, an ongoing series in which the /Film team shares what they've been watching, why it's worth checking out, and where you can stream it.)

The Series: "Midnight Mass"

Where You Can Stream It: Netflix

The Pitch: Riley Flynn (Zach Gilford) comes back home to Crockett Island, population 127, after a four-year stint in jail for drunk driving. He's lost his faith, but his family is still deeply religious, and his return is accompanied by the arrival of a new priest at the local church. Miracles, disappearances, and other strange events soon begin happening around the island. Wheelchair-bound girls walk, and hundreds of dead stray cats suddenly litter the beach. This small, isolated community holds dark secrets, which could be its undoing.

Maybe you're just now hearing about "Midnight Mass," which premiered on Netflix over the weekend. If so, we've got a non-spoiler review up, along with the most recent series trailer. Maybe you've already binged the series and read our spoiler review, in which case, you might still be hungry, or, shall we say, thirsty, for more "Midnight Mass" discourse.

Here, we'll also be delving into some spoilers as we discuss the themes of the series and why it's essential viewing.

Why It's Essential Viewing

"Midnight Mass," like "Doctor Sleep," shows that Mike Flanagan is at his best when dealing with vampiric subject matter and alcoholism recovery. It's basically a vampire island twist on "'Salem's Lot," stretched out over seven episodes. Instead of Richard Straker and Kurt Barlow à la the Stephen King novel, there's Father Paul Hill (Hamish Linklater) and the demonic Angel he encounters in a cave in the Holy Land.

The series never uses the word "vampire," but the tropes of blood-drinking and fear of sunlight are still there. Yet as pulpy as that might sound, this series strives for profundity in the way that Flanagan's film adaptation of "Gerald's Game" did.

There are times when "Midnight Mass" gets bogged down in a mass of monologues: a result, perhaps, of Flanagan serving as his own editor and directing his own wife, Kate Siegel (who plays Riley's old flame, Erin). He's called this series his "most personal" project yet, and if it's occasionally baggy — not always as disciplined or formally rigorous as it could be — it makes up for that by taking a big swing at big issues.

This is a series that gets to the heart of what Andrew Garfield said recently when he discussed how faith is "fertile ground" for storytelling, and there's nothing more vital than questions of life and death. "Midnight Mass" wears its heart on its sleeve in that respect. Flanagan was raised Catholic, but in past interviews, he's professed to being an atheist. Ultimately, the series comes down more on the side of that perspective, but it's still respectful of religious tradition and doesn't condescend to that segment of the audience.

What Happens When You Die?

"Midnight Mass" offers a realistic depiction of church liturgy, and when it's not making Neil Diamond detours, it also makes haunting use of certain hymns. Each episode takes its title from the Bible, yet this series is more of an existentialistic gospel than a religious one. At times, it's reminiscent of the Adrien Lyne film, "Jacob's Ladder," or even the Albert Camus novel, "The Stranger."

The heart of it comes in the conversations between Riley and Erin. "What happens when you die?" they ask each other. Riley couches his description of brain death in poetic dialogue, but the crux of his viewpoint is that when we die, the afterlife, as it were, is simply the final minutes of memories and dreams that play through our mind before all goes dark and your life molecules get redistributed.

The series juxtaposes the blood-drinking of vampires with the ritual of communion. To Riley, it's monstrous that Father Paul can forgive himself for killing and taking advantage of the grace that comes from communion. He rejects that, and so, for him, the only moral option is to sacrifice himself on a boat at dawn, in a bid to save Erin. He becomes his own sort of Christ figure, with Erin functioning as an inverted Virgin Mary whose baby disappears from her womb.

In the end, Father Paul throws off his clerical collar, and Erin seems to come around to Riley's way of thinking. "Midnight Mass" is by turns thought-provoking and narratively engrossing, and there are much worse ways that you could spend your streaming time.