No matter the medium or genre, you will always run into scenes with two people talking. Sometimes the talking serves a purpose, other times it’s a slog you have to get through to get to the more exciting bits. In writer-director Mike Flanagan’s stories, sometimes characters do nothing but talk—to the point that it’s become its own subset of memes.
Across The Haunting of Hill House and Bly Manor, characters often give deeper ruminations to a simple “how are you?” They give you their whole life story in an anecdote or drop some philosophical kernels to chew on for the rest of the season. This might make Flanagan’s latest, Midnight Mass, sound pompous and long-winded. But, to jump on Flanagan’s wavelength for a minute, don’t we all ponder our purpose in life? Aren’t we all searching for meaning in the vastness of the cosmos?
Midnight Mass is my latest Netflix obsession of the moment. Having turned this blog into a Fear Street Tumblr page this past summer, it’s safe to say I’ll be doing the same for Midnight Mass. I’m aware that not all have the luxury of bingeing the series as I did. In fact, I highly recommend you take your time. Whether you’re religious or not, Midnight Mass is A LOT to take in. (Yes, the show deals overtly with religion. It’s right there in the title.)
In the interest of others going at their own pace, I’ll be refraining from major plot details and spoilers—though I strongly advise not reading anything until you’ve finished the series. I’ll dive deeper into Midnight Mass in due time. For now, I want to zero in on a monologue between two characters in the show: Riley Flynn and Erin Greene. Episode 4 (or Book IV) – Lamentations.
In the series, Riley Flynn finds himself confined to his hometown of Crockett Island. A cruel stroke of fate. He said he’d never come back, but after a drunk driving accident that claimed the life of an innocent woman, he’s circled back to the “Crock Pot” and left to stew in his guilt and self-loathing.
Erin Greene made a similar declaration at seventeen. Crockett Island could not encompass her dreams so she ran away from an abusive mother, from a dead-end life only to come back pregnant following an abusive relationship, inheriting the same house and the same job as her mother. As Midnight Mass suggests early on, all things return from whence they came, whether naturally or tragically.
In Episode 4, Erin has mysteriously gone through a miscarriage by circumstances unknown and this sends her reeling. Tragedy strikes once more. She has every reason to pack up and pack up for good. Angry teens run away. Adults have to commit to the hard part and stay right where we are.
Death has a way of sparking ruminations on our place in the universe. Riley and Erin seek each other’s company as they’ve done in the past three episodes now. This time, they pose each other the pivotal question that’s on our minds late at night and we’re too scared to think of an answer: What happens when we die?
Their individual responses show how vastly different their viewpoints are.
Riley sums it the exact way I would’ve put it, more or less.
And here it is, paraphrased, for your eyes’ sake:
“When I die, my body stops functioning. Five minutes later, my brain cells start dying. But in the meantime, in between, maybe my brain releases a flood of DMT – the psychedelic drug released when we dream – so I dream. I dream bigger than I have ever dreamed before because it’s all of it. Just the last dump of DMT all at once, and my neurons are firing and I’m seeing this firework display of memories and imagination. My mind’s rifling through the memories, long and short term, and the dreams mix with the memories. And it’s a curtain call. One last great dream as my mind empties the fuckin’ missile silos, and then I stop. My brain activity ceases and there is nothing left of me. No pain, no memory, no awareness that I ever was. That I ever hurt someone. That I ever killed someone. Everything is as it was before me. All of the other little things that make me up – the microbes and bacterium and the billion other little things that live on my eyelashes and in my hair and in my mouth and on my skin and in my gut and everywhere else, they just keep on living and eating. And I’m serving a purpose. I’m feeding life and I’m broken apart and all the littlest pieces of me are just recycled and I’m billions of other places. And my atoms are in plants and bugs and animals, and I am like the stars that are in the sky. There one moment and then just scattered across the goddamn cosmos.”
Riley reverts to logic, to natural processes and reality. He doesn’t believe in greener pastures or higher ascensions because he’s crash-landed back down on Earth and beaten himself into the ground. He says there’s nothing at the end of all this—just the end. Exit stage left. Cut to black.
Speaking for myself, it’s a thought that has sent me spiraling at night, fueling all-nighters trying to stay productive or distracted from the fact that once my time is done, that’s it. I had my chance to live, and this was it. And then it’s just… black. Overwhelming darkness. Nothing.
I don’t take solace in God the way I used to as a kid. I once identified as an atheist, but really I’m non-practicing. I believe in… something. Just not quite sure it’s a God or a higher being or some larger grand plan. I’m exactly like Riley right down to his cynicism of faith and the bible, and the repressed solitude of his day-to-day existence. He’s stopped singing the hymns, ceased partaking in communion, and has quietly accepted that his soul is eternally damned.
God might forgive him, but Riley has resigned to never forgive himself.
Erin, however, is a bright beacon whose faith never wavered. She’s been tested again and again, especially now having to part with a baby she’ll never meet in this life. She has every reason to deep-dive into cynicism and join Riley in his existential angst. She doesn’t. By some miracle, she soldiers on.
Her answer in regards to her deceased child is as follows. (Low-quality link for those interested.) Again, paraphrased:
“She was never awake. When she came down into this little body, it was asleep, so all she ever knew was dreaming. She only ever dreamed. She didn’t even have a name. And then in her sleep, that perfect little spirit just lifted up. Because God didn’t send her to suffer through life on Earth. God just sent her down here to sleep. And then He called her back, so she went back same as she floated down. She rose up above the Earth, past all the souls in the atmosphere and all the stars in the sky and then into a light so bright. Then for the first time, she starts to wake up. She’s wrapped in a feeling of love. Of course she is; she’s pure. She has never sinned, never hurt a single living thing, not even an ant. Then when God reaches down and kisses her head and the second He says her name, she grows up in a blink. She’s perfect. Her body is as it would have been on her best day on Earth. The peak of herself. And she’s happy, nothing but joy for all eternity. She’s loved, and she isn’t alone. That’s what we mean when we say Heaven. No mansions, no rivers of diamonds, or fluffy clouds or angel wings. You are loved and you aren’t alone. That is God. That is Heaven. That’s why we endure all that we endure on this big, blue, sad rock. I’ll be there soon enough. I’ll see my little girl and she will be happy and safe. And I will be so glad to meet her.”
When characters speak in Mike Flanagan’s stories, they speak from the heart. Often times profoundly, others mournfully. They want to be heard by all or by the right person. With Flanagan’s camera trained on the actors in long meditative closeups, often that person is just us.
Mind you, this is halfway in episode 4, technically the mid-season marker of the series. By this point via two soulful monologues, we understand these two characters better than any series of flashbacks or additional episodes could’ve done. Erin’s monologue in particular – in a show full of heady lines and quotes – is the one that split me into a million specks. Because I wish I was her. I wish I took life’s swings as steadfastly as she does. I wish I was hopeful. Most of all, I wish I believed in an after.
There are things Erin says throughout her monologue that I’ve heard pastors say during funerals which I wholeheartedly object to. “God calling back his angels” seems like a cruel euphemism for something so heartless. Like a baby being taken without warning. Or a life ending before we’re ready to say goodbye. It’s framed as something that was meant to happen. We’re supposed to take comfort in the whole notion that God has a plan, or He works in mysterious ways, all while re-reading passages that’s supposed to make this all okay when it’s not.
And I think that’s why Erin’s words resonate so deeply, regardless of my own feelings on religion. Because when faced with oblivion, Erin clings to hope. In her despair, she still believes in God.
Where Riley sees the brutal completion of his journey by moving back to Crockett Island, Erin sees a chance to begin again in the very place she had forsaken all those years ago. Now, faced with heartrending tragedy, she holds onto her faith—but not for easy answers that will make any of this make sense or hurt less. She’s not tethered to logic the way some of us revert to it as a default or a sense of security. She confides in love, hope, and the belief that everything happens for a reason. It has to, in her eyes. Otherwise, there’s no point.
If the concept of fate robs us of any free will from a cynic’s point of view, then Erin’s outlook restores fate in a positive sense. That at the end of all this, we return to where we once came—though not from darkness, but ultimately to the light.
Riley Flynn is the candle withering away before dawn, whereas Erin Greene is the lighthouse in the torrential storm. So if I were to tag myself on that couch, I am wholeheartedly Riley in body and spirit, teetering and broken. I, too, could listen to Erin waxing poetic about our place in the universe all night long. (Or perhaps that’s just the power of Kate Siegel.) I don’t know if I’ll ever share her optimism or embrace those same beliefs of an afterlife, but I’m working on it. We can’t all be Erin, but we can’t all be Riley either. For now, I agree with Riley at the end of Erin’s monologue: “I hope you’re right.”
In the finale, Erin revisits the question and takes both her and Riley’s sentiment of what happens when we die and combines it into a powerful ending coda – a fusion of the tragic and profound, altogether reassuring that no matter what happens, everything will be okay in the end. The language might not land for some, or it may sound too high and mighty to grasp.
Speaking for myself, my embittered soul felt every ounce of this.