How ‘Midnight Mass’ finds peace in the shadow of death
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It’s hard to find much of anything interesting or new to say about the existential question that’s haunted human consciousness since its beginning: What happens to us when we die?
Yet despite the innumerable centuries of countless people creating entire religions, philosophies, and even cults in search of that answer—somehow, Mike Flanagan’s Midnight Mass episode, “Book IV: Lamentations,” finds new comfort in walking through the valley of the shadow of death.
In what reads like the overarching thesis of the mini-series, a crucial scene in episode 4 centers on protagonists Riley (Zach Gilford) and Erin (Kate Siegel) sharing each of their answers to that final question of existence.
The two have spent the whole day grieving the unnatural, inexplicable loss of Erin’s unborn child. While atheist Riley does his best to support the religious Erin by praying alongside her, the conversation inevitably turns to their polarizing beliefs on the afterlife. Instead of divisive tension or placating pleasantries about agreeing to disagree, what the two find is far more surprising: commonality.
Midnight Mass turns the uncertain fear of death that divides us into a comforting certainty on the one universally shared experience.
Maybe it’s just my religious trauma talking here, but it’s a scene powerful enough to cleanse you of all the guilt, doubt, and self-righteousness that too often plagues these opposing ideologies. In the span of a single conversation (and a callback to it in the final episode), Midnight Mass turns the uncertain fear of death that divides us into a comforting certainty on the one universally shared experience we are all promised.
Sure, the atheist-versus-believer setup isn’t anything new. But what sets the scene in Midnight Mass apart is the true reconciliation that the characters find between seemingly irreconcilable belief systems. This is not a conversation where two dogmas speak on behalf of all the masses who ascribe to it. Rather, it’s a conversation that respects personal interpretation as the only valid answer to the existential crisis of death.
Throughout it, there’s a brilliantly subtle role reversal between what you’d expect to hear from the secular Riley and the religious Erin.
At first, Riley speaks clinically about the facts of death — as it’s currently understood by science. But the more he describes the brain shutting down and body decomposing, the more reverent he becomes until it almost sounds like he’s worshipping an organism’s natural life cycle. Erin on the other hand speaks to what she believes happened to her unborn baby’s soul with the certainty and specificity of a scientific textbook. She describes a return to a pure form and ideal age as if her unborn daughter’s soul were an element on the periodic table undergoing a chemical reaction.
That role reversal goes comes full circle as Erin lays dying in the final moments of the last episode.
Ironically, it is Riley who winds up experiencing a highly religious death — all fire and brimstone, until an angel embodying his past sins grants him forgiveness and entry into heavenly oblivion. Meanwhile, Erin’s mind goes somewhere far more pragmatic, returning right back to that living room with Riley. As Erin slowly bleeds out, she describes all the neurons firing during her brain’s final curtain call, looking up at the stars not to pray to any god but to find comfort in how her death on this earth-bound grass is just like the stars dying in outer space.
No matter how gruesome, characters always find peace in their deaths.
What’s so beautiful, so healing about their conversation is how neither needs to make concessions to the other. The framework Flanagan creates gives the atheist space to enjoy the normal human comforts of religion’s certainties while leaving the believer room to find peace and faith in the process of scientific death. Neither is right; neither is wrong. Both simply are, and how you choose to perceive the end is the only real difference.
Through their conversation, Riley and Erin don’t just meet in the middle of conflicting ideologies. By speaking only to the personal, emotional experience of death, they leave behind the larger organizations who are behind their beliefs — be it religion or science. What’s left instead is just two beings cut from the same exact cloth, going to the same exact place, and coming to the same exact conclusions.
Your atoms dissolve or your soul is absolved. You return to heaven or return to the ecosystem. Call it whatever you’d like. Death comes to bring us all back to the oneness that ensures no one ever truly dies alone.
Death comes to bring us all back to the oneness that ensures no one ever truly dies alone.
There is no Answer to be found in Midnight Mass‘ conversations on the afterlife. This show lets neither its audience nor its characters hide behind over-intellectualized belief systems about death, whether gleaned from religion or science. Instead, it forces you to take the question to heart: What do you truly think happens when you die?
No matter how strict the scripture or scientific evidence you ascribe to is, the true answer is always far more guttural and simple. You can lie to yourself about the certainties of “objective” truth or unshakable faith. But neither science nor God embedded any larger plan for us into the universe.
And honestly, that’s such a relief.
There is an unexpected comfort in the optimistic nihilism of admitting everything is meaningless, so it’s up to you to make whatever meaning you’d like out of life or death. It means no one is right, and no one is wrong. We begin in oblivion, we end in oblivion, and all that we become in between those years goes back into oblivion with us.
What remains after death is the common purpose of all living things: To exist, to die, then repeat. The answer to what happens after we die is that it happens all over again — and again and again.
We may have our differences in life. But in death, we are all the same. If there is no beginning, then there is no end either. After all is said and done, we go back home or we return to the ash.
Midnight Mass is now streaming on Netflix.