Near the beginning of the Netflix series Midnight Mass, released in late 2021, an Ash Wednesday service is faithfully shown, complete with a young priest’s effective and moving sermon, explaining the ashes as “a smudge of death, of ash, of sin—for repentance—because of where this is all heading, which is Easter. Rebirth, resurrection, eternal life, life that rises again.” The scene is a respectful and moving representation of a devout community, and of a church providing hope to the downcast. It’s also a promising start to a promising series that is well acted, boasts high production values, and is very often accurate and even loving in its depiction of the Catholic milieu in which it is necessarily (given the plot) set. Perhaps most strikingly of all, Midnight Mass paints the faithful (save for one particularly enjoyable character, a scold of a parish assistant) in a way that is almost never seen in current-day productions: as admirable people.
These facts make the scene following the Ash Wednesday service all the more strange: In it, the priest and parishioners shift outdoors, ashes still on foreheads, to enjoy an annual cookout, complete with an impressive array of foods laid out across multiple tables. Of course, Ash Wednesday being both a day of fasting and abstention from meat consumption for faithful Catholics, the scene is a surprising misstep that betrays a certain lack of depth and nuance in the showmakers’ overall portrayal of Catholic faith and practice. The contrast between the two scenes, Mass and cookout, neatly encapsulates the tension—between accuracy and inaccuracy, respectful treatment of religious belief and lapses into standard Hollywood pseudo-spiritualism—that defines the show, for good and ill. The accurate and respectful parts, along with the overall quality of the show, make it worth watching; but the miscues and lazy bits make that watching frustrating. Ultimately, the viewer is left asking whether this—a positive if incomplete representation of faith that somehow finds its way to the same New Age spiritual-ish tropes that the modern entertainment industry seemingly can’t help but embrace in the end—is the best that believers can hope for from mass-consumption film and television.
The Terror and the Error
The series is set on a fictional small island in an area redolent of the Chesapeake Bay, with its crab pots, the use of the names Pruitt and Crocker (both prominent surnames on the Bay’s islands to this day), and one character (the town drunk) speaking in a telltale regional accent. There, an unusually devout, near-uniformly Catholic, working-class community lives with the typical and not-so typical struggles of normal folks. One character who was raised on the island returns, pregnant and single, to take over the teaching post formerly held by her own abusive, and deceased, mother. Another comes back in shame, having lost both his good name and his faith, after his foray into the outside world ends with an arrest and a prison sentence for a deadly drunk driving accident. A devout teenager adjusts to life in a wheelchair after an accidental shooting. The new sheriff, a single Muslim father, struggles to fit in along with his teenage son. The town doctor cares for a mother suffering the downward spiral of dementia. All the townsfolk deal with the economic consequences of the fishing industry’s near-collapse following a man-made environmental disaster.
But the plot really revolves around the actions of two priests, one old and one young, who are much more closely related than first appears. At the outset of the series, the elderly Monsignor Pruitt has been sent off, as a gift from his parishioners, on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, while the townspeople fret about his frailty and the future of their little church. A short time later, the young Father Paul Hill arrives on the island, telling of the hospitalization of the monsignor on the mainland. With this arrival come a series of miraculous recoveries and a renewed religious fervor, developments that mask the dark forces—brought to the community by Father Hill himself—that actually underlie the dramatic changes taking place on the island. As a few individuals begin to suspect or actually discover the truth of what is happening, the situation begins to spiral out of control, ending with catastrophe.
Along the way, characters contemplate the nature of sin and redemption, of obligations to each other, of how to move ahead in a very fallen world. There’s earnest hope and faith and stunning, transformative forgiveness, all set against the backdrop of typical hymns and sermons (often, but not always) much better than the average Catholic might hear at their regular Sunday Mass. Sustenance and meaning are drawn from religious faith. It’s genuinely moving and, given the forces lurking just out of the characters’ sight, laced with horror. In this way, the series is excellent.
But then, there’s that Ash Wednesday cookout, and more: Toward the end of the series, some townspeople arrive outside the church on the morning of Good Friday, asking why there is no Mass at that expected time, just as a parish assistant is shown affixing a sign that updates the day’s schedule: “Good Friday Mass 8 PM.” That night, two altar boys pour out wine from commercial bottles into their ceremonial ones in preparation for the service. The timeline of Lent, with Ash Wednesday at the beginning and Good Friday at (just about) the end, is sensible for both the sequencing of the church calendar and the structure of the story. But Good Friday happens to be the one day of the Catholic liturgical year on which Mass is never celebrated, and the church service that day would never be referred to as such. Moreover, as no wine is consecrated on that day, the altar boys would not be pouring it out of the bottles in which it was bought (nor any bottles) in preparation for the service.
We Should Have Seen It Coming
Unfortunately, it is the inaccuracy, and not the careful and positive portrayal of the faithful, that wins out in the end. Whereas the missteps in practice (the cookout, the Good Friday Mass) could have served the story as representative consequences of outside forces intruding on an observant religious community, they instead line the narrative path toward the story’s unsatisfying concluding message—inaccurate portrayals of a given religion that inevitably lead to a clumsy critique of the same. The show provides its grand lesson in its penultimate scene, featuring one of the main characters delivering the kind of tired, made-for-TV wisdom that modern viewers have come to expect:
There is no me, there never was…. I remember I am energy, not memory, not self … just by remembering, I am returning home…. All of us, a part—you, me … everyone who’s ever been … every galaxy, every star … that’s what we’re talking about when we say “God.” … It’s simply a dream that I think is my life, every time; but I’ll forget this, I always do, I always forget my dreams…. But now, in this split second, in the moment I remember … I comprehend everything at once…. And I am all of it, I am everything, I am all.
So, in summary, after hours of a story delving into the lives of faithful Catholics, the viewer gets this takeaway: There is no self, but the self is everything; memory is meaningless to identity, but it is only through remembering that we realize the transcendent truth; you are nothing, you are all (including, apparently, God). Check.
The speech manages to be unenlightening and confusing in equal measures, pop-culture pabulum with only a hint of an unoriginal message: We don’t know much, but orthodoxy, and orthopraxy, will certainly get you nowhere. That’s a big letdown for a series that included so many characters that had, in fact, been sustained by those very things. One feels disheartened by the strange duality of a show that clearly took some care to present the religious life of a genuinely Catholic community, only to heedlessly toss it aside for a rather lazy scene (or two). But hey, viewers should have seen it coming: The showmakers clearly signaled that one should expect exactly this, when they chose to portray a feast on Ash Wednesday.