The creator of Haunting of Hill House and Bly Manor returns to Netflix with a horror story that doubles as a meditation on faith, death, and free will.

Simply put, I can't stop thinking about Midnight Mass. The 7-episode limited series from Mike Flanagan — the horror impresario behind Netflix's Hill House and Bly Manor — isn't perfect, but it is a keenly affecting, beautifully acted reflection on death, faith, guilt, addiction, and the power of free will.

Midnight Mass (premiering Friday on Netflix) is one of those "the less you know, the better" shows, so rest assured nothing in this paragraph could even loosely be defined as a spoiler. Four years after killing a teenage girl in a drunk driving accident, Riley Flynn (Zach Gilford) leaves prison and reluctantly returns home to Crockett Island, a tiny, deteriorating fishing burg accessible only by ferry — and the one place Riley spent all his life trying to escape.

Hamish Linklater in Midnight Mass

There's not much to do in "The Crock Pot," as the locals call it, so when the island's elderly priest falls ill and the magnetic Father Paul (Hamish Linklater) arrives to take his place, it's big news around town. To everyone except Riley, that is; he went into prison a former altar boy and walked out an atheist. But living under mom and dad's roof means living under their rules, and to Annie (Kristin Lehman) and Ed Flynn (Henry Thomas), church is mandatory. At least Riley can commiserate with his teenage sweetheart Erin Greene (Kate Siegel) who fled the island years ago to get away from her alcoholic mom and is now back with a baby on the way after fleeing an abusive marriage.  

Kate Siegel and Zach Gilford in Midnight Mass

Soon after Father Paul's arrival, weird things start to happen. Hundreds of dead cats litter the beach after a major storm. Did Riley really see a figure in a trench coat and a fedora wandering outside during the squall? Did his little brother Warren (Igby Rigney) just spot a pair of glowing eyes in the darkness? Or are their minds just playing tricks on them? Sarah Gunning (Annabeth Gish), the town's even-keeled doctor, puzzles as her frail, elderly mother's behavior begins to change. This doubt carries over to the viewer as the episodes progress: Something seems different about Ed and Annie… or maybe that's just my imagination? Then comes the miracle, an astonishing moment in church between Father Paul and a girl named Leeza (Annarah Cymone), and suddenly the citizens of Crockett are packing the pews at every mass.

There is a twist, of course, a supernatural source to all these unexplained events — and to be honest, it's a little disappointing. But Midnight Mass makes up for the somewhat predictable nature of its mystery with the thoughtful and varied ways the characters react to the changes overtaking Crockett Island. Riley still isn't big on church, but Father Paul runs his court-mandated AA meetings, and their weekly discussions inevitably trend toward the philosophical. "So, alcohol — that isn't good or bad. The same with guilt, grief, suffering," notes Father Paul. "It just depends on what we do with it."

In retrospect, that conversation — which happens toward the end of episode 2 — articulates a key theme in Midnight Mass. The show requires sharp attention as a viewer, not just to the action but to the ideas and observations the characters debate along the way. Sheriff Hassan (Rahul Kohli) is the lone law-enforcement officer on Crockett Island, and he and his son, Ali (Rahul Abburi), are two isolated Muslims in a sea of Catholics. When the town busybody and Father Paul's number-one acolyte, Bev Keane (an eerily composed Samantha Sloyan), hands out Bibles to the kids at the public school, Hassan objects. "Muslims believe that Jesus was a prophet of God," he informs her. "But we also believe, after the time of Jesus, thanks to the interference of men, people altered the message." That speech, like so many other moments in Midnight Mass, plants a seed that sprouts into a narrative epiphany as the story concludes.

The success of Flanagan's story depends on a truly charismatic man of the cloth, and Linklater is the miracle he needed. The actor channels the powerful magnetism of a passionate preacher but never really lets us get comfortable with Father Paul — a humble, wry man of faith whose devotion sometimes bears an unsettling resemblance to insanity. Gilford is extraordinary as Riley, a man so weighed down by guilt and despair that he can barely lift his gaze from the ground. Siegel brings a wistful, wry allure to Erin, forever bonded to Riley through regret and the pain of a past they can't escape. The poster of Dana Scully in Riley's childhood bedroom is, perhaps, a clever wink to their relationship: Riley is the Scully to Erin's Mulder, the skeptic paired with someone who wants to believe.

As an allegory, Midnight Mass doesn't have anything particularly groundbreaking to say about religion as an opiate of the masses. That's okay; the power here lies in the profoundly human struggles faced by the faithful and the doubting Thomases in Father Paul's flock. Beyond the jump scares and the suspense and the looming dread, Midnight Mass summons a message of hope: Sometimes it's okay to be your own savior. A-

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Midnight Mass (TV series)

A mysterious priest. Unexplainable "miracles." A newfound religious fervor. The residents of Crockett Island are about to have their faith tested in horrific ways. 

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