Editor’s Note As noted in the title, this piece contains discussions of suicide.
Netflix’s Midnight Mass means different things to different people. To some, it’s another solid entry in Mike Flanagan’s run of horror anthologies, this time pulling from vampire lore that spans from Dracula to The Lost Boys, with a bit of Faust and The Exorcist thrown in for good measure. To others, like Paste’s TV Editor Allison Keene, it’s also rare TV portrayal of “the devout beauty and horror” of Christianity at its “most honest…[and] raw.”
To me, it’s a stirring story of sacrifice… for the most part. When the small town of Crockett Island is caught up in a miraculous occurrence that proves to be more demonic than godly, the truly good people lay down their lives for the sake of others. Arguably, however, the most powerful sacrifice of the series is, in fact, a suicide.
In Season 1, Episode 5, “Book V: Gospel,” Midnight Mass kills off one of its leads in spectacular, supernatural fashion. Riley Flynn, played with great pathos by Zach Gilford, is our introduction to the series, as it’s revealed that he’s returning home to Crockett Island after four years in prison for causing a drunk driving car crash that killed a young woman. Riley’s struggles with guilt and self-loathing form the core of the character at first, an idea hammered home by his gruesome nightly visions of the accident victim. We slowly see some redemptive work happening within him, but that’s thanks more to his childhood love interest Erin Greene (Kate Siegel) and Riley’s own unexpected mentor work than anything he discovered on his own faith journey. So it’s all the more shocking when, just as Riley seems to be rediscovering his purpose in this world, fate deals him another cruel blow.
While his talks with Father Paul (Hamish Linklater) didn’t really seem to help him “find God” or get over his guilt, Riley did find a purpose in helping Joe (Robert Longstreet) deal with his own demons through the island’s version of Alcoholics Anonymous. But ironically, it was Riley and Joe’s proximity to Father Paul and the “angel” that caused both of their deaths; Riley just had a bit more agency in how his own, more permanent death came about. But was his death in Episode 5 really a sacrifice for the benefit of his friends, family, and the town? A selfless deed done to reveal the true horrors about to happen? Or was it more akin to a suicide?
Riley didn’t ask to be made into a vampire, but he also didn’t do a whole lot with the powers the curse bestowed upon him. After one night of extrasensory perception, he opts to end it all in spectacular fashion. He leaves what amount to suicide notes for his family and Erin, the latter of whom has to also bear witness to his fiery death. So essentially, Riley is exhibiting some of the classic signs of suicidal behavior by “preparing his way out.” But in the process, he’s leaving a devastating wake behind him. In other words, he’s giving up.
“I knew you wouldn’t believe any of this unless you saw,” he says to Erin, having rowed the two of them out to the middle of the bay, far from shore and sanctuary. “I’m just so sorry you have to see this.”
While a sweet farewell on the surface, a few things ring untrue about that goodbye. Erin was previously established as someone who was all-in on faith and the concept of an ever-living soul descended from and ascending to Heaven, someone who was philosophically opposed to Riley’s skeptical, cynical way of thinking. She didn’t likely need a display of dawn-driven vampiric combustion to believe Riley. (Besides, there were plenty of less sensational ways to convince her.) So what we have instead is a selfish act of suicide with a tacked-on guilt trip of, “Actually, I’m doing this for your benefit.”
Riley may be free and clear of his guilt and his nightmares now, and as a bonus unbeknownst to him, he also avoids dealing with the horrors about to descend upon Crockett Island. But the humans sure could have used a turned-against-his-will, supernaturally strong fighter on their side. (I mean, it worked pretty well for five whole seasons of Angel.) Riley’s family, however, never gets to say goodbye on their own terms. Erin, completely blindsided by Riley’s death on both wholly mundane and supernaturally shocking levels, surely had her own hellish version of PTSD for the rest of her short life. Riley took the “easy” way out for his own sake, leaving everyone else he supposedly cared about to stay behind, pick up the pieces, and carry on.
“I did my best,” said Riley. “I did my best.”
Maybe he truly did. And honestly, that’s the most that anyone can ask of us, the most that any of us can do. Flanagan himself—no stranger to internal conflicts over religion and private concerns about a family history of alcoholism—did his damnedest over the better part of the last decade to get Midnight Mass made according to his singular vision. It was clearly a personal project for him.
“But my biggest fear wasn’t that I would die in a drunken car accident,” he told the New York Times. “It was that I would kill someone else and live. That is the beating heart of ‘Midnight Mass.’”
Perhaps Riley’s character and his surprising departure hew closer to Flanagan’s heart of hearts than we’ll ever know; perhaps Riley’s last act, sacrificial or selfish though it may be, was the sort of redemption Flanagan himself would hope for should he let his worst fears play out to their conclusion, logical or otherwise. But for me, as someone who has lost good friends and mentors to suicide in this real world of ours, I’m still mad at Riley for giving up, for not staying to fight the good fight. And I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to forgive him.
Dave Trumbore is a writer and former Senior Editor of Collider.com, as well as the author of The Science of Breaking Bad. For more on TV, movies, animation, and games, you can follow him @DrClawMD.
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