“That’s all any of us are in the end. Stories.”
So says Ilonka (Iman Benson), the protagonist of The Midnight Club, Mike Flanagan’s latest series in his signature subgenre of heartache horror. Storytelling and philosophies of death punctuate the show’s first (and sadly, only) season.
On the eve of salutatorian Ilonka’s high school graduation, she and her best friend pull a Booksmart, but instead of hitting up a high school party, they opt for a college one. Ilonka coughs up blood there, leading to a terminal thyroid cancer diagnosis. In an attempt to find instances of patients being cured of her condition, she stumbles across Brightcliffe, a hospice center for young people situated in an old house. After convincing her foster dad to let her move there, she meets seven other young people with terminal illnesses.
There’s Kevin (Igby Rigney), the first friend she makes, a sweet kid coping with leukemia who works to support Ilonka’s motivations to find a cure patiently. There’s Sandra (Annarah Cymone), a proselytizing but good-intentioned Christian dealing with lymphoma; Spencer (William Chris Sumpter), a young gay man with AIDs; Cheri (Adia), the “rich girl” who the others accuse of being a pathological liar; Natsuki (Aya Furukawa), who in addition to her terminal illness must cope with the loss of her father; Amesh (Sauriyan Sapkota), a consummate video gamer; and last but not least, Anya (Ruth Codd), Ilonka’s tough-as-nails roommate. Heather Langenkamp of Nightmare on Elm Street fame and Zach Gilford round out the main cast respectively as Dr. Georgina Stanton, the owner of Brightcliffe, and Mark, a nurse who helps treat the Midnight Club.
Speaking of which, what is the Midnight Club? Ilonka follows Anya one night as she sneaks out of their room, down the elevator and into the library. It’s there Ilonka watches unseen in the shadows as her fellow Brightcliffe patients sit around a table, recite an invocation paying homage to the dead and those who will come after them, and start telling each other stories. They will later explain that they are “making ghosts,” a phrase that illustrates the ways stories craft characters that feel like traces of reality.
Once Ilonka is inducted into the Midnight Club and begins to bond more closely with her peers, she also meets a woman in the woods named Shasta (Samantha Sloyan), who tells her all about the healing properties of the Brightcliffe grounds. Shasta is insistent that Ilonka can be cured and ignites a further fire in her to pursue curing by any means necessary. This will plunge her and her friends into a tumultuous and mystical path toward a miraculous remedy.
As always, Mike Flanagan and his cowriters have a rich sense of characterization. Each character has a unique part to play in the overall emotional tapestry of the series, and each club member can gain genuine empathy from the audience. Illness narratives are difficult, as they can so often sink to maudlin scenes that are meant to jerk tears from viewers, but I didn’t find myself crying during The Midnight Club as much as hoping each character would find what they wanted and needed from their arcs. I wanted the best for them despite them being fictional. And that is so often the mark of good stories–just wanting to see a character at peace.
Although the stories the club members tell are a mixed bag, with some interesting ones and other ones too short to have a meaningful impact, the main narrative of the real-world is far more interesting. I often waited for the club members’ stories to end so we could return to the characters and the high stakes of what was actually going on in Brightcliffe. I wanted to see more of Ilonka and Kevin, Anya’s nuanced arc, and a clearer understanding of the mysterious events occurring in Brightcliffe. The Midnight Club boasts very compelling characters, and although the stories at times shed light on their inner lives, they often fail to expand on characters or tie relevantly in with the themes of the main storyline. As someone who majored in Creative Writing, I feel these stories read like an undergrad’s early attempts at storytelling under a tight deadline, considering these characters are the age of typical freshmen and haven’t learned the finer points of narrative-crafting yet; it does check out.
Like I said, a few do offer important character moments or interesting approaches. Natsuki’s story about a young woman who picks up two hitchhiker musicians (played well by Alex Essoe and long-time Flanagan collaborator Henry Thomas) helps her connect meaningfully with Amesh and share a difficult-to-communicate reality. Anya’s disturbing tale mixes fact with fiction when it comes to her own life, and later we learn her true story, allowing us to see the interconnections between story and memoir. Although less personally-meaningful, Kevin’s story offers some good moments, with one jump-scare startling me so much my Lunchable pizza I was holding went airborne, almost like I was in a cartoon. Amesh’s and Spence’s stories both offer fewer scares and more reflective thoughts on science fiction. Ilonka’s story “Witch” feels too simplistic though, as does Sandra’s. Both characters deserved stronger, more complex stories that help flesh them out as characters and show their own unique ways of storytelling.
Despite some interesting aspects, the show asks a lot of us when these stories take up significant portions of an episode’s run-time, especially when the surrounding frame narrative leaves so many unanswered questions by the finale–questions we will never see answered on screen due to the show’s cancellation.
But never fear, Flanagan has given us answers. In a Tumblr post published shortly after Netflix’s cancellation announcement, the showrunner outlined all the major plot points of his planned second season to tie up the most pressing loose ends. This should, obviously, be read after you see season one, but if you already have, you can click here to read the post.
I want to wrap back around to one character though before I conclude. Sumpter’s performance as Spence was my favorite thing about the show. The Midnight Club has done very well with creating a diverse group of characters. It includes three queer characters, one of whom is Spence, a character who has a meaningful arc across episodes. Although The Midnight Club has far fewer monologues than Flanagan’s masterpiece Midnight Mass, Sumpter receives one when Spence delivers a speech to an important person in his life who hasn’t accepted him. The dialogue is beautiful, Sumpter performs it with heartfelt depth, and it extends the queer representation far past a blithe tick-mark. He’s one of my favorite queer characters in recent memory, and I’m sad we won’t get to see more of his story in another season.
Despite the uneven mini-stories, it’s impossible not to recommend The Midnight Club to anyone who enjoys character-focused horror, especially about young people. Flanagan has undoubtedly done it again to show that love is worth the risk even in dire situations. Even when facing ghosts, reaching out to the person nearest you is the answer.