content warning: depictions of violence and discussions of death
As I settle into my sixth month of social distancing, I’ve watched more Netflix originals than I’d like to admit. Curled in bed with my roommates, our quarantine puppy sprawled across my lap, I desperately try to escape my reality. The hours of banality remain tiring and unavoidable. Despite such encompassing mundanity, I have found one exception: The Midnight Gospel.
The Netflix original has quickly acquired a cult following with its unconventional narrative style and vibrant animation. The show follows innovative space podcaster Clancy as he uses his malfunctioning black market multiverse simulator to travel to worlds on the brink of collapse and conduct interviews. Released on 4/20, it advertises itself as a psychedelic escape, yet argues that this exact type of escapism is a distraction from the intentional, active process of grief.
Upon first watch, half asleep and curled beneath my comforter, I found myself switching back and forth between following the visual storyline and the characters’ conversations—unable to absorb both at the same time. The majority of the show’s audio is sourced from creator Duncan Trussell’s podcast, The Duncan Trussell Family Hour; its writers have recontextualized real dialogue into fictional narrative. Because of this, the show’s audio and visual elements often feel like they tell two separate stories. Though this disjointedness crafts much of the show’s charm, in critical moments it is disorienting, pulling me out of the world they’ve worked so hard to create.
In considering this disconnectedness, I often return to the second episode, “Officers and Wolves,” which features writer Anne Lamott as a deer-dog who is drugged and carted through an amusement park-like meat factory. During her time there, her horns are harvested and her body pulverized for meat production by robot clowns while a group of fly-riding rebels in gas masks plant bombs inside the factory. Shocking, I know. Even more disorienting than the absurd visuals is Clancy and Lamott’s dialogue, sourced from an interview for Trussell’s podcast, which is about attempting to make sense of death and grief. At moments, I find myself so absorbed in their discussion I close my eyes, forgetting the visuals entirely.
Though most shows can be understood mainly through audio (as I’ve learned far too well by watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer while speeding through chemistry homework), The Midnight Gospel is different because its audio exists independently of its visuals. In the midst of an episode, fixating on the audio fails as significant plot points only exist visually. Though the visual and auditory elements are distinctly separate in their storylines, they share clear thematic ties. As Lamott and Trussell discuss grief, their deer-dog reincarnations are spun through a meat grinder and shredded, maintaining a somewhat jovial attitude that mirrors the podcast’s
discussion of accepting death. Just before their bodies are crushed, Lamott says, “It takes death to help you let go. Just go, ‘okay, fine.’ And that’s sort of my beautiful moment of surrender with God—I say with enormous bitterness, ‘okay, fine.’” In the midst of this sentence, as Lamott attempts to find some semblance of serenity with death, her calm deer-dog body is smashed to pieces.
Though gruesome and violent, I find this episode the most palatable, as the visual and auditory storylines rely more heavily on one another than in other episodes. My first time watching, I was jolted awake by a sharp shift in tone as Clancy and Lamott table their discussion of grief for a trip to the bathroom. Injected with “namastex,” Clancy is unable to move, and attempts to defecate while perched on deer-dog Lamott’s nose. Until this moment, neither character had acknowledged anything happening in the visual storyline—all dialogue came from the podcast. Suddenly, the visual and auditory narratives converge as Lamott and Clancy awkwardly discuss how to maneuver their bodies into an effective position. (One where, hopefully, Clancy’s shit would not end up all over Lamott’s deer-dog nose.) After a grueling 30 seconds, they give up, and return to their discussion of grief. I find these moments in which the auditory and visual elements converge confusing and disorienting. They interject sporadically throughout the show and jolt me out of my dazed state, happily numbed by the psychedelic animations. Yet, contrasted with the emotional intensity of the dialogue, they prove the show’s awareness of its own absurdity.
“Officers and Wolves” not only feels most palatable as an introduction to this new form of television, it also exemplifies an underlying thread throughout the series: the idea that rather than being a passive process, grief requires active work. In a move that is either brilliant or overstated, the show ties in dialogue about childbirth to further the point. In the final moments of the episode, Lamott describes her experiences of labor, saying, “You’re not alone and people are helping you and they’re giving you ice chips and extremely cold apple juice…and it’s contraction and release and breath and peace and oh no oh no and you contract and constrict and it hurts really like a mother and you rest and it’s what heaven will be like.” It's difficult to know if she’s describing birth or grief. For Lamott, there has always been a link between the two, as her closest childhood friend passed away from breast cancer the day she gave birth to her son. With that being said, the show twists this union almost to its breaking point.
The final episode, “Mouse of Silver,” features Deneen Fendig, Trussell’s mother, in an interview recorded shortly before her death. As Clancy and his mother walk through the halls of a teddy bear research institute, they age before our eyes. Clancy’s mother’s hair grows grayer and wrinkles are sketched into her face, and as she lays down in a mushroom field, her body blossoms into a giant blue mushroom tree. Clancy’s stomach begins to swell, and he is wheeled into a delivery room by tiny colorful medical bears and fed ice chips—an allusion to Lamott’s description—as he struggles to give birth to his mother. Trussell’s grief is tangible throughout the audio recording featured in the episode, the pain in his voice simulated by his character’s strenuous labor. As a viewer, this is a moment where the contrast between the absurdity of the
animation and intensity of the audio becomes unbearably confusing. Then, suddenly, the show regains its fluidity. As Clancy grows into an old man and his mother into a young woman, they pause in a candle-lit heart-shaped spaceship as he asks, “There’s no way to stop the heartbreak. How do you…What do you do about that?” Embracing him, tears in both their eyes, she says
simply, “You cry! You cry.” It is the most tender moment in the series.
Grief has taken a more prominent role in casual conversation these past few months as we all attempt to understand the loneliness and pain of isolation. Though The Midnight Gospel has been in production for more than seven years, its release now feels creepily predictive. Lamott tells a story in the second episode of “a little girl who’s trying to fall asleep in the dark and her mother…comes in and says Jesus is right here with you and the child says, I need someone with skin on.” When we grieve, it is for the loss of the physicality of someone, the whole of someone. We crave a closeness that can’t be reproduced—an all too familiar feeling these days. With modern technology, it is possible, if not easy, to hear someone’s voice or see their face after they are gone. Indeed, the final episode of The Midnight Gospel fabricates a conversation between Trussell and his mother. Trussell actually had no part in writing the episode; he found it too painful. Watching it after it was completed, he experienced a conversation with his mother that never actually happened. Attempts to manufacture closeness through technology in no way ease our grief. In fact, they often magnify it. Lamott’s description of needing “someone with skin on” feels all the more pertinent now, as we all crave a kind of closeness that’s become risky and dangerous, if not impossible.
Though The Midnight Gospel reflects the desperation of this longing, I was taken aback by Trussell, Lamott, and Fendig’s largely hopeful representation of grief. Halfway through the second episode, Lamott’s deer-dog asserts, “The stuff that enlivens us and heals us doesn’t come on bumper stickers, you know? It’s hard fought. It takes death to help you let go.” The deer-dog asserts that growth and resilience can come from the work of mourning. Clancy’s mother agrees in the last episode, explaining, “The reason I look better than I ever have is that I’m living and dying consciously, simultaneously I’m holding both.” Through the process of dying, of grieving her life and loved ones, Fendig claims to have become more whole. Later she notes, “People really try to avoid the consideration that they are gonna die and that people they love are gonna die. It opens your heart. It breaks your heart open. Our hearts have been closed because we’ve closed them. We’ve defended ourselves against pain, and this opens them.” I wonder if the pain we feel these days, in all its overwhelming and dull ambiguity, is opening us. It begs the question, what about this moment enables this kind of openness? The Midnight Gospel suggests that it’s the grieving.
At its core, the show is constructed on a simple principle: an adventurous space podcaster travels to dying worlds to learn about loss. Even across the multiverse, creatures’ understandings of grief unite them. If this message is so simple and concise, why use such a complicated medium to communicate it?
The magic and mystery of The Midnight Gospel is that, much to my surprise, when universal truths are masked in complicated details and stories, sometimes they’re easier to hear. Instead of being told that grief is uniting—which I would have met with an exaggerated eye roll for its condescension—all I had to do was absorb another world, full of color and chaos. The Midnight Gospel teaches without its viewers knowing they are being taught.
Though the brilliance of the show is clear, its ironic oversight is that it critiques its own central message. Rather than fully engaging with its audience around the challenges of grief, or even asking the audience to grieve the loss of particular characters, the show’s complex visuals distract viewers from this pain, taking the hard work out of this process. In the middle of the final
episode, Clancy remarks, “So many of us are spending so much time engaged in just ridiculous activities just to try and avoid this experience,” to which his mother responds, “Exactly. People really try to avoid the consideration that they are gonna die and that people they love are gonna die.”
Released in a moment when so many are struggling with loss, the show has easily become another ‘ridiculous activity’ to avoid the work of mourning, rather than wade through the pain. I watch it when I want to pretend that there isn’t a global pandemic, not acknowledge it. The visual beauty of the show is another way to escape the disheartening reality we live in, rather than acknowledge and move through it. Yet in some twisted way, this distraction opens us; watching The Midnight Gospel is itself a practice in grieving.
Throughout the past sixth months, I’ve been surrounded by grief in myriad ways. Packing up my childhood bedroom, I've stumbled across photos of a childhood friend who died last year. I remember what it felt like to hold her hand behind the plum trees in our old backyard, and I hate that there's a limit to how many things I can remember about her. Loss, I am learning, is weird, harrowing, and personal. I watched the majority of The Midnight Gospel with my best friends and roommates—two siblings who lost their mom to pancreatic cancer during my sophomore year of high school. They have taught me about grief through proximity, shown me that it necessitates both grace and clumsiness, strength and pain. One of them loved The Midnight Gospel, the other didn't. Despite her resistance, the half an hour on our apartment’s fold out bed was somehow comforting. Even if it can’t help us make sense of the pain of this moment, it can at least distract us from it for a minute.
EVIE HIDYSMITH B’21 also has a lot to say about Avatar: The Last Airbender.