(Warning: This post contains spoilers through the finale of Netflix’s “Midnight Mass.”)
Recently released convict Riley Flynn (Zach Gilford) sacrifices himself midway through “The Haunting of Hill House” creator Mike Flanagan’s new limited series “Midnight Mass” in a desperate attempt to convince his childhood friend Erin Greene (Kate Siegel) to escape the bloody fate awaiting their community. He knows full well that Erin, being the good-natured person she is, will just return to Crockett Island to save their friends and family anyway.
Riley’s fiery death, which occurs after he has been turned into a vampirelike creature by Father Paul/Monsignor Pruitt (Hamish Linklater) and The Angel who has brought this “miracle” to their town, is a spectacle he set up to convince Erin that the story he’s told her about what happened to him really is true, as it’s pretty unbelievable until you see someone turn into ash in front of you.
But why does Riley make this choice to go out in a burst of flames in front of Erin — with some of his final words before his death being “I love you, Erin Greene,” followed by her reciprocating those feelings — rather than attempt to be the hero that tries to save Erin and the rest of Crockett Island, as Erin, reluctantly, turns out to be in his place?
“She’s the one person who got him,” Gilford told TheWrap. “I love that scene where she’s on the porch and he’s walking by. And I think it’s in the first episode, where she’s like, ‘You’re not going to say hello?’ And I think he genuinely feels like, I don’t want bother her. And then just her saying, ‘How is your day?’ … And he’s like, ‘Wow, I feel so seen.’ I think it’s very honest. They are the two people who left this island and the two people who see the world differently. And she seems to really see him and not see him in that motherly way, where it’s like, ‘I know you killed someone, but you’re always my son and I love you.'”
Her abiding faith in him — and willingness to give him “the opportunity to be a different person” also impacts Riley. “I think it really resonates with him,” Gilford said. “And then you fold in the fact that they were high school sweethearts. There’s just that romance we have for our first like and it’s this extreme situation and then it’s the only person that you can kind of like connect with. And I think he just feels like, you deserve more than this.”
Gilford said he was taken by surprise when he learned he wasn’t actually the star — at least not the long-term star — of the Netflix series. “So, I’m actually friends with Hamish before this project and he got to read scripts before I did, but just like a couple days. And he sends me this text he’s like, ‘Holy s—, I’m in Episode 4 and you just died.’ I was like, ‘Oh, I hadn’t gotten there yet. I know I die at some point, but I didn’t realize it was 4.’ And then he’s like, ‘Nope! Episode 5 you’re back.’ And then he’s like, ‘You just died again!'”
Riley’s trajectory reminded the actor of one of his favorite Brad Pitt movies. “My big joke on set was that I was doing ‘Meet Joe Black,'” he said, referring to the 1998 film in which Pitt played Death as he visited a nearly 65-year-old businessman. “I love that movie, that movie is amazing, I’m not talking junk about it, or else I’d be talking junk about myself. But I just felt like he was just kind of there. And then that scene in the boat, he knows what he’s going to do, he knows it’s not going to work. But this is the only chance he has. And so he’s like lost in the stars. It’s like, you’re literally about to sacrifice yourself. So even though you’re trying to do what you want to do and convince this person, you’re a little bit like esoteric. And then, I have the privilege of editing where I just get to do that scene ‘Meet Joe Black’ style. That was all CGI. I’m very lucky I didn’t have to act that.”
Before Riley’s death, Gilford got to experience several episodes worth of character development, including Riley — an alcoholic who went to prison for several years for killing a young girl, Tara-Beth, in a drunk driving accident — sitting through many intense, but respectful AA sessions with Father Paul. You know, before that whole turning-him-into-a-vampire thing occurred between them.
“What I really liked about this character is that he was someone who was very religious,” Gilford said. “He was an altar boy. He believed in all that, and then it was having this life-altering event that was his fault. That’s where he’s like, ‘That’s bulls–.’ I mean, I say it all in the show, it’s like, ‘The idea that that’s God’s plan? That’s just a cop out. It’s my fault. That’s on me. And if it really is God’s plan, then God’s an asshole, and I’m not going to believe in that guy.'”
In Riley’s final moment, he is actually able to reach some level of acceptance about what he has done, represented through his vision of Tara-Beth reaching out to him in the boat while he is going up in flames in front of Erin as the sun rises.
Gilford got his inspiration for Riley’s attitude toward Father Paul from “Midnight Mass” creator Mike Flanagan, a recovering alcoholic who grew questioning his religious upbringing.
“Mike told me, ‘I was an altar boy, I grew up very religious, I changed my belief system, but still to this day, when I’m around a priest, there’s this like respect. That’s a man of God, even though I don’t believe in God,'” Gilford said. “So Riley is like, ‘Oh, cool, OK, so these will be discussions instead of debates.’ And Riley knows where Father Paul is coming from, doesn’t think he’s going to change Father Paul’s mind, but he’ll give him the respect of having the conversation and hearing him out.”
Again, until that whole turning-him-into-a-vampire-via-angel-bloodsucking thing.