It makes sense why Christopher Pike’s 1994 novel, The Midnight Club, would appeal to Mike Flanagan. Its esoteric ruminations on death and storytelling feel like a natural extension of themes explored in Midnight Mass, only for a younger audience in mind. Series creators Flanagan and Leah Fong repurpose some of Pike’s prolific catalog, using The Midnight Club as a centerpiece, to explore what it means to live and die through stories.

A terminal diagnosis sends Ilonka (Iman Benson) spiraling; her college plans and bright future come undone by an unexpected illness. The determined hopeful begins researching a way to beat the odds, leading her to Brightcliffe, a hospice for teens like her. The remote hospice harbors a mysterious past, and as Ilonka seeks to uncover its secrets, she also bonds with her peers through the Midnight Club. Each night its members gather at midnight to tell each other stories and look for signs of life after death.

“The Midnight Club” makes its 1994 setting abundantly clear from the outset, introducing Ilonka in ’90s suburbia with the appropriate but jarring fashion style and needle drops. Her transition to Brightcliffe is equally discordant, with multiple cringe-inducing and volatile meetings with fellow patients Cheri (Adia), Sandra (Annarah Cymone), Natsuki (Aya Furukawa), Spence (Chris Sumpter), Amesh (Sauriyan Sapkota), Anya (Ruth Codd), and Kevin (Igby Rigney). Guiding them all through their emotions about their impending deaths is Brightcliffe founder Dr. Georgina Stanton (Heather Langenkamp).

The Midnight Club. (L to R) Aya Furukawa as Natsuki, Ruth Codd as Anya, Annarah Cymone as Sandra, Iman Benson as Ilonka, Sauriyan Sapkota as Amesh, Igby Rigney as Kevin, Chris Sumpter as Spencer in episode 104 of The Midnight Club. Cr. Eike Schroter/Netflix © 2022

As Ilonka stumbles to find a foothold in her new surroundings and friend group, so does the series. The first half of the season takes a while to get acclimated to the world and its characters. So do the variations in each character’s varying storytelling styles. Or to realize just how much the stories they share reflect their fears, worries, past histories, and hopes. It’s through their stories that we get to know them.

Those familiar with Pike’s work might also take a bit to get used to the changes in tone and pacing. Much of what made Pike’s work resonate with teens in the ’90s was the refusal to talk down to his audience; he treated his teen characters like adults. As wild as the genre elements could get, Pike never shied away from controversial subject matter like abortion, gun violence, drugs, suicide, and death- especially death. “The Midnight Club” doesn’t either, but it does take a gentler easing into those deeper waters.

It winds up feeling too methodical in laying the necessary groundwork for the harder-hitting back half. Without the quieter first few episodes, the emotional payoffs for many of the storylines wouldn’t hit quite as hard as they do. And it does deliver some tear-jerking sucker punches. In that way, “The Midnight Club” plays out the stages of grief in an honest and vulnerable way; they never come in any tidy order or are experienced the same way. Each character is at a different stage of illness; many seem too healthy for hospice care. However, everyone battles through their looming mortality through righteous anger, acceptance, or a tenacious determination to evade it altogether.

Midnight Club review mike flanagan

The Midnight Club. Heather Langenkamp as Dr. Georgia Stanton in episode 102 of The Midnight Club. Cr. Eike Schroter/Netflix © 2022

That latter sentiment uplifts the series and serves as a stark example of how Flanagan doesn’t just remix and center on the key themes of his literary muses; he rebuts them to a degree, too. Pike’s The Midnight Club wasn’t afraid to kill its darlings, but it left them with certain peace through its supernatural storytelling. Flanagan’s “The Midnight Club” posits that life and death aren’t so tidy. Death is inevitable and harsh, but that life can be harsher. But what we have left to keep memories alive are stories. We are the stories we tell and pass on; they can offer a kind of peace that life often can’t. Stories can be rewritten, so long as truth fuels them.

Flanagan and Fong assemble multiple writers and directors for the ten-episode series, weaving numerous Pike stories into the fold in surprising ways to flesh out its dying teens. The Flanagan hallmarks are all there; the Lasser glass, the familiar faces, and the potent, emotionally charged monologues. “The Midnight Club,” like life and death itself, is sometimes messy and takes a while to find its identity. It doesn’t neatly wrap up every plot thread, leaving the door slightly ajar. But some affecting performances and careful narrative construction give “The Midnight Club” a powerful finish that resonates. It reminds you that dying is a really shitty reason not to live.

“The Midnight Club” debuted on Netflix on October 7.



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