Bare with me here.
The ongoing pandemic is scary as hell for all sorts of reasons, from the death toll, to fear of infection and the long term financial and societal repercussions. It’s certainly going to create a huge demand for mental health services. So many people have lost loved ones so quickly, in such a horrible way, without even having the chance to properly say goodbye to them. Even funerals have had to be restricted to a small number of people who, unless they were isolating together, wouldn’t even be able to share a hug safely. It’s a lot to take in.
But just to be clear here, I don’t wish to come across as simply morbid and ‘end of the worldy’ in this blog. As someone who has become very accustomed to talking and writing about various difficult elements of mental health, from depression to trauma to suicide bereavement, I feel like it’s high time we talked about death more as a society. Surely a situation as awful as a global pandemic is an appropriate time to do so.
Work I’ve done around suicide bereavement has, understandably, been very illuminating in terms of societal views on death. The stigma surrounding suicide is something that has become more toxic as the years go by. I can remember depressing reactions to recent celebrity suicides, with members of the public and eventually even mainstream news anchors perceiving those suicide victims as selfish, or cowardly, or both. It’s all quite horrible to see, but it’s almost certainly coming from a place of shock, grief and anguish. Obviously I wouldn’t condone someone accusing musicians and comedians I’ve spent years looking up to of cowardice when they were clearly in immense anguish themselves, but going somewhere towards understanding these reactions is important. To simply shut down such views and box them into a corner won’t make them go away. If nothing else it exacerbates the problem and makes it endemic to the stigma itself. “You’ve said something that I don’t like, therefore you shouldn’t be allowed to say anything” is not a healthy attitude for any society to have. It silences and sensors, it fuels resentment and division. The number of people I’ve heard from in peer support groups who’ve said they were extremely anxious to talk openly about their loss is heartbreaking, but unfortunately that’s not uncommon at all.
So recently, like a lot of people, I’ve been occasionally binge watching TV shows online during the lockdown, and I was really fortunate to come across The Midnight Gospel, a Netflix original series created by comedian/actor Duncan Trussell and Pendleton Ward, creator of Adventure Time. I cannot stress this enough, I utterly adore The Midnight Gospel. The animation is amazing, and the guest interviews (largely derived from Trussell’s own podcast) are quirky and often fascinating. The music is great too. The show is often hilarious, there are too many laugh out loud moments to count. It’s a show with dark humour and endearingly quirky charm in equal measure. Each episode revolves around guest interviews with subjects ranging from drug use to existentialism. But one common theme throughout seems to be death and grief and acceptance of it, either in violent visuals and downright surreal representations, or more obviously in the interviews themselves. Almost every simulated planet the main character visits is destroyed at the end of each episode. It almost comes across as nihilistic on the surface, but there’s much more to it than that. It’s a bold, scary, surreal, confrontational, passionate, visceral, philosophical work of art. (I liked it, just in case that’s not clear.)
As previously stated, I have no qualms talking about death and grief. I don’t view it as taboo simply because I’m so used to the subject. But it’s been immensely refreshing for me to see a series talking about such things so directly, and with brutal, genuinely moving raw honesty. This is rare, and it shouldn’t be. If we did talk about death more as a society, surely we could prepare for and understand it a lot better. As Caitlin Doughty discusses in the penultimate episode, attitudes towards death have shifted and become almost sterilised over time. She makes a convincing and sobering argument. I can remember discussing suicide bereavement groups with a friend and having them ask me “but isn’t it all a bit morbid?” No, it’s essential, arguably vital. You can’t wish these things away, try as you might. And a lot of people do. Surely such reluctance to talk openly about such things leads to a hell of a lot of isolation. The worst case scenario to that is what made those groups form in the first place. It feels like society is a snake eating its own tail here, with a mounting, tragically avoidable body count as a consequence.
Another superb moment of the series comes towards the end of the last episode, in a brutally emotional interview from a podcast Trussell made with his mother, Deneen. Living with terminal cancer, she was forced to make peace with her death, and the conversation becomes so raw that it’s impossible not to get emotional. I’ve never quite seen something like that before on screen, particularly because there’s a bizarre combination of a surreal, science fiction environment and a very real conversation between two people forced to grieve the imminent passing of someone who was still alive.
In a truly beautiful exchange, Deneen remarks that death is something that just happens, and that “our egos personalise it and we consider ourselves special cases, but we’re really not, you know? We’re part of the whole, and everything in the whole transforms all the time, changes form, transfigures.”
When Trussell asks her how she deals with the heartbreak of her situation, she passionately and poignantly exclaims “You cry! You cry.” At which point the two animated characters hug each other and cry together. This reduced me a sobbing mess, but in a good way. It’s not every day you hear such a powerful conversation, which becomes increasingly emotional as it goes on. I found the whole thing rather humbling and immensely powerful. The boldness of the two of them to share such personal turmoil is as highly commendable and beautiful as it is important and profound, and it’s perhaps even more pertinent during a global pandemic with a catastrophic death toll. I can see a lot of people finding it extremely cathartic.
Trussell has stated in a recent interview that Deneen sadly died before the show’s production was completed, meaning that we’re hearing a conversation from someone who is only recently deceased. Realising this makes the episode, and indeed the entire series, pack even more of a punch.
Like it or not, we have to talk about death. It’s part of life and unavoidable. The Midnight Gospel is a powerful commentary and meditation on this, albeit one wrapped up in a surreal, violent, quirky piece of psychedelic art. It certainly isn’t accessible to everyone, but it’s a masterpiece in my opinion, and probably a cathartic tug on the heartstrings that people need right now, by unfortunate coincidence. The show debuted on Netflix on the 20th of April, at the very peak of the outbreak.
It’s worth pointing out that mental health is a common thread to the show too. References to mindfulness and meditation are made more than once. Trussel has been open about his own struggle with depression in his podcast, and he was clearly looking for answers during the show’s interviews.
Perhaps a better perception of death and ourselves would be a very healthy thing. Perhaps making peace with it wouldn’t make people so judgemental towards issues like suicide or mental illness in general. Listening to each other is so important. It can save lives, as opposed to a demonisation and taboo status of such topics, which I would argue endangers lives. We need to keep talking about these things, and I believe we all have a responsibility to shape a society that can.
Let’s face it, none of us really have a choice at the moment. Perhaps this tragedy could be an opportunity to build something better. All of this chaos and dread has to be useful for something, otherwise what have we learned?
The Midnight Gospel is available now on Netflix. And it’s brilliant.