Going With the Flow: The Midnight Gospel and Epiphenomenal Philosophy

The Midnight Gospel was a confusing and conflicted watch for me. Up until the sixth episode, the show presented itself as basically an anthology series featuring semi-related vignettes, in which our protagonist Clancy visits differentiated simulated worlds and interviews a character for his “spacecast,” a podcast for, I guess, space.

Just from the premise alone, this was my type of show, and there was a lot to like about the first five episodes. While the different philosophies espoused by characters of the show can seem quite surface level at times, the show itself doesn’t seem to hide it. It is called The Midnight Gospel after all, a nod, perhaps, to the weird cosmic detours conversations can turn once midnight hits and you find yourself awake with a companion.

But between these free-flowing conversations, you could glean a central philosophy underlying it, a philosophy that works to give it that Linklater-esque conversational momentum. As with much of Pembleton’s work, the dialogue is more a gushing than an exchange, with characters building on, rather than acting against each other. Even the visuals, with characters never stopping for too long in space or composition, subtly enhances this movement. Go with the flow, the show seems to be saying.

There is something I found utterly refreshing about this. Adventure Time displays the same unceasing movement over its runtime, true (Finn, the show’s protagonist, for example, actually ages, unlike most children’s shows), but it is in The Midnight Gospel that this movement becomes the central focus.

Movement, as it turns out, happens to be the antithesis of modern mainstream philosophy, in the sense that philosophy is primarily about rigorous deliberation (sometimes for deliberation’s sake). It is about finding everything wrong with an idea, with either the hope of fixing it or moving on to a different one. Mainstream philosophy wants to, must, stop at every turn. The Midnight Gospel is not interested in that, instead, it goes, “well, hey, that’s interesting, where can we go with that?”

Clancy, in their role as an interviewer, then, acts as a particular type of philosophical interlocutor, in the same way Socrates acts as one in Plato’s writings. But rather than finding flaws (as Socrates does so well), Clancy “goes with the flow.” He pokes and prods at times, to be sure, but does that not to stop the movement but to continue it, not to problematize but to clarify and expand. It is a form of philosophical generosity that is quite rare, I find. It is a show that does not fight back with our pre-given assumptions but takes radical ideas in stride.

Still, there is also an ever-present worry, that despite how much I enjoyed the show (at least until episode 6), I could not fully shake. And unfortunately, the problems I do have with the first half of the show comes part and parcel with what I loved about it.

You see, “go with the flow” is a great philosophy when contrasted with the sort of oppressive, un-moving quality of mainstream philosophy in which nothing happens, it also births another sort of oppressive form of philosophy in which many things happen, but nothing matters. It is philosophy as epiphenomena. All the characters move, yes, but there is no destination.

In the fifth episode, this message is honed in. Clancy arrives at a prison and converses with a bird while watching an inmate repeatedly die. Here, the show gives us conflicting messages. On the one hand, it says “everything is connected,” and on the other hand, it tells us to accept the world as it is, that there are some things you can control and some things you can’t, which is to say some things just happen, they are random. But if everything is connected, how can anything be random? If randomness means something’s being is not determined by anything else, then isn’t randomness just a form of ultimate dis-connect?

The fifth episode inadvertently sums up the show so far. As much as things do happen on screen-time, and as crazy or radical as they may be, they are ostensibly random. They don’t mean anything. How we see it, well, that’s for us to figure it out. All we can do is take it in stride. Go with the flow, so to speak, but never change it.

Even the premise of the show itself subtly reinforces this point. Clancy goes into a simulator. It isn’t real. Clancy makes a spacecast, which blasts out to only one person. His actions, in this sense, aren’t real either. They are inconsequential. Nothing really matters in the show, not even within the world of the show. Like mainstream liberalism, everything is lip service, nothing is real. So, at this point, I thought I had a good idea of my thoughts about the show. Then, episode six came around.

Actually, the stage was set well before episode six. If I had been watching more closely, as I did on my second run through, I would’ve noticed that things did matter, as much as I was led to believe they didn’t. The throw-away lines of the simulator’s nagging, the sister who Clancy owes money to, and the random items that pop back with Clancy are actually central to the point.

Clancy, you see, has been hopping into the simulator to avoid responsibility, a.k.a to avoid the “real world.” This completely re-contextualizes the “go with the flow” philosophy that has been implicit so far, and reveals it to be less a form of engagement and more a form of avoidance, of negligence. At once, the show moves from being utterly inconsequential, with nothing to say, into one of the most incisive critiques of mainstream liberalism, whose hallmark is precisely that it manages to both welcome all forms of civil discourse and ignore them; discourse, in our liberal society like in Clancy’s simulations, becomes epiphenomenal, at best negligible, and at worst actively undermining real change (for more on this point, see Jodi Dean’s Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies).

But just as soon as this interpretation had taken hold, the show pivots two more times, once at the end of episode six, and another at the start of episode seven. At the end of the sixth episode, Clancy had overcome his avoidance of responsibility and becomes enlightened. Of course, I found this quite problematic, since certain strands of Buddhism were known for their denunciation of the self, and if there is no self, how can the self hold the property of being enlightened? To be clear, this was not just a misreading of Buddhist philosophy, it directly undermined its criticism of liberalism, since to retreat back into a state of mindless meditation (it must be stressed that many Buddhist mindfulness practices were never divorced from politics) is to reassert the ostensible message of the first five episodes. However, episode seven reverses its message once again, and claims that, actually, Clancy was wrong to believe he was enlightened. “That was embarrassing,” Clancy admits to his simulator.

At this point, I was ready to give up. I enjoyed the show (I mean, the last episode genuinely made me cry), and maybe that was all it needed to be. I didn’t know how to analyze it, anyways. It seemed all over the place. But re-watching it that second time, one line in particular stood out. It happened at the end of episode seven, and in it, Clancy goes, “Even though your life is out of tune, you can still sing along with it.” I doubt this is some sort of meta-commentary on the show itself, but it works nonetheless.

The Midnight Gospel is not a perfect show, and mostly because no show can ever be perfect. But it is a show that is, at times, beautifully out of tune. It is a show that, intentionally or not, strikes at the core inconsistencies in my own life, and my own philosophies (perhaps all of ours). It is, really, fundamentally about a person trying to understand, to come to terms, with their world, without always having all the right tools to do so, and without ever knowing whether they might come to have such tools. This isn’t to say the show advocates some mindless intellectual modesty; quite the opposite. The show tries to grapple with big questions, tries so so hard, and sometimes even comes close (episode seven, for me, comes the closest), but it ultimately falls short. The limits of its creators, and perhaps the format of a Netflix show that must appeal to audiences, are on full display. Still, in its mess of inconsistencies, inconsistencies that I, too, have always and will forever be guilty of, what can we do but keep moving? Isn’t that what I’m doing? I mean, this blog post itself is not entirely off the hook: I criticize the combative stance of mainstream analytic philosophy but also take my time to complain about the cowardly and not altogether honest tolerance of liberalism. So what is it? What am I saying? Who knows? And yet, here I am, publishing this unfinished, inconsistent, honestly kind of lackluster piece of writing. Well, the flow, whatever it is, carries us all.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s