Monsterland is kind of like Black Mirror, only with supernatural creatures instead of technology. Based on the short story collection North American Lake Monsters by Nathan Ballingrud, it is indeed very American in its horrors; I might even call it a modern iteration of American Gothic. It’s not a Creature Feature; though the monsters are very, very present, they are not the focus of the horror. They are only peripheral to the very human characters’ trauma and the hard and sometimes despicable choices they find themselves forced to make when put between a rock and a hard place.
Monsterland is an indictment of the failures of the so-called American Dream. Its characters struggle with poverty, sub-par healthcare, sexual assault, lack of abortion access, racism, abusive parents, corporate greed, mental health, and more. The realism inherent in their struggles elicits an existential dread that easily eclipses any fear of monsters. And no, it’s not particularly subtle in its messaging, but it doesn’t need to be. It’s a show very suitable for 2020, and I absolutely loved it.
I want to talk about the individual episodes, but it’s very difficult to do so without spoiling some plot elements, so be aware of that if you continue to read, if you want to remain totally unspoiled. However, while I’ll be revealing significant plot details, I’ll avoid revealing any major twists or reveals.
“Port Fourchon, LA”
Toni is a struggling single mother working at a truly depressing diner in order to make ends meet. She can barely afford daycare for her daughter Jack, but even if she could, they wouldn’t have her, since Jack’s – well, troubled would be putting it mildly. Prone to violent fits and tantrums, Toni alleges that Jack is the way she is because she knows the world doesn’t want her. The testament to this is a flashback to a teenage Toni attempting an at-home abortion, but ultimately backing out. Jack’s father, when he grudgingly shows up, is an abusive asshole. It’s clear that while Toni loves her daughter, it is only out of obligation: she doesn’t want her and never did.
Meanwhile, a grifter (who is likely also a serial killer) named Alex has just pulled up into Port Fourchon with his trunk full of body parts. He winds up staying the night at Toni’s house, and her curiosity leads her to his trunk, and takes us into the supernatural motif of the episode. Following Toni’s encounter with Alex, she decides to leave town with her daughter for a fresh start. What seems at first to be a strangely optimistic conclusion is belied when this climax is elongated, culminating in one of the most breathtaking twists I’ve ever seen. It is a spectacularly character defining moment for Toni, shot beautifully amongst a crescendo of sinister music.
Though arguably the weakest episode of the series, it nonetheless manages to showcase a kind of uniquely American desperation. Nick is a friendless teenage boy struggling to afford his sick mother’s medication. In the episode’s opening scene, Nick nearly breaks down when the pharmacist informs him that his insurance no longer covers the medication his mother needs for her debilitating seizures. Desperate, he pulls out the only cash he has on him and asks her to give him whatever that will buy him, which happens to be four pills. He halves these to make them last longer, but then the medication doesn’t work as well, leading his mother to have a seizure. The paramedics who arrive admonish Nick for halving her pills, as though he had any other choice.
The rest of the episode is actually about Nick’s radicalization by an online group that claims to be fighting “shadows” – a rather heavy handed metaphor for the radicalization of young white men in online spaces – but it is Nick and his mother’s dire financial straits that held the true terror for me. It’s a terror borne out of a kind of existential resignation, the knowledge that there are no good choices available to you. Nick and his mom technically have insurance, insurance that they probably pay through the nose for, and yet his mother still can’t get her medicine. Without it, she has seizures and might literally die, and yet…there is nothing that they can do. It’s a common enough problem in the United States, and yet it’s not often depicted so clearly in popular media.
“New Orleans, LA”
We follow Annie, a poor black woman who married a rich white man to take care of her and her young son George. Early in the episode, during a Mardi Gras parade, Annie’s husband Joe seemingly loses track of George. When Annie finds him in the crowd, he is hysterical, and later claims to have been chased by a black-eyed monster.
Cut to a decade later, and Joe has been outed as a sexual predator. On the heels of these revelations Annie begins to be stalked by a black-eyed monster reminiscent of the one George described all those years ago. When George finally confronts his mother and tells her that he, too, was a victim of Joe, Annie must come to terms with the knowledge she has willingly repressed. She made a cold, hard choice all those years ago, and now it has come back to haunt her, literally. The horrific and bloody climax is not the focal point; rather, the episode’s emotional core is the taut conversations between Annie and George, laced with her guilt and desperate justifications for her decision.
“New York, NY”
Arguably the most heavy-handed episode in the entire series, we follow Stan, a corporate executive of an oil company that, through its willful negligence, has spilled tons of oil into Gulf in a disaster that trumps the BP spill. We also follow Josh, one of Stan’s many assistants, who once upon a time actually worked to halt climate change. He is oddly enamored of Stan, and when Stan becomes weirdly possessed in the wake of the scandal, Josh reaches out to a self-help guru to exorcise him, culminating in a gorgeously cinematic and harrowing scene of body horror.
Ultimately, however, this episode does not carry as much weight as it wants to, because it’s not really doing anything new or examining a particularly difficult character choice. Stan is corrupt, big oil is corrupt, capitalism is corrupt, we know all this, and Josh’s choice to try to create change from the inside is as banal as it is hopeless. At least the monster is super cool.
Arguably the most emotionally devastating episode, despite being the only one that ends on a note of hope. It follows a gay couple, Kate and Shawn, who have been together for fifteen years. Kate has bipolar disorder and struggles with suicidal ideation, and has in fact attempted suicide multiple times over the years. Her mental illness has taken its toll on both Shawn and their daughter, who walked in on Kate’s most recent suicide attempt.
The supernatural element comes in when Shawn walks in on Kate having slit her wrists in the bathtub and seemingly died; a few hours later, however, Kate walks out, though she is pale, unsteady, and confused, and worse: the gashes on her wrist are still wide open, though no blood leaks out. Kate is a walking zombie, and she slowly begins to decompose, even as Shawn struggles to find workarounds to keep her body alive, even as Kate is so, so desperate to die. Certainly, the metaphor is not subtle, but the true brilliance and devastation of the episode comes with a twist reveal at the end.
The episode flashes between the present and past, showing us Kate’s ups and downs, and Shawn’s struggle to continue supporting her. Taylor Schilling and Roberta Colindrez are phenomenal in their respective roles. This was just. Incredible.
This episode takes us through the impact of the oil spill in the “New York, NY” episode. Sharko, a Vietnamese-American fisherman who was helping with the oil cleanup, fell into the water and “got a face full of chemicals” that rendered him blind in one eye and hooked up to an oxygen tank. He is rightfully bitter at the turn in his luck. Then, one day, he discovers a mermaid washed up on shore, and decides to bring her home.
It is…a bizarre decision, especially when he puts her on ice in his bathtub, has dinner with her, watches TV with her, and talks to her about his childhood. Soon his fantasies come to life: the mermaid becomes not a half-fish creature with sharp teeth but a real woman who can talk to Sharko. Together they dance and eat and are happy, and Sharko lives a life that might have been. You the viewer are perfectly aware that he is hallucinating, and so it is all desperately sad, and the horrific, bloody conclusion only makes it more dolorous in retrospect. This is one of those episodes that doesn’t feel like it has a complete story arc, or even a point. It’s just bleak, but no less powerful for that.
“Iron River, MI”
Probably the most compelling and captivating episode, this follows Lauren (Kelly Marie Tran is incredible!), who has seamlessly stepped into her missing best friend’s life. Her friend, Elena, disappeared ten years ago in the white woods, which are rife with urban legends of past murders and disappearances. It’s unclear what happened to Elena and what exactly Lauren’s involvement was, though Elena’s friends certainly suspect her of something nefarious, especially as she is now engaged to Elena’s former boyfriend and calls Elena’s mother “mom.” It’s a tense episode that slowly builds up dread and tension, and then the supernatural element comes in, when Lauren meets a strange witch creature in the forest and finally learns what happened to Elena, and makes a fateful decision that mirrors the one she made a decade ago. This episode is about toxic friendships and the complexity of relationships between teenage girls, but most of all: it’s about envy.
We follow Brian and Amy, a couple struggling to deal with the disappearance of their daughter. At the same time, strange creatures have fallen from the sky – some have taken to calling them angels, even though they are wingless and hollow-eyed, while others have been cutting them up and selling their blood as a potent drug. I’m not sure how I felt about this one – Mike Colter is brilliant as a grieving father, but the supernatural element felt underused, and the climax of the episode was shocking, abrupt, and too arthouse cinema for me. However, it did feel like an appropriate episode to end the season with; there was a kind of…finality to it, as Brian and Amy, with the help of an “angel,” come to accept the loss of their daughter. There is also an extended appearance by Toni, from the first episode, which makes it feel like we’ve come full circle.
Here’s my ranking of the episodes:
- Plainfield, IL
- Port Fourchon, LA
- Iron River, MI
- New Orleans, LA
- Newark, NJ
- Palacios, TX
- New York, NY
- Eugene OR
I highly recommend this show, obviously, and I’d love to discuss it if you’ve watched it, so let me know!