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.
In fandom discourse, there exists the concept of Watsonian vs. Doylist reasoning. The terms are thought to originate from the Sherlock Holmes fandom. Simply put, a Watsonian interpretation of canon attempts to explain events from an in-universe perspective, while Doylist reasoning explains these same events from a real-world perspective, thereby treating the events as created objects. Essentially, a Doylist understanding of media acknowledges the intents and actions of creators and actors, while Watsonian interpretations do not. Sometimes, these two opposing dynamics will clash in a way that leads to character assassination. There is no better example of this than the departure of Alex Karev from Grey’s Anatomy.
Elizabeth Jennings is one of the most complex female characters I’ve ever come across. She is an undercover KGB agent posing as a travel agent in 1980s Virginia, at the height of the Cold War, with her husband Phillip and their two American-born children. From the outside they seem like the perfect American couple, but in reality, their lives are full of spying, lying, betrayal, and murder. What is especially intriguing about Phillip and Elizabeth, however, is that it is Elizabeth who is the cold, closed-off emotional enigma, while Phillip often showcases vulnerability and honesty.