Average Score: 6.1/10
Monsterland is a Hulu original anthology horror series, based upon Nathan Ballingrud’s short story collection North American Lake Monsters: Stories. The series, composed of eight 50-minute episodes, follows multiple characters, each in a different city of the United States. While each episode’s plot is distinct and different from the others, we do see some interesting overlap between a few episodes, such as the prevalence of Kaitlyn Dever’s character Toni. With a different director assigned to each episode, we get a pretty good mix of themes, conflicts, and storytelling styles, although admittedly some are much better than others. Perhaps the best part of this series is that the physical “monster” in each episode is never as bad as the actual societal or personal problems that the characters are facing; the series is an interesting take on the problems that plague everyday people, and how we face them or how they define us.
Episode 1: Port Fourchon, Louisiana
Toni (Kaitlyn Dever) is a young, working, single mother living in a rundown area of Louisiana. Her daughter, Jack, makes Toni’s life miserable by constantly throwing tantrums and acting violently. Toni works a crappy job at a diner, can’t get anyone to babysit her problematic toddler, and overall just has a shitty life. Katilyn Dever does an excellent job of portraying a conflicted single mother, and how the effects of poverty are tiresome and never ending.
The physical monster in this episode is somewhat hard to define. It’s a human being, but it goes around killing people in order to obtain their “skins”, which it wears to jump around different identities. The monster appears as a man at first, and takes an interest in Toni. After she discovers the boxes of skins in his car’s trunk, he reveals his true identity to her and appears as a totally different woman the next day.
Honestly, I couldn’t care less about the murdering, skin-wearing monster person. It added nothing overall to the plot, and was more confusing than it was significant. What really made me like this episode was Toni’s story, which probably reflects the lives of poor Americans everywhere. Toni loves her daughter, but being a good mother is difficult, and she can’t provide the proper means for Jack to grow up in a loving home. At the end of the episode, we see Toni leave a sleeping Jack inside the car of a stranger, hoping that leaving her behind will give her a better future. This scene is heartbreaking, and ultimately shows us the complicated depth of Toni’s character.
Episode 2: Eugene, Oregon
This episode may be the worst of the series. It follows Nick, a troubled teen with a life that seems to keep knocking him down. His mother, a sickly person who never fully recovered from a stroke, can’t afford the medicine she needs. Nick skips school in order to work at a fast food restaurant, but he soon gets fired for being late. He doesn’t have any friends, except for the virtual ones that he plays video games with.
The monster of this episode is a tall, ominous shadow figure that inhabits Nick’s room. After posting about it on Reddit, Nick is asked to join a secret online group called Shadow Watchers. They say that the Shadows exist all over America, bringing about chaos and bad luck to the people that they latch on to. Nick believes that his Shadow is the reason why his life keeps going downhill. After spending many late nights chatting with the Shadow Watchers, he decides to build a high-energy flashlight in order to destroy his Shadow. The episode ends with a bright flash of light, as Nick pursues the dark figure.
This plot, simply put, is bad. Just plain bad. It’s hard to feel sorry for Nick’s character because he acts like such an asshole all the time. The shadow monster isn’t scary or interesting at all, and the “final battle” between it and Nick is not entertaining in the slightest. You’re honestly better off just skipping this episode.
Episode 3: New Orleans, Louisiana
Aaaand we’re back in Louisiana (which also explains the very brief cameo of Toni in the background). Episode 3 follows Annie, a wealthy New Orleans socialite who is married to Joe Keller, a successful doctor. The opening scene is a flashback, showing Joe, Annie, and Annie’s son (from a previous relationship) George at a Mardi Gras parade. After Annie is separated from Joe and her young son, George comes running out from the throng of people, claiming that he was chased by a monster with black eyes. The incident is brushed aside as part of George’s imagination.
Fast forward to years later. Joe has just won a prestigious medical award, and Annie throws a surprise party for him to celebrate, with plenty of other socialite guests. At the party, we see an awkward encounter with an uninvited guest, who claims that his sister was hurt by Joe, her past doctor. The next day, the horrifying news breaks out. Several people are coming forward with allegations, claiming that Joe abused them when they were children and under his care as patients of his. Annie tries to deny it, but you can’t shake that chilling moment when Joe admits, “I have a problem. I need help.”
With Joe carted off to court, Annie begins hallucinating a man who plays mournful tunes on his trumpet late at night. When she confronts him, she realizes that his eyes are completely black. Haunted by his eerie trumpet noises and refusing to confront the truth about Joe’s deeds, she goes crazy, even shoving an ice pick through her ears to deafen herself from the angry trumpet shrieks.
Even though the “monster” is the creepy trumpet player with the black eyes, clearly the real monster here is the paedophile Joe. This episode does a great job of showing you that monsters can exist in any of the people around us, even if they have kind demeanors. You just have to keep your eyes (and ears) peeled.
Episode 4: New York, New York
In the Big Apple, we follow a middle-aged man named Stanley Price. He is the extremely wealthy CEO of the massive oil company Titan, which has recently leaked 400,000 gallons of oil into the Gulf Coast. He is facing lawsuits, public defamation, and the severe environmental consequences of his company’s irresponsibility. Despite being in the top 1% and likely to get away with it, he seems to be facing real guilt about the incident. He is haunted by the fact that he has done something terrible, yet his staff and assistants are very willing to help him with the coverup of the incident.
The episode is filled with religious symbols and allusions, which honestly do not make much sense. Stan is worried about the punishment he will face after death, and becomes anxious about setting things straight with God so he doesn’t go to hell. What follows veers into some really weird religious territory; Stan becomes literally possessed at one point, and his assistant hires a life coach/author lady to help him (because that makes more sense than a priest, apparently). As the half-assed exorcism moves forward, we finally catch a glimpse of the “monster”: a giant, oil-covered pelican erupts from Stan’s abdomen, then flies off into the NYC skyline. Very metaphorical.
This episode started off promising, especially with the solid concept that Stan is a monster for his corporate greed and willingness to damage the earth for profit. However, the weird twists and turns that tried to incorporate religion into the plot fell through, and made the overall message confusing. The episode started off great, but then went downhill halfway through.
Episode 5: Plainfield, Illinois
This episode follows two women, Kate and Shawn, and their complicated relationship. Shawn is a determined young lawyer who falls in love with Kate, another lawyer who lives with bipolar disorder. Kate tries to push Shawn away for her own sake, but Shawn refuses to let go, saying she can handle it.
Fast forward several years, to when Shawn and Kate are celebrating their 16th anniversary. They have a daughter, a nice house in the suburbs, and a good life together. However, like most episodes in Monsterland, this happiness is short-lived. From her frequent attempts at suicide, it is evident that Kate’s mental illness is still prevalent. As the couple fights over Kate’s impulsive anniversary purchase, we can see that Shawn is exhausted from what can only be described as “parenting” her partner, as if Kate is an uncontrollable small child.
That same night, we see Shawn wake up, with Kate missing from the bed. As Shawn walks into the bathroom, we face the horrible realization that Kate has committed suicide and is now dead in the tub. Instead of calling an ambulance like any rational person would do, Shawn slowly backs away and starts cleaning up a wine spill from earlier that night. However, much to her surprise, Kate suddenly appears behind her, seemingly unaware of what has happened.
We see Kate’s half-zombie, half-ghost body steadily deteriorate, from losing her hair to plopping an eyeball into her pasta. Meanwhile, Shawn is desperately trying to get Kate to stay with her, refusing to let her die and move on. At the end of the episode, a few months into the future, Kate is nothing more than a mummified corpse, kept chained up in the basement. Shawn plays along with this horrible reality, clinging to what’s left of her wife.
What makes this episode good is the consistent pacing and the relatively strong storytelling style. Unlike other Monsterland episodes, director Logan Kibens doesn’t throw in some random twist at the end that ruins the overall plot. This episode was arguably the only one that remained comprehensible and logical throughout.
However, there is something to be said about the way bipolar disorder is represented in this episode. According to an analytical piece by Editor Benjamin Rose, “the damning flaw of this depiction is that it begins from the premise of equating a person with bipolar as a raging, unstable adolescent with no agency.”* We see this flaw in the way that Shawn coddles Kate like a helpless child, and how Kate’s bipolar disorder is mostly represented by manic fits, as if she’s one of the “crazy” people in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. This disrespectful portrayal of a very real mental disorder, which affects 2.3 million Americans, proves that dramatic media still has a long way to go when it comes to accurately representing mental illness.
*Read Benjamin Rose’s full piece here: https://thesecondstylus.com/2020/11/18/monsterlands-depiction-of-bipolar-disorder-is-utterly-batshit-thats-a-problem/
Episode 6: Palacios, Texas
Being a fan of mermaids, I was pretty excited about this episode. While it had a promising start, the direction in which it decided to go ultimately made it disappointing.
This episode calls back the oil company, Titan, from Episode 4. The oil spill in the Gulf Coast has affected all of the fish and the wildlife, and the fishermen in Palacios, Texas are suffering as a result. Sharko, one of the fishermen, fell overboard during a Gulf cleanup effort and got “a face full of chemicals,” rendering him scarred and unable to breathe without an oxygen tank. The accident ruins his fishing career, and when we meet his character he is a bitter and frustrated person.
One day, as Sharko wanders on the beach, he finds an unimaginable catch: a dead mermaid, coated in thick, black oil. He carts the mermaid carcass home and puts it in his bathtub, where she miraculously comes back to life. Determined to protect her, he builds a large tank in his living room so she can swim freely. Soon after, he is visited by a human woman who looks startlingly similar to the mermaid; she is a hallucination or a projection of some sort, created by the mermaid.
Sharko and the mermaid’s human form develop a relationship, and we finally get to see Sharko happy. However, it turns out that it was all an illusion, created by the mermaid. In classic siren fashion, she lures Sharko into the tank, and then proceeds to eat him.
While this episode was overall enjoyable, the second half of the plot didn’t provide a lot of entertainment value, nor did it make much sense. Is Titan Co. supposed to be the “monster” for causing environmental destruction? Can the mermaid really be blamed for trying to survive and escape her captor? The writers started out with a good idea, but 50 minutes wasn’t enough to develop it fully.
Episode 7: Iron River, Michigan
Kelly Marie Tran stars in this episode about two girls: one goes missing, and the other takes over her life, a little too literally. Following more of a fairy tale theme, this episode, like several other Monsterland episodes, started off strong, but couldn’t bring itself to a solid conclusion.
Lauren (Tran) comes from a broken home. Her mother is abusive and emotionally distant, and she has trouble fitting in at school. Her friend, Elena, is the opposite: she is pretty, popular, and has a boyfriend, whom Lauren envies. Despite being friends, Elena is still controlling and rude to Lauren, causing a dispute between the two. On one fateful day, they go to the White Woods, which is notorious for a serial killer known as The Lumberjack, and the many girls that have been murdered there. Elena never comes home.
In the future, Lauren is an adult and preparing for her wedding day to Pete, Elena’s previous boyfriend. Rejecting her abusive birth mom, Lauren now refers to Elena’s mother as her own. It all seems a bit strange to Elena’s childhood friends, who are also present at the wedding; Lauren seems to have taken over every element of Elena’s life, even down to copying her hair. Elena’s friends develop a theory that Lauren was involved in the disappearance of Elena, and that she did it on purpose in order to take over Elena’s life.
For the rest of the episode, we see uncertain flashbacks that show what might’ve happened in the White Woods the day Elena disappeared. Did Lauren kill her accidentally by pushing her, causing her to hit her head? Did Elena get taken, and Lauren was powerless to stop it? It’s all very unclear. The episode culminates with the bizarre entrance of an old, shriveled hag who lives in a cottage in the White Woods. She has a rather strange interaction with Lauren, and the episode is over. Strong start, weak finish: this seems to be the curse of several Monsterland episodes.
Episode 8: Newark, New Jersey
There’s only one word to describe this episode: wack. The plot is wack, the characters are wack, the weird angel monster-creature things are wack. While the episode is not quite unbearable the way Episode 2 is, its themes and plot development don’t make any sense with each other. It’s certainly not the season finale that I was expecting.
Brian and Amy are a middle-aged couple, grieving for their young daughter, Tabitha, who disappeared 16 months ago. Amy has accepted that there is no reason to keep hoping, and is attending a grief group for parents whose children have passed away. Brian, on the other hand, refuses to give up hope that Tabitha will come back, even going so far as to buying loads of Christmas presents for her that will never be opened. Both parents see hallucinations of Tabitha, only to discover dead ends when they chase after her.
In the meantime, something strange is happening in Newark. Creatures, called “angels” by the public, are falling from the sky and landing in the city. They are pale, skinny, and frighteningly similar to the Pale Man from Pan’s Labyrinth. Since the angels’ blood has crazy hallucinogen powers, people are finding them, cutting them up, and selling their blood as the new drug in town.
Brian and Amy find an injured angel, and decide to care for it in their own home. After the angel offers up its own blood for them to try, they have a weird drug trip and end up confronting their conflicting feelings about Tabitha. There’s also a really bizarre, disturbing sequence where the couple have sex as they are being showered in the angel’s blood, right after it has slit its own throat. Pretty odd stuff. Not exactly my cup of tea, either.
I guess the angel was supposed to be symbolic of bringing the couple back together and helping them move on from their grief over Tabitha, but it could’ve been done a lot differently and still carried the same message. I don’t know man, this episode was just too weird for me.
So there you have it. While Monsterland had promising premises and interesting characters to kick it off, ultimately there was a lack of well-thought out conclusions for some of the episodes. I would be entertained and drawn in at the start of each episode, only to be disappointed by a lukewarm ending and confusing elements that were thrown in randomly. Some episodes were better than others, but overall the series was mediocre. Here’s to hoping that if they do make a second season, they’ll do a better job next time.