Hulu's "Monsterland" looks at the dark side of the human condition
Updated: Oct 14, 2020
“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.” - Friedrich Nietzsche
FYI, this article will contain some spoilers for Monsterland.
If you thought that Hulu's Monsterland would be about things that go bump in the night, you'd only be half right, because in this series, the things that go bump...are us. Monsterland is a series of slightly interconnected stories that focus on how lies, pain, guilt and shame can turn into monsters we can't control. Monsterland travels around the country, from New Orleans to New York, and zeroes in on individuals and families where something insidious is about to happen. For our queer purposes, let's look at episode 5, "Plainfield, Illinois" starring Taylor Schilling and Roberta Colindrez, both openly queer actors themselves.
Schilling and Collindrez play married lawyers Kate and Shawn, who met in law school sixteen years prior and now have a teen daughter. We first meet them debating, something that carries through their passionate and complicated relationship. On the night of their fifteenth anniversary, they make out in a bar bathroom, drink a little too much, and consider a long trip to Italy. It isn't until the return home that we find out that Kate has Bipolar 1, something she has been dealing with for most of her life. Early on in their relationship, Kate reveals her diagnosis to Shawn. "This thing that's inside of me, it's mean. And sooner or later it will wear you down, Shawn. And one day you'll think, 'you know what? This is too much.'" Shawn fights for their relationship, and eventually, the two get married and have a daughter named Heather. Kate also experiences suicidal ideation and attempts to take her life many times over the years. The last time, their daughter Heather found her and Shawn made the decision to send Heather to boarding school. This comes up on the night of the anniversary, and for the first time Shawn does indeed say, "I can't do this forever."
Later that evening, Shawn finds Kate in a tub filled with blood. She walks away and is confronted sometime later with a wet and dazed Kate with deep cuts on her wrists. Overwhelmed with guilt and grief, Shawn attempts to take care of Kate, who is quickly falling apart (literally) before Shawn's eyes. All Kate wants to do is finally rest, but Shawn won't let her, eventually keeping her locked up in the house as she decays and becomes less and less human. When Heather surprises her moms with a visit, she's greeted by a disheveled Shawn who finally realizes what she's done.
Schilling is remarkable as Kate and does a wonderful job of humanizing mental illness rather than sensationalizing it as we all too often see in television and film. The episode is actually based on Nathan Ballingrud's short story, "The Good Husband" but the straight couple at the center of that tale is swapped out for a lesbian couple. (Monsterland is based on Nathan Ballingrud's collection of horror shorts, North American Lake Monsters) Colindrez brings her signature swagger to the role of Shawn, but also tenderness and bubbling frustration. It's obvious Shawn and Kate love each other, and Shawn must face her inaction and the crushing guilt that comes along with that decision. It's also difficult to watch as Kate falls deeper into her pain, and farther away from Shawn and their daughter to a point where she can no longer be reached. At first glance, you might say that Monsterland is framing mental illness as the monster in this story, which can be quite problematic. As someone with OCD, I loathe seeing mental illness used as some sort of "inner demon" stand-in. However, the real monster in this episode is Shawn's guilt and grief, which threatens to derail her entire life.
Monsterland is available now on Hulu.