Hulu’s “Monsterland” Mixes Mental Illness and… Zombie Lesbians?

Taylor Schilling and Roberta Colindrez play a lesbian couple dealing with bipolar disorder—and zombies.

When romance and zombies collide, the results can make for macabre yet touching entertainment—see 2004’s Shaun of the Dead, 2013’s Warm Bodies, and Bruce La Bruce’s subversively queer 2008 Otto: Or, Up With Dead People. Yet Hulu’s Monsterland anthology adds a serious mental illness storyline to the mix. In an episode titled “Plainfield, IL,” Taylor Schilling (Orange Is the New Black) and Roberta Colindrez (Starz’s Vida) star as wives Kate and Shawn, whose 15-year relationship is challenged by the former’s bipolar disorder and subsequent transformation into a zombie.

Headed up by openly queer showrunner-executive producer Mary Laws (The Neon Demon, AMC’s Preacher) and based on author Nathan Ballingrud’s 2013 North American Lake Monsters: Stories collection (recently republished with the show’s title, Monsterland), the eight-episode anthology sees flawed, deeply human characters confront the supernatural. Each is set in a different U.S. city, and “Plainfield, IL” is the queerest of all in both content and out talent, including Schilling, Colindrez, director Logan Kibens (The L Word: Generation Q), and writer Emily Kazcmarek.

Via Zoom, Laws (whose girlfriend, Heather Anne Campbell, is a writer-producer on CBS’ The Twilight Zone reboot) and Kazcmarek discussed the episode’s tricky tonal balancing act, dropping body parts, and zombie lesbian couple with NewNowNext.

What a crazy, unpredictable, and dark episode. Why did you want to do Monsterland and this episode, “Plainfield, IL,” specifically?

Mary Laws: When I found Nathan’s book, I was moved by how each story was about a protagonist who reached a hurdle in their lives and needed to get over that to the other side, and we wanted to highlight real, normal people. This series has some unlikely protagonists, and that’s partly what made Nathan’s book so special. It’s not just about the top 1% of the 1%, or lawyers struggling for justice, or doctors who are always right, and we as the writers’ room felt a connection to mental health issues. Either we had a loved one who grappled or we ourselves did. I grapple with my own mental health every single day! So it felt like this was a story that really belonged in our first season, because it’s something that affects every single home in America in one way or another.

Were there many changes made in the adaptation?

Laws: In the book, this story is about a straight couple, but Emily came in with a strong POV and said, “I think this story will be just as strong if not stronger if both of the characters are women, and here’s why.” She unfolded her reasoning, which was profound and spoke to me and I was excited about it. I came out late in life, only a couple of years ago, so I was excited about incorporating queer characters in Monsterland because that’s the lens through which I see the world. It really added a layer to the story.

Emily Kaczmarek: When I first read the story it’s based on, I had to put the book down a bunch of times and breathe. I was really moved by it and felt a real, personal connection to the mental health struggles. Mary said [to the writers’ room], “If there’s a story that really speaks to you, let me know,” and created a safe space to make my wishes clear. So I lobbied for it early on, and I think we were able to put our personal special twist on it and still honor the essence of Nathan’s really beautiful story.

How tricky was addressing bipolar disorder in a sensitive, accurate manner in a darkly comedic, horror context?

Kaczmarek: We did quite a lot of research, read a bunch of books, I have personal experience in close relationships with bipolar people, and we interviewed a psychiatric nurse practitioner specifically about representations of bipolar [disorder] in the media—what things she was tired of seeing and what things we needed to see more of.

Laws: So often in film and TV when a character has a mental illness, it’s depicted as a quirk, or it’s their defining characteristic. Emily’s version of Kate, who struggles with this mental illness—it’s not her defining characteristic. It’s something she struggles with. It was important to all of us to show a well-rounded character.

Kaczmarek: We were really conscious of depicting Kate’s struggle in a way that felt honest, making her feel like a full human being with so much to love and so much complexity, but not making her one-dimensionally defined by her illness. That’s something we had many discussions about.

Why this series—and this episode—right now?

Kaczmarek: As a country, I think we’re in a moment where depression and anxiety is through the roof. There’s a national crisis of mental illness—as if there wasn’t already, right?—and now it’s touching more people than ever before, and we don’t have systems in place to support people. We don’t have the safety nets that some other countries provide. I think this episode in particular is looking at a couple and family unit that really tried everything [to cope with bipolar disorder]. Without revealing too much, Shawn is at the end of her rope trying to support this person she loves more than anything, and I hope that makes people think about the lack of support systems [in America]. So often, these crises are unfolding in the house next door, and we have no idea, but they’re really issues that cut across class and race and politics, and I hope we’re finally in a position to do something about it culturally.

Barbara Nitke/Hulu

Despite the seriousness, did Taylor and Roberta have fun with the episode’s more macabre, monster-y elements?

Laws: We had so much fun! The story we all wanted to tell was imbued with a lot of humor and it’s a horror episode so there’s a lot of entertainment, laughs and love. We always said at the end of the day this has to be a love story, because it’s really about the couple’s struggle with this issue.

What did you feel Taylor brought to this role that wasn’t necessarily written into it?

Laws: When Taylor agreed to come on board, she was very interested in exploring Kate’s slow disintegration of body and mind. I remember having early conversations with Taylor about Alzheimer’s and dementia, and I think she used this as a foundation for really powerful, effortful movement and vocalization with the character. As a very joyful person in real life, I think Taylor was also able to find moments of great humor and mischievousness that gave Kate a lot of life and personality.

One of Kate’s body parts falls off, and although I won’t spoil which one, did either of you keep it?

Kaczmarek: I don’t think it made it off set! But I’ll treasure it forever.

What would you do if your own girlfriend was exhibiting signs she was becoming a zombie?

Laws: I mean, I’ll love Heather no matter what she becomes, but I imagine it will make picking a restaurant even harder.

Monsterland is part of Hulu’s annual “Huluween” line-up. All episodes are out now.

Main image: Roberta Colindrez (L) and Taylor Schilling in Monsterland.

Lawrence is a New York-based travel and entertainment writer whose work has appeared in National Geographic Traveler, Time Out New York and The New York Post.