Unpacking Every Scary Story In ‘Joko Anwar’s Nightmares and Daydreams’

By Jonathon Wilson
Published: June 15, 2024 (Last updated: last month)
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Joko Anwar's Nightmares and Daydreams Season 1 Recap (Episodes 1-7)
Joko Anwar's Nightmares and Daydreams | Image via Netflix

WARNING: THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS

Across seven episodes, Joko Anwar’s Nightmares and Daydreams presents seemingly disconnected tales of horror and science-fiction, unified only, at first, by their Jakarta setting. But decades of Indonesian history gradually entwine throughout each short, written and directed by Anwar and a team of other exciting creatives, so let’s recap all of them and unpack their underlying themes and connections.

Episode 1, “The Old House”

The premiere, written and directed by Anwar himself, sees a taxi driver, Panji, make the ill-advised decision of leaving his mother Ranti at an eerie old-age home.

It’s a pragmatic decision, initially. Panji cares for his mother, but her being looked after by someone else not only saves money but prevents her short-term memory loss from proving dangerous for Panji’s young son, Hagi.

But Panji’s impulse is still a selfish one. He’s abandoning the woman who gave him life, and this theme underpins the entire story, which quickly morphs to become about a cult of rich narcissists trying to remain young forever by sacrificing their children to demons, claiming their vitality for themselves.

This scheme requires the older people to be angry enough with their children to give up their lives, so an old folks home is the perfect setting. Where else would you find children who so readily absolve themselves of responsibility to their parents?

Panji’s arc becomes trying to save his mother, and then himself, from youth-eating demons and flesh-eating entities known as The Banished, who rejected the sacrifices. In so doing he’s able to escape in a fiery climax, though is unable to save his mother. But he learns an important lesson about parenting, and with a bit of luck, Hagi won’t grow up to abandon him in the same way he was so willing to do with Ranti.

Episode 2, “The Orphan”

Joko Anwar's Nightmares and Daydreams Season 1 Recap (Episodes 1-7)

Nightmares and Daydreams Episode 2

Evoking classic cautionary tales about greed, “The Orphan” finds a financially struggling couple, Ipah and Iyos, gambling with the devil by adopting an orphan, Syafin, who can make them rich in six days. The risk is that they won’t survive the seventh.

Syafin exchanges love and affection for exquisite gifts. Iyos likes the latter but offers the former on false pretenses. All he sees in Syafin is a meal ticket. He plans to kill him on the seventh day before anything deadly can befall him and his wife, but Ipah forms a strong motherly bond with Syafin and wants to protect from harm.

The dramatic conflict and underlying themes are obvious here and only become more so as things progress, with Iyos’s selfishness and Ipah’s selflessness both growing the more time they spend with Syafin. It’s a traditional story of parental love, greed, and eventually paranoia, when in an intriguing development Iyos’s developing feelings for the child give way to his fear that he will kill his adoptive parents anyway since their new wealth must come at some kind of cost.

Eventually, Ipah stabs Iyos to protect Syafin, and then stabs herself in shame. The demonic prophecy is fulfilled, as expected. People just can’t get out of their own way, can they?

Episode 3, “Poems and Pain”

Joko Anwar's Nightmares and Daydreams Season 1 Recap (Episodes 1-7)

Nightmares and Daydreams Episode 3

Continuing the theme of money making us do the darndest things, “Poems and Pain” introduces us to Rania, a once-successful author who is compelled to relive the pain she endured in writing her successful first novel by penning a sequel against her better judgment.

Rania writes about an abused woman named Laras, and the more she writes, the more she begins to develop physical connections to the character. The bruises and trauma on the page transfer to reality, and a clear connection emerges between the two women, who turn out to be long-lost twin sisters. Laras was given up for adoption by their father, who regretted his decision but was only able to retrieve Rania.

Through being able to transfer her consciousness through the page to Laras’s body, Rania compels her sister to fight back against her psychotic husband, Adrian. This episode establishes a connection to Agartha, a mythological hyper-advanced hollow earth kingdom of which Adrian seems to be a particularly sinister representative.

Rania is forced, eventually, to choose between saving Laras and her daughter Asti, and settles on the latter. Despite the incident being reported to the police, the basement dungeon, along with Adrian and Laras, disappear. But at least Rania is able to finish her book. Perhaps there’ll be a sequel.

Episode 4, “Encounter”

Joko Anwar's Nightmares and Daydreams Season 1 Recap (Episodes 1-7)

Nightmares and Daydreams Episode 3

Reminiscent of Kubra, “Encounter” revolves around a lowly fisherman, Wahyu, inadvertently becoming a messiah. Obsessed with finding the mother who abandoned him, Wahyu’s beachcombing efforts lead him to what seems like an angel, but he loses everything through his obsession.

Wahyu’s wife is having an affair, and in fear that his burgeoning mind-reading powers will expose it, she flees with her suitor, a widower named Ohim. And yet despite his single-minded fixation on his abandonment, Wahyu is fundamentally a good and kind person, in direct opposition to someone like Rusman, who wants to steal and sell Wahyu’s picture of the so-called angel for his own gain.

Throughout the episode, which is backdropped by multinational corporate efforts to raze the local slums to make room for luxury apartments, Wahyu recognizes the picture and its value, thus monetary gain, to be the root of all evil. In losing the picture of his own mother, he becomes untethered from his lingering traumas and is able to become the messiah people already imagine him to be, imbued with divine powers bestowed upon him by the angel.

This is a comparatively happy ending relative to the first three, but the episode also makes another explicit reference to the kingdom of Agartha, tying at least two of the stories together, despite being set decades apart.

Episode 5, “The Other Side”

Joko Anwar's Nightmares and Daydreams Season 1 Recap (Episodes 1-7)

Nightmares and Daydreams Episode 5

Movies are an escape for many, and this is true for theatre ticket collector Bandi. But when his workplace is shut down and he, his wife, Dewi, and their son, Marhan, fall on financial hardship, he retreats into delusions connected to the movie theatre, the memories it holds, and the people he met there.

A clear parable about the dangers of not being able to let go, Episode 5 sees Bandi choose his memories over his family, disappearing into his recollections for what seem to him are mere hours but turn out to be several years.

However, the episode is also about society’s treatment of the homeless and mentally infirm, though it does give a literal demon, one with perhaps a connection to Agartha, the responsibility of manipulating the people, like Bandi, who find themselves vulnerable and unhoused.

Dewi, despite having remarried, becomes the heroine of the story as she attempts to fight the demon and save Bandi, but he ultimately surrenders himself so that his family can live a better life without him.

Episode 6, “Hypnotized”

Joko Anwar's Nightmares and Daydreams Season 1 Recap (Episodes 1-7)

Nightmares and Daydreams Episode 6

Once again strongly highlighting the theme of financial desperation, “Hypnotized” revolves around Ali, a colorblind man who turns to hypnotism and theft on the advice of his neighbor Iwan in order to better provide for his wife Ningsih, and their children Ayu and Hendra. Of course, though, exploiting others for personal gain has some consequences.

This episode toys with more explicit serialization, as the old woman Ali tries to rob at an ATM turns out to be Dewi from the previous episode, having aged into the powers she acquired from the demon in her failed attempts to save Bandi.

In the intervening years – Episode 6 is set in 2022; Episode 5 was set in 1997 – she has honed her talents and is trying to assemble a team to battle against an unknown threat to humanity’s future. Ali is a candidate, and the twist that it is him who has been hypnotized the whole time is basically an audition for the squad.

If Ali can control his own mind and free himself, he can presumably control the minds of others. A talent like that could be useful in the coming battle.

This surreal episode is one of the anthology’s most ambitious, making its connections to a broader story clearer than ever and helping to knit together a more coherent mythical world.

Episode 7, “P.O. Box”

Joko Anwar's Nightmares and Daydreams Season 1 Recap (Episodes 1-7)

Nightmares and Daydreams Episode 7

The season finale of Joko Anwar’s Nightmares and Daydreams returns to the idea of a powerful sisterly bond. In it, diamond appraiser Valdya is on the cusp of marrying Rendy, the former lover of her long-missing sister, Dara. Through a pen drive, Valdya is led to the titular P.O. Box 888, which was rented over 100 years ago. The last person to inquire about it was a woman named Ratna, who has a son and a husband named Adi.

Adi and Ratna are on the run from threats relating to Adi’s former employment with the National Research Agency. He recognizes Dara from a photograph. Valdya, having ditched Rendy, decides to apply for the same job that Dara did, applications for which are collected from the P.O. Box.

Not for the first time, the theme of refusing to let go of the past and its associated traumas comes to the fore. Despite warnings, Valdya follows the men who pick up the applications to a building full of fellow applicants, all of whom have some kind of impressive physical characteristic – Valdya’s is her eyes – and are gassed into unconsciousness upon arrival.

Valdya regains consciousness to discover she is part of a lavish banquet. Demons, including Adrian from Episode 3, are feasting on the very best parts of the applicants, having used Jakarta’s employment crisis to lure them. They plan to eat Valdya’s eyes, as they did her sister’s.

Valdya is saved by the sudden arrival of the Antibodies, comprising characters we’ve met already – Wahyu, Dewi, Ali, Panji, Rania, and the woman who has been following Valdya. They’re duty-bound to protect humanity against the demons from Agartha, a race of vengeful monsters who has spent their lives banished to the underworld and every decade work to wrest the surface from humans by finding new ways to entice and trick them.

Desperate for revenge, Valdya agrees to join them.


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