Owen Milgrim (Jonah Hill) has schizophrenia, and one effect of that is seeing a non-existent brother. This brother assures him that he’s meant for greatness, and that he’s “going to save the world,” if only Owen could trust him. To be sure, Netflix’s Maniac portrays a simplistic, cartoonish version of a complicated disorder, but that’s because executive producer Cary Joji Fukunaga (the director of True Detective season 1, and the newly hired director of the latest James Bond film) isn’t all that interested in the nuances of mental illness. Instead, Fukunaga uses it to make wider points about the way we interact with capitalism; about attempts to ‘cure’ ourselves, and what that really means.
Annie Landsburg is grieving. She’s depressed and angry. She’s lost her sister, the one person who she felt could handle her ugliness; the one person who understood her. She volunteers for the drug trial at the centre of the series (UPL: a drug that supposedly cures every mental illness in the world and leaves you with nothing but feelings of bliss) because she’s addicted to the rush of the as-yet unsafe drug. This drug functions in three stages, split into three pills. Annie is addicted to the first stage, pill A, which forces the user to experience their “core trauma” (in Annie’s case, the death of her sister) as though it’s happening right then and there. She loves it, despite it forcing her to relive the worst day of her life, because she can see her sister again, and she can experience that soul-crushing guilt and shame she feels she deserves over and over again, without having to do the work to address that part of the trauma. Fukunaga’s treatment of mental illness may not be subtle, but he understands self-destruction, and the unhealthy coping mechanisms we adopt just to make it through the day.
These are the circumstances under which Annie and Owen meet at the drug trial—they are intensely vulnerable, isolated, and desperate for a solution to all their problems. Owen needs a way out of testifying for his asshole brother, who is implied to have done something horrible to a woman, and Annie just wants that next hit of pill A. They’re bonded by their experiences early on, but it is when they move on to pill B that the connection between the two solidifies. The pill, as intended, causes them to hallucinate parallel lives, ones that faintly echo themes, ideas, and people from their own world, without it being overtly obvious what the connection is. But Owen and Annie experience this together. It’s a pattern—in the lives that they experience when under the influence of the drug, they are intimately connected. In one life they’re a married couple with a family, in another they are spies (Jonah Hill speaking in an ‘Icelandic’ accent that makes me laugh every time I think about it), in another, they are thieves—separated but still almost-in-love, caught in a cycle of betraying each other for the thrill of it. Owen’s not-real brother tells him “the pattern is the pattern”: an excuse, if there ever was one, to project whatever the audience (or indeed the characters) want onto this connection. It’s not necessarily romantic, but it is, quite literally, soul-deep; soulmates bound entirely by accident. What a wonderful fan-fiction trope that is making its way to mainstream television. I love it.
It also stands in total contrast to the lack of connection experienced by Owen and Annie in the world outside the trial. The world of Maniac is similar to our own, but there are some differences. There is true Artificial Intelligence, the technology has a distinctively 80s feel that disorientates the viewer, and people can supplement their income with ‘Ad buddies.’ This last part is loosely defined, but essentially involves people with briefcases appearing beside you to read advertisements out loud in exchange for money. You can also rent a friend, a husband for a grieving family, whatever you need: the ‘gig economy’ taken to its most absurd conclusion. It all tells of a world where the connections between people are commodified. Owen is implied to be tempted by the possibility of renting a family, renting a life, before entering the drug trial, and Annie uses Ad buddies, rents friends, and does whatever she needs to do to make her rent. The A pill isn’t cheap, after all. It’s an easy way out of their loneliness, so why should they not give in to this capitalist fantasy? That Maniac chooses to make this point—the fantasies experienced under the influence of the drug trial are more real, more authentic, than relationships built on capitalist exchanges in the outside world—emphasises the importance of what Annie and Owen experience together. It’s figured as genuine, rare, and therefore essential.
But that’s not all. Annie admits in the final episode (to a rented friend she is pretending is Owen, ironically) that it’s “really hard to actually connect with somebody,” and that makes it all the more important to hang on to those connections. The difficulty of maintaining a true relationship in the world is emphasised. It takes sustained effort to have an authentic connection with another person, and I do believe that’s true to life. It’s not just that fate draws these two damaged people together, and that’s the end of it. Maniac recognises that it’s not that easy; Annie and Owen have to choose to find and help each other, repeatedly. Owen does this in the fantasies, when he becomes aware that he’s under the influence of the drug, and transforms into a hawk (“Annie, I’m a hawk!” he shouts with glee) to go find Annie in her own, separate fantasy life, and Annie parallels that choice in the outside world, finding Owen in an in-patient facility, with him convinced that she was either a delusion, or, potentially worse, real and unwilling to see him outside of the trial. She reassures him that she’s real, tells him that he may well need to be medicated, but he also needs her in the same way that she needs him, so they escape together. As an aside, I have to express how relieved I was that the show didn’t try to suggest Owen didn’t need medical treatment—my own life has been made much easier since becoming properly medicated, and the suggestion often seen in pop culture that medication is a sign of weakness, or muting part of your personality, is disturbing and destructive. If Maniac has a central thesis for this story line, it isn’t that Owen doesn’t need help, or treatment, but rather that he doesn’t need to be alone.
Annie and Owen’s struggles with mental illness are the way that we can verify the importance of this connection to both of them. Their relationship begins with Annie lying to Owen; a relatively insignificant but nevertheless cruel lie that causes Owen to believe more deeply in his delusions. If anything, it shows the dire straits under which they meet; how profoundly they both need help. She admits later in the series that she never would have lied to him like that if she had known about his struggles with schizophrenia; she understands the cruelty of what she did. But once they decide to be truthful with each other, something beautiful happens: they look after each other, and have each other’s backs both in the fantasies and in reality. They support each other unconditionally, and it’s this support that allows them to verify that they’re sane, they’re okay, what they’re experiencing is real. Maniac posits that having someone in your life like that is the most important thing in maintaining your mental health. Annie supports the painfully shy Owen in the real world, constantly pushing him to express himself and engage with the world, and Owen does the same for Annie when they are together in their fantasies, attempting to draw her out of a particularly tempting one where her sister is alive and well, assisting her in stealing a lemur from some gangsters, and handing over the allegedly magical final chapter of Don Quixote.
Annie insists to Owen when they first meet that the universe is chaos, and to think anything else is foolish. This contrasts with Owen’s belief that he has a ‘purpose’—that he’s going to “save the world.” She doesn’t try to create a narrative out of her life, instead seeing it as a series of unrelated tragedies. But by the end of the show, through her transcendent connection with Owen, Annie finds meaning in that chaos. “The pattern is the pattern” but meant sincerely this time. It isn’t that life has a narrative, but that it has meaning, and that meaning is felt and experienced through her relationship with Owen.
Not only is Maniac 2018’s most romantic show, but it is also its most sentimental. This isn’t meant as a criticism—I think we could all do with more sentiment right now. Love and friendship don’t fix Owen and Annie. The treatment doesn’t work as intended—in fact it descends into a truly hilarious farce as Dr. Mantelray (Justin Theroux) and Dr. Fujita (Sonoya Mizuno) desperately try to keep it together—but Annie and Owen find each other nevertheless. They go through an incomprehensibly intimate experience together, and through that, they know each other better than anyone else ever could. In a fantasy where they aren’t in the same world, Owen tells a version of Olivia (a girl he frightened when his schizophrenia began manifesting) that family is someone who loves you unconditionally, and by the end of the show, that’s exactly what Annie and Owen have found together.
I was concerned when I first heard of Fukunaga’s show that it would argue that mental illness can be ‘cured,’ or even worse, that it must be, but it didn’t turn out that way. Instead, Maniac is a rather wonderful ode to love, and authentic connections that are worth hanging on to and developing in spite of our collective decision to value less sentimental visions of life. It actually reminded me of the end of True Detective season 1, as Marty and Rust contemplate the “only story” that matters—that of an eternally on-going cosmic battle between good and evil. Rust compares it to the night sky, with the stars acting as bursts of light and goodness shot through the dark. “The dark has considerably more territory,” Marty says. But then Rust, whose defining trait until this point has been his nihilism, points out that the universe started out as completely dark, and is becoming gradually more shot through with light. I don’t believe in cosmic forces, and I don’t believe we all have a purpose. But I do believe that life’s meaning is found through experiencing it with others. “The pattern is the pattern,” and that in itself can be enough.
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Wasn’t it a wonderful show??? I found it to be the most original thing on TV since Twin Peaks. It is so amazing to watch Twin Peaks change TV again.
Really enjoyed your break down of the show. The themes you picked out really resonated with me. Thank u.