It is a good time to be alive for fans of independent and interesting cinematic experiences. (There are also a million reasons why it’s horrible, but I am LITERALLY TRYING OVER HERE TO BE OPTIMISTIC! So, come on, cut a brother a break would ya?) Tons of fantastic independent films from all over the world. Korea, Serbia, Germany, New York, you get the idea. And today? I bring you an amazing movie that comes from the country of Netflix. Netflix is a wonderful world of independent film. Just overflowing with cash money resources to give to these cinematic wunderkinds. (Did you know, or realize, that Netflix… (I swear I looked this up 5 times, and still don’t believe my own eyes) is actually worth more than Disney? Like Disney Disney. Not Disney parks. Not Disney movies. Not Disney merch. Disney ABC. ALL OF DISNEY. At least in terms of market cap anyway.) But I am really digressing here. You gotta help me stay on track here – cause wow, we got a live one on the wire this time.
Maniac. New show from Netflix. 10 amazing episodes of psychedelic and head spinning chaos. At a super high level, the story is about two wayward souls who sign up to a drug trial and their downward spiral until they crash. But along the way they meet and attempt to help each other through this horrific, train wreck of an experience. The show is about grief, and our expectations for life. It’s about friendship and insanity. And here… if you liked Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind? Done. You HAVE to watch this show. Like, it’s a moral requirement. You are ethically bound. If you didn’t, wow, stay clear. (And by the way, why are you here. I don’t like you. Like, any.) So, take an extra dose of Zyprexa, and buckle up, because we are going to do a 10 episode walk through of this show. If you’d rather jump to the WHAT THE HECK DID IT MEAN section. Otherwise, let us away. Shall we?
Oh, by the way, if you haven’t seen the show, watch this trailer and then leave. Great. Oh, and then come back! After! Only after – because even this paragraph probably spoiled something about the show already. hahaha.
Why don’t we also give you, brave internet denizen, a table of contents? Because, I’m guessing this thing might get egregiously large. Yes. That is a good idea.
Chapter 1 – The Chose One!
Chapter 2 – Windmills
Chapter 3 – Having a Day
Chapter 4 – Furs by Sebastian
Chapter 5 – Exactly Like You
Chapter 6 – Larger Structural Issues
Chapter 7 – Ceci N’est Pas Une Drill
Chapter 8 – Lake of the Clouds
Chapter 9 – Utangatta
Chapter 10 – Option C
ok here we go folks… hold on to your butts.
Chapter 1 – The Chosen One!
As Maniac kicks off, we realize that this is some wild, alternate reality future happening here. Or maybe it’s our future, but it’s on a path that we can’t really envision. Not entirely different, but not the same either. It’s possible to get infinite funds by selling out completely to AdBuddy. There are miniature robots prowling the streets, cleaning up dog excrement. Jobs as hired husbands. It’s similar, but decidedly not similar.
The entire show is bridged on the front end and the back end with an allegation against Jed (played by Billy Magnussen), Owen’s brother. We don’t know what it is that Jeb has done, but Owen (played by Jonah Hill) is being called on to vouch for his horrible brother. But Owen is concerned that his past bouts with schizophrenia will flag him as an unfit witness. Not only that, but we know that Owen is seeing a fake version of Jed who is continuing to tell Owen he is the chosen one, selected to save the world!
Annie (played by Emma Stone), our other main character – and anchor point, isn’t doing well either. But we learn more about her in the next episode. For now though, Jed has directed Owen to Annie to be his contact. That she will give him the information that he needs in order to save the world.
Chapter 2 – Windmills
Annie is at her wits end as well. She’s not doing well at all! Not even a little bit. She is using a drug that is shaped in the form of a letter A. She is obviously dying to kick the habit, and yet, she isn’t having any luck with that at all. After a failed vow of ditching the powerful A inscribed pill, she decides she knows what she needs to do.
The company that creates the medicine, Neberdine Pharmaceutical, is conducting clinical trials for the medicine, and she is determined to get enrolled in the trials. But instead of enrolling and seeing if she would be accepted, she chooses to intercept the Neberdine Pharmaceutical intake employee meeting with a hired friend appointment. Once ensconced, and connected with this woman, she bribed her way into the study. We learn that the reason Annie is addicted is because her sister, Ellie (played by Julia Garner) passed away five years prior.
Ellie was planning to move away and get married. She was moving to Salt Lake, and though Ellie and Annie took care of each other in every way, Annie wasn’t moving. On their last trip together, the two of them had a number of hard conversations. But it was ultimately a car accident that caused Ellie’s death, that has driven Annie to these extremes. And it is when she takes the drug, Annie is able to relive every moment of that last day that they were together. But the enormous question of Episode 2? Why did Annie just relive this real life trauma, as opposed to all the others that lived variations and fantasies of their trauma? Was it because she had honed her response to the drug over time? Hrmmm. (Or is Owen’s first go at the A-pill real too? wah? That thought just dawned on me. But I’m getting ahead of ourselves.)
Chapter 3 – Having A Day
Only episode 3 and already we have learned so much! We have a decent grasp on Annie’s backstory and her particular crazy that’s going on. We are starting to get a bit of a feel for the drug study, but there is something weird happening here at Neberdine. Like, for example, that name? Neberdine? Seems awfully like Neverland to me. Hrm. Anyway, we are making good progress, but Owen definitely needs a turn in this underworld that is his subconscious.
Right, so we learn quickly that Owen didn’t take the pill. Dr. Muramoto (played by Rome Kanda) forces Owen to take the pill – and we launch into Owen’s story. Which is Jed’s engagement party. Owen tells Adelaide, Jed’s fiancé (played by Jemima Kirke), that he wants to run away with her and start over. But she points out that he is regularly indulging in fantasies that involve running away and creating new identities. He laughs off the suggestion and then attempts to commit suicide, but fails. And when he returns, Dr. Muramoto talks to Annie and tells her that he knows that she has taken the A pill, over and over again.
“I sympathize, the A pill can be a seductive demon. Most people wouldn’t understand why someone would want to revisit trauma again and again. Even taking pleasure in it. People like that don’t want to move forward.”
“I don’t deserve to move forward.”
“They always end up going back, even after tasting recovery.”
And at the end of their conversation together, Muramoto keels over and dies. Annie makes certain they don’t get kicked out of the program. And as the episode ends, we learn that every time Annie takes the A pill she lives through the worst day of her life, and yet she adores it, because she gets to be with her sister.
Chapter 4 – Furs by Sebastian
Ep4 is entirely played out deep within the experiment, under the influence of the B pill. And because of a flaw within GRTA, and a crossed wire, Annie and Owen share a conjoined memory experience. They are married in the 80’s and are Linda and Bruce Marino. Lin needs Bruce’s help finding a lemur of a recently deceased patient, in order to deliver it to the patient’s daughter as Lin promised to do.
When Bruce and Lin break into the fur store that has nabbed the lemur, named Wendy (who are intending to turn it into a hat). But there is an enormous shootout between the fur store owners and the Department of Fish and Wildlife. Bruce and Lin slip out the back and deliver Wendy to Nan’s daughter. Nan’s daughter’s name? Paula Nazlund. Hopefully Nazlund is a name that rings a bell? Well, Nan actually wanted her daughter Paula to have it out of a hatred for her daughter. Lin also finds out that Paula is pregnant, and is planning to name her son, Greg “Fuck You Nan” Nazlund. Now? That is the man who will take too many NoDoze and end up killing Ellie. As the episode ends, Bruce is captured by the police.
Chapter 5 – Exactly Like You
Annie and Owen continue along their way through their shared fantasy, but now? They are Arlie and Ollie… two con artists invited to a séance. Both are attempting to steal the lost last 53rd chapter of Cervantes’ novel Don Quixote. It is believed, that whoever reads the last chapter will grant the reader their wildest fantasy forever.
Greta, in the physical representation of Dr. Mantleray’s mother (played by Sally Field), is leading the séance while the two con artists search the house for the chapter. Eventually Owen finds it, and turns it over to Greta. Dr. Azumi (played by Sonoya Mizuno), notices the strange connection between patient one and patient nine, Annie is pulled for questioning. Then they are all tested to see if they are making progress, actually healing. We actually learn a LOT during these interviews. We learn that Annie literally has no idea if her mother is alive or dead. We learn that the machine, and the drugs create actual alternate realities called “globular clusters” of “arborized realities”. We learn that Annie has been afraid, and she’s worried others will see that fear. And ultimately we learn that Annie is disturbed when she acts like her mother acted. We also learn that the pill wasn’t designed to cross-wire two different people together into a singular reality. And when Owen and Annie receive their diagnoses, they state that Owen shows signs of borderline personality disorder, and Annie shows signs of pathological grief, and self loathing.
At this point in the series, I was pretty much certain that the movie’s main level was tactually just a dream… and that there was a lower layer that had a connection between Annie and Owen. Or was I wrong? The $10 million dollar question at this point was this – is this movie basically a love story? Or is it a mindjob of epic proportions undermining literally everything we can possibly know about anything? Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, it is ultimately a love story. A story of forgiveness and redemption. But was this like that? Or was it a deconstructionist post-modern mindjob? But one thing I do know at this point for sure – Annie is our main conduit for this story, discussing the ideas of failure and a hope for eventual forgiveness, which is seen in Annie and her sister Ellie. And Owen? His story is all about betrayal and the chains they cause of self doubt. But I’m getting ahead of myself once again.
Chapter 6 – Larger Structural Issues
Episode 6 is when all manner of sanity completely and totally goes off the rails. For example, we find out that the machine, Greta, was given feelings and emotions in order to protect the study participants. That the previous studies were creating something called McMurphies, which we later learn is a patient who goes into a coma, and never leaves the Greta universe. Greta was given these feelings by Dr. Azumi Fujita (played by Sonoya Mizuno) after the creator of the system, Dr. Mantleray was booted from the study. But the AI that Azumi created was based on Mantleray’s mother, a self help guru. And we learn that Greta, the AI, wants to meet her real life self, Mantleray’s mother. And as the episode spirals out we start to learn that Greta is pretty sure she is going to keep Annie as a McMurphy as well. She doesn’t want to release her. So the plot line that is shaping up, is that Annie is now being held hostage, and the only one in a position to save her is Owen.
Chapter 7 – Ceci N’est Pas Une Drill
In episode 7, Annie and her sister, Ellie, are knee deep in some wild Lord of the Rings knock off scenario. Assassins are coming, which represent Annie’s personal demons. And it is these assassins that are hunting for Queen Gertrude. (Eh?) Annia (Annie’s dream character) is being paid by Ellia (you get the idea) get to the Lake of the Clouds, in order to heal her. When Annia looks into a looking glass, she realizes that she is actually Annie, and Ellia is Ellie. We also follow Owen into a mafia family scenario within GRTA. We are watching as his fears and concerns about testifying at his brother’s trial are played out in a crime family scenario. Towards the end of the episode, Owen goes to a diner and sees Annie, and they agree to study together. And it is also episode 7 where we see Greta, Mantleray’s mother, freebasing the drug and interfacing with the AI.
Chapter 8 – Lake of the Clouds
This episode moves us from the B pill, on to the C, and confrontation stage of the drug trials. “We are in the globular Cluster.”
Annie returns to Lord of the Rings-esque world, and is still attempting to convince Ellie that all of this is fake. That none of it is real. But she isn’t able to convince her. We do learn that as a guide, Ellia generally cons people out of their money, without delivering what she promised. But with Ellia, all of the fake details she made up, turn out to be real. The burning tree. The invisible moon. Etc. But it is during this story that we begin to get some of our only real feeling as to their mother and her troubles. We know that she would have horrible days, and would yell at the girls. And it was during one of these episodes that Annie decides she’s had enough, and runs away. Leaves Ellie behind.
Similarly, in Owens C-pill experience, the mafia situation continues playing out. Owen is under cover, wearing a wire, and his brother is killed because he is thought to be the turncoat. And Owen says to his father, “Have you ever considered that you were trapped in an extremely dangerous simulation? Which is, itself directed by a suicidally depressed consciousness?” Which is similar to Annie attempting to make her sister wake up to the reality around her.
And it’s during one key interchange while Owen is talking with two of the cops helping him flip on his father, that Jed walks in and kills the cops violently. “You don’t see it? I’m your brother, Jed Grimsson, the fifth Milgram boy.” He too is trying to break through the fantasy of it. And while Owen may know this, he probably doesn’t know if he is talking to Jed one, or Jed two, his imaginary friend. But Frank walks in and shoots Jed. Owen runs and asks Annie to run away with him. Which she does. But years later, they are all living in his small apartment, with piles of kids, each one named after a continent. He attempts suicide, but fails, and then morphs into a hawk. And that hawk crosses over from his C-storyline, to Ellie’s C-storyline.
Is your head swimming yet? Because mine is.
Annie and Ellie make it to a particular cliff, and Annie realizes that it’s that cliff where Ellie died. Which is when the queen arrives, “All this knowing yourself!? Real bliss is not knowing yourself!” And the Queen offers Annie a chance to stay there forever, to become a McMurphy. And Annie agrees thinking that she’ll be able to remain with Ellie. And Ellie says, “don’t do this again, you want to move on, just say goodbye!” But Annie chooses to stay.
Chapter 9 – Utangatta
Further down the rabbit hole we go, and the crazier the mindjobs become. In this particular episode, Annie and Owen are back together again. This time, Owen is Snorri. (uh.) And he apparently befriend an extraterrestrial named Ernie, and is on trial for what happened as a result. Snorri accidentally blew up Ernie and as a result, Ernie’s people have come to earth for revenge. But Snorri believes that Ernie was not a friend to mankind, but rather here to kill all humans and sell their meat across the galaxy. As they work together to escape, Annie is killing agents (inner demons) left and right as they struggle to get out.
One important dialog moment was when Snorri was asked what Utangatta means: “It means that something is amiss. It means that every relationship I have ever had, has somehow been false, and I’ve always felt invisible. Like an Egyptian nightjar.”
Eventually they make their way to the McMurphy room where GRTA keeps her hostages in a coma. Which, sort of broke my brain, because this was a mind representation of their physical form. So why?!?
Annie talks to Gertie and Gertie makes it plain that she is tired of Annie continuously trying to run away. “But I make bad deals all the time… and I don’t want to pretend that Ellie isn’t dead anymore. And eventually, Annie reunites with Ellie again in a diorama and they have a heart to heart about their mother leaving and the impact it had on both of them. “Sometimes people leave and we don’t know why.” And Gertie and Ellie leave.
Out in the lab Mantleray is going to destroy GRTA and be done with it. As he starts pulling the computer apart, Owen is attempting to solve a Rubik’s cube in order to get back control of the test and release them from the test and back to consciousness.
Chapter 10 – Option C
The episode opens with Owen waking up and yelling, “ANNIE, ARE YOU OK?!?” And I literally could not have laughed any louder than I did in that moment. (No idea? How about this.) And they are reunited, released from the clawing grip of GRTA. But immediately, Annie tells Owen that she doesn’t want to talk about it. And life goes on.
Finally, the time arrives for Owen to go on the stand in order to clear Jed’s name. And just like he said he would, Owen backs up Jed’s lie. But, small snag, the prosecution pulls out a video of Jed accosting the woman. And with that, they begin questioning Owen about his schizophrenia, and the fact that he regularly sees a imaginary Jed. So how can he tell the difference between his imaginary Jed and the real one? Which then leads Owen to recant, which causes the court room to blow up.
Annie goes and visits her father, who apparently, is played by Hank Azaria, which we didn’t know because he’s always been in a box the entire show. And Annie tells him she needs him out of the box. That it’s not ok for him to hide from the world. But apparently, he had already left the box. They talk about Annie’s experiences in the study and her experiences with Ellie.
Hank – “How did she seem?”
Annie – “You know I made her up?”
Hank – “Who knows how all this stuff works?”
Annie – “She seemed herself.”
Annie – “Owen listened to all my stories, but I kept telling him all the reasons not to trust me.”
Hank – “So he acted like a friend then.”
Cut to sometime in the future when we see that Owen has been admitted into a psychiatric ward after the court outburst and resulting chaos. But it is during a conversation with his psychiatrist that he says there are two options:
“Option A – she doesn’t really exist. I look up Neberdine Pharmaceutical Biotech, and it doesn’t exist.
Option B – is even worse.”
But then Annie shows up, and offers him Option C, which is that they break Owen out of the facility and head off to Salt Lake City together. Owen though is worried that over time, he’ll yell, and say things he doesn’t mean, and that she’ll stop talking to him, and change her number, and that it’ll break his heart. Right? Which has been the crux of his problem since day one. Difficulties with reality and the mundaneness of it all. But Annie assures him that is how friends operate, they forgive, they understand. And that is when they both take off and break Owen out of the facility.
Netflix’s Maniac Ending Explanation Options
There are a number of things going on here in this show. Lots of many things (that’s plurals of plurals, if you weren’t tracking me there.) But I want to focus on three main things. The first one is Owen’s difficulties and rehabilitation. The second is Annie’s difficulties and her rehabilitation. And finally? The Philosopher’s Cave.
Owen’s Difficulties in the Netflix Show Maniac
It’s funny how we didn’t spend a lot of direct time addressing Owen’s issues and problems throughout the ten episodes, and yet there they all are. We see them as clear as day. Right? As the show opens we notice that there is a past that we don’t know much about. Owen has had some sort of mental break and was institutionalized. He has been taking medications of various sorts and has had to deal with various insinuations about his sanity, or lack there of. Which brings us to his delusions, which are regular and prodigious.
We also get hints and clues that he has inappropriately latched on to women, fantasizing about starting over with them. Note Owen’s interaction with Olivia Meadows (Grace Van Patten) at her engagement party with Jed, where Owen tries to convince her to run away with him, and to start life over again. “Ever notice your plans always include completely starting over with an entirely new identity?” I mean, he was even considering becoming a volunteer husband for heaven’s sake!
But why? Well, the ending makes it clear that he is afraid of having his heart broken. Or he is perpetually having his heart broken, and it is the identity changes that give him some respite from the pain. A way to hide. Until Annie convinces him that real friends allow friends to be real with each other.
Annie’s Difficulties in the Netflix Show Maniac
Annie is a different case entirely. Her trauma and desire to flee is 100% related to the death of her sister. And while the most obvious example of her pain is her death at the hand of the NoDozed (see what I did there?) truck driver. But we saw signs of the grief even before she died. Right? Ellie was moving. Leaving the state. And Annie was not coping with this news well at all.
And as we scour her memories in various forms we realize this is a result of trauma caused by her mother leaving the family. At first we believe it to just be a maladjusted personality of some sort. But the further we go, the more we realize that their mother was a truly horrible person to both of her daughters. And eventually, after Annie had run away once, her mother just fled and never appeared again. We get no indication in the dreams, or from Annie herself as to whether or not Mrs. Landsberg is alive or dead. (As shown in that really important Q/A test to validate their progress in the study.)
Annie’s problem on the road trip with Ellie had more to do with Ellie leaving than anything else. Annie had taken care of Ellie growing up, and now that they were older, it was their agreement that Ellie would now take care of Annie. But after her death, things spiraled and she got a hold of the A pill in the study and was content just experiencing the trauma of Ellie’s death, over and over again, instead of just letting go. And it was in their final conversation, before Greta walked off with Ellie, that Annie was able to finally let go and say goodbye.
The Concept of the Philosopher’s Cave
I really don’t mean to speak down to all of you, because this seems just so basic. But Maniac completely ripped an idea and a concept that every Philosophy 101 student learns. Literally the most basic of Philosophical ideas, and that is the idea of the Philosopher’s Cave – or the Allegory of the Cave – or Plato’s Cave, if you’d like to look it up (wait, here’s the wikipedia link if you are that intrigued).
The concept is cool if basic. And that is that all of society, all of humanity, they are all trapped in a cave. Shackled in front of a fire… eternally trapped. And what humanity mistakes for “reality” is actually just someone, flashing up shapes and outlines in front of the fire, and casting shadows on the wall. But it is the job of the Philosopher to wake up the trapped cave inhabitant and convince them to go out into the sun, to experience what real life really is all about. (About 1 million movies riff on this idea of the cave, the most obvious example I could cite would be The Matrix. Right?)
So if we consider Maniac from the vantage of Plato’s Cave, we see that there are about a billion different analogies here that we could make. The most obvious analogy is that they are trapped inside of GRTA, their minds willingly choosing ignorance as opposed to struggling to break free. Or if you’d like a different angle on this same idea, that Owen and Annie were trapped in their mental unease, working hard to avoid the truth about their circumstances.
A Final Thought on Globular Clusters
Towards the beginning of the show we hear a number of weird phrases, like McMurphies, that just blow by us. Arborized Realities and Globular Clusters are two of those wild ideas that the show doesn’t really slow down to explain. But like the movie, Coherence, we are presented with the idea of a million different possible realities deep inside the mind of GRTA. We see Annie and Owen as thieves, mafia, elves, hawks! Craziness. Infinite realities. And at one point Mantleray (was it him?) says:
“All the worlds that almost were are just as important as the one that is – corollary, these other worlds cause us great pain… my goal is to irradiate all pain.”
Which, is an idea in league with string theory, and the ideas surrounding the idea that we have infinite possibilities. Different divergences of our current real reality. But this comment right here is sort of dealing with loss. It’s dealing more with the psychological effects of the almostness of life, I think. It’s the struggle against the falseness of potential, and the not-ness of loss. If that makes sense. I wanted to be a singer, but I never quite made it. My wife and I were happy, and then she was cut down by a sniper’s bullet. (Or what have you.) This is the thing he is referring to here. The psychological trauma of the variances and strange turns that life does, and does not throw at you.
But this logic also lends itself to a (quasi-)serious discussion about timeline fragmentation and potential timelines, and the ideas of Annie1, Owen1, Annie2, Owen2, and an endless downward spiral of digressions of possibilities. I don’t want to delve too far into this line of thinking mainly because it was shown in the show to be mainly contained to the mind, and not “real” life. But if someone has even the slimmest of evidence that this idea of deviation permeated the “real world” I’d add a deeper discussion about it in a heartbeat. I mean, so much is made about Arborized Realities (are they arborized because like a tree, they have roots that go this way and that way, with varying possibilities and realities?)
Final Thoughts on Netflix’s Show Maniac
Maniac is a great show. But I have to admit, I was more than a little bummed that the creators didn’t take it one layer deeper. Like I said in the middle of the ep5 overview, I had hoped to see that Annie and Owen actually were connected in a deeper way. (To be 100% honest, I thought the woman that Jed raped was going to be either Annie, or connected to Annie in some way.) That they were star crossed lovers in a different potential “arborized reality”, and this dream thread would be working out of the chaos separating the two.
But alas, that was not to be the case. Instead what we are given is a coincidental meeting of two hurt people, who are trying to work through the damage they’ve sustained in life. But, making matters worse, they enlist in a drug trial that includes a maniacal (is that the reason for the name? Maniac = Greta?) AI intent on keeping the two of them forever deep within the bowels of its computer systems. And the two of them, through their friendship, and their grown trust, work to break Annie free. Ultimately they succeed, and then the tables turn. Annie then breaks Owen free and the two of them head off into the sunset together to figure this thing called life out together. Right?
So there is a beautiful balance to the events. Annie is saved. And saved Annie then saves Owen. Right? Which then speaks to the power of friendship, the power of understanding and listening. The power of us being 100% for one another and how that sort of understanding is therapeutic in and of itself. (But I still wanted there to be one layer deeper going on here. Just saying!) I don’t know, what did you think of the film?
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Edited by, CY