Warning: Spoilers below for all of Maniac
Since time began people have been trying to unlock the secrets of the mind, whether through philosophy, psychology, psychiatry, or any other practice starting with “p.” No one has truly cracked this code as of yet, each person is different, coping mechanisms vary, and there is no magic cure to trauma. It isn’t a case of solving a Rubik’s Cube, one of the many pop culture references littered throughout new Netflix mini-series Maniac. The brainchild of Cary Joji Fukunaga and Patrick Somerville, Maniac grapples with the mysteries of the mind through a series of surreal adventures and in turn, we are here to unpack the mysteries of Maniac including the relatively straightforward and satisfying conclusion.
In Maniac, strangers Annie (Emma Stone) and Owen (Jonah Hill) both apply to the Neberdine Pharmaceutical and Biotech trial, which promises to eradicate pain forever. Their hope is to rid themselves of what’s stopping them from having a “normal” life. Annie is depressed and addicted to a drug that lets her relive the worst day of her life, just so she can spend more time with her dead sister. She has had a lifetime to develop her defense mechanisms, to build those seemingly impenetrable walls, but what was once a form of protection has now made her susceptible to a cycle of denial with no escape.
Meanwhile, Owen suffers from mental illness that is referred to by his wealthy family as “a blip,” as if it is nothing more than a brief malaise he has got over. Yet he has been diagnosed as having paranoid schizophrenia, and has stopped taking his meds. He is an outcast who doesn’t even merit a spot on the family portrait. If he ceased to exist as George Bailey (James Stewart) did in It’s a Wonderful Life, he claims that nothing would change. Instead, he continues to converse with an imagery version of his brother, who comes to him with world-saving missions, when in reality Jed (Billy Magnussen) is using Owen as his alibi to avoid a sexual assault charge.
Though Annie and Owen’s world looks a lot like ours, it is a retro-futuristic society with services such as “Friend Proxy,” which aim to fill the empty hole in your life with a hired pal. True connections slip through the cracks as a result of the companies cashing in on loneliness. And while pain is part of the human experience, in Maniac the GRTA machine — affectionately known as Gertie — becomes terribly depressed after the death of her one true love, Dr. Robert Muramoto (Rome Kanda), which then causes havoc with the trial Annie and Owen are a part of. This crisis isn’t helped by Gertie’s unique position of having looked into the minds of 882 subjects, all of who deal with heartbreak in their own unique way. Healing doesn’t come from eradicating pain — the human experience doesn’t work like that, even if at times we wish it did. Relationships that have been cultivated rather than mimicked to match the real thing via “Friend Proxy” are what matter.
In the show’s finale, Annie realizes there is no such thing as a substitute after she has hired a fake Owen to go with her to Salt Lake City. This is not a romantic love story as such; friendship is the OTP in this scenario. Owen asks why Annie comes to see him after he has been institutionalized by his family, her reason is simple, “Because I’m your friend and that’s what friends do.”
Love is in the cards for one pair, though. Out of the ashes of this research catastrophe, Dr. James Mantleray (Justin Theroux) and Dr. Fujita (Sonoya Mizuno) leave the wreckage finally ready to embark on an adventure together, despite the fears they have. Dr. Mantleray has a lot of mother issues to work through, as Gertie is his mother — celebrity therapist, Dr. Gertrude Mantleray (Sally Field) — in tech form. Destroying his life’s work is the Oedipus complex come to life. Yet after this act he asks his mom if she wants to go for a brief lunch. It doesn’t matter that she can’t due to book tour commitments, he made that anxiety-ridden first step, allowing him to move on with Dr. Fujita. Rather than go back to simulated sex with a SuckTube, he shares a very awkward-looking kiss with Dr. Fujita, but it is beautiful. Real connections win once again. Their car passes Annie and Owen in the coda, both off on their own adventure.
Salt Lake City is Annie’s version of the city of Atlantis or Don Quixote’s quest; two classic fantasy references that get repeated throughout Maniac’s 10-episode run. It’s a mythic location she can’t quite seem to reach. It was the destination when a car crash killed her younger sister Emily (Julia Garner), and it is where she plans on going in the first episode, but can’t quite make it out of the station. It is notable then that when she breaks Owen out of the facility in the Maniac finale, Salt Lake City is where she is finally headed. Annie will never be over the pain of this loss, but she is now ready to confront what it means to live in a world without Emily.
Annie’s grief is bound with guilt; she wallows in this experience as punishment. There is no way she can tell the real Emily how sorry she is or why she wouldn’t take the photograph, but this medical trial and subsequent Gertie meltdown allows her this moment of clarity. “Sometimes people leave and we don’t know why,” these were the words Annie said to her sister when their mother left, words she must speak aloud again to move on. Being avoidant isn’t working; she is as stuck as her father is in his A-Void pod. Her father has also come to a similar conclusion as he is finally out among the living. For all of Maniac’s surreal qualities, the resolution to Annie’s story is a simple one. Ultimately, she is concerned she will make the same mistakes as her mother, which is again, a little Freudian. But in a series about the subconscious, they’ve got to acknowledge the classics. Philip Larkin said it best in his poem “This Be the Verse:”
“They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.”
But this bad faith argument denies Annie’s freedom to choose, while also offering up an unsatisfying place to portion blame. Maniac wants Annie to own her trauma, to stop denying what really happened; when she does then she will finally stop being a walking corpse. And Owen, like Annie’s sister, did not walk when she tried to push him away during their many adventures through their minds.
Owen is the more complex case because he should be seeking treatment, but being involuntarily placed in a facility by his family as a way to get his brother off a sexual assault charge is not the way. Owen is looking for a pattern because he fears he will keep falling prey to his own patterns of behavior, but Annie’s desire to be his friend is one way to break this cycle. Salt Lake City isn’t the cure, but this road trip will make him realize he is no longer invisible. What he is dealing with should not just be referred to as a “blip” to be swept under the expensive carpet.
Ultimately Maniac’s conclusion is a hopeful one. Alice and Owen were both struggling with this sense of feeling broken, but in their sorrow, they found each other. The scenarios featured in this miniseries are wild and absurd, inspired by fiction as varied as Lord of the Rings and Dr. Strangelove, but the action is grounded by the stellar performances. Pain can’t be completely eradicated, but the final moments of Maniac bring the fantasy Owen described to Annie in Episode 6 to life. They are alone no more: “We were in a car. We were driving really fast. Someone was chasing us, I don’t know who. It felt like an escape. I was just laughing. I had this huge smile on my face. It hurt it was so big. And we were just two people looking out for each other.”