This article contains major Maniac spoilers.
Sometimes finding health is just about earning a little bit of happiness, be it from a good friend or a road trip to Salt Lake City.
Such basic, slice of life wisdom is the cornerstone for Maniac’s unconventional and deeply affecting ending after 10 episodes on Netflix. Indeed, the limited series that has captured streaming audiences’ imaginations in only a few days is a beautiful trip that is neither about the destination or its journey; rather it is about how one feels about ever been put in motion—as opposed to sitting still in a quiet room. And by the end of Cary Joji Fukunaga and Patrick Sommerville’s magnum opus, just what that motion means can appear to be a complicated thing. As a television miniseries that is often cinematic in intent and storytelling scope—as well as visual points of influence—Maniac is barely plot-driven, despite it always driving toward the end of a three-day drug trial from hell, complete with crying computers and genre-hopping mashups that happily tip the hat to the likes of J.R.R. Tolkien, Agatha Christie, and Stanley Kubrick.
Yet at the heart of it all is a deceptively simple treatise on the need to accept your pain and feelings as a part of your identity, as opposed to something that can be cured, by talking or otherwise. That alone explains why Owen’s most outlandish fantasy of he and Annie escaping is the only one that comes true in their own reality.
Yep, the last image of Maniac, at least before the credits, was foreshadowed long before the tenth episode. And it’s a heartwarming closer too, featuring Jonah Hill and Emma Stone’s undeniably winning camaraderie in a beat up truck that’s driving away from the mental institution where Hill’s Owen had been unfairly committed. In all the fantasies and dreams lived throughout the NPB drug trials, Owen and Stone’s Annie have enjoyed multiple lifetimes, ranging from the happy to the sci-fi absurd. But given their own individual neuroses in the real world (Owen is schizophrenic and Annie has a borderline personality brought on by severe trauma), they have almost never been able to smile or enjoy the endurance test that is reality. Until now. In that closing image, they’re both uplifted in an escape sequence as serendipitous as that time they rescued a stolen lemur in another life.
This seemingly happy ending is, in fact, also one of their fantasies, only they made this one real. For those who do not recall, in the sixth episode, Owen reluctantly confides in Annie that if she had not taken the tiny page of Don Quixote in the ‘30s caper dream, he would’ve used it to transport them toward a vision he had. “We were in a car, driving really fast, someone was chasing us, I don’t know who. It felt like an escape, and I was just laughing and I had this huge smile on my face, it hurt it was so big. We were just two people watching out for each other.”
This fantasy is the antithesis of the life Owen claims he wants after the drug trial, which is that of a “quiet life” in a quiet room. To be standing still. But it is also the best case scenario of their friendship. The question is of course whether this daydream made real was also their destiny. Are Owen and Annie soulmates who’ve been cured of their acute forms of depression?
The role of fate in this series is certainly an open question that is difficult to answer after only a single viewing, but personally in my reading of their experiences, I would venture to say no. The show first explicitly raises the prospect of predestined kinship through one of the series’ many hapless figures trying to control, commodify, and commercialize happiness in Sally Field’s Dr. Greta Mantleray. Upon hearing of the intriguing concept of the series—that against the wishes of the hapless researchers studying the effects of a three-step pharmaceutical process meant to cure all mental illness, the fantasies of Owen and Annie are inexplicably intertwined—Greta suggests they’re two spirits drawn to each other. There is obviously a connection between Owen and Annie, but Greta represents one of the several ineffectual hands attempting to control others.
In this vein, a more literal reading of Maniac could suggest it is a condemnation on most of the research done in the field of psychology. On one side, you have the pharmaceutical industry represented by Justin Theroux’s Dr. James K. Mantleray. His entire life’s work is to create a medical solution to mental illness that would make the “talking cure,” which his mother has capitalized on in a crass fashion, obsolete via technology that he has obliviously modeled after monuments of digital self-destruction (namely the computer MOTHER in Ridley Scott’s original Alien), as well as his actual mother. For the computer controlling all of these tests is GRTA, a recreation of his own mother’s name, voice, and, eventually, personality.
Dr. Azumi Fujita (Sonoya Mizuno) confirms as much when she says she’s grafted her approximation of the real Greta’s emotions—based on her younger graduate school work—onto GRTA’s CPU. This of course invites the flaw of human error into the machine while also having some fun with the “megalomaniacal computer will destroy us all” cliché.
It is arguable that the only reason Owen and Annie’s fantasies become linked is due to these technological mistakes. And these poor choices are in turn due to Greta’s failures as a mother, beginning when she climbed into her eight-year-old son’s bed every night for weeks after her husband left. As a consequence, GRTA, as a doppelganger of a charlatan shrink who won’t make time for her own son after ensuring his career is over, winds up crying a tear when she herself suffers from depression in her digitized programming. And this tear is what short circuits the wires for test subjects “1” and “9.” Thus the fallout between this versus Owen’s initial delusion that he and Annie are destined to save the world together becomes ambiguous.
It should be noted that “1” and “9” being next to each other in GRTA’s mainframe is itself an unusual flaw, as well as theirs being the only two wires that are literally crossed even before GRTA’s teardrop sparks them. Could these bizarre coincidences speak to the destiny of Annie and Owen’s connection? Perhaps, but it also ties into a larger understanding that trying to control one’s emotions can become a fool’s errand.
I do not think Sommerville and Fukunaga are literally condemning the entire field of psychological study and treatment for mental illness, yet they are visibly savoring a surrealist perspective on some of its shortcomings. The real Greta thinks everything can be solved with advice that’s thin enough to fit on a book sleeve, and her son thinks he can medicate problems away; this is why neither can successfully console GRTA, who is the child of both of their neuroses. It is actually Annie who ends up at least sharing a connection with GRTA, if not offering her a cure for her sense of despair.
“When will I stop feeling this way about Robert,” GRTA asks Annie during Maniac’s penultimate episode. “You won’t, you’re always going to feel this way,” Annie coolly responds. “You’re just going to have to figure out how to adjust around it.” This is the moment where someone actually connects with the emotional “maniac” whose train wrecked emotion drives the plotting. At this point, GRTA had been treating Annie like all the other humans: as something to play with and maybe collect. She even makes a deceptive bargain with Annie in an attempt to keep her trapped in her manufactured delusions forever. But there is no “cure” for Annie’s pain, including by pretending it doesn’t exist via drugs or GRTA’s endless fantasy creations. So Annie breaks her pact with GRTA and in doing so suggests living with their pain with a sympathetic shoulder to lean on is how one can endure and find at least a first-step toward contentment if not “healing.”
GRTA never gets that contentment, because her creators (wisely) choose to pull the plug. And Annie only achieves the enlightenment she speaks of when she stops trying to not only run from her self-loathing, but also by embracing her sense of healthy identity she achieved with Owen.
Which brings us back to the final episode. Owen is in a darker place than Annie, because unlike her, he doesn’t have a true connection in his life. He might never have had one either, as the only person he seems genuinely concerned for after his experience at NPB is Olivia, a woman from his college days we never meet. She is only projected as a shade of his subconscious in the Scorsese-like fantasy (how apt for Jonah Hill to play). His real-life family, meanwhile, treats him as a black sheep to use, be it his mother, whose love comes conditionally, or his brother, who is so awful that Owen’s mental illness created a fantasy alternative that was less monstrous.
Annie very well may be the first intimate human relation he’s had with another soul. And that relation did occur, even if it was experienced in a manufactured fantasy. In fact, all of those fantasies, even the one with that oh, so peculiar Icelandic accent, should not be dismissed as false. Consider one of the very first lines in the Maniac premiere, which is dropped by Theroux’s James as a wannabe omnipotent narrator: “All the worlds that almost were matter just as much as the one we’re in.”
The lives that Owen and Annie almost lived matter just as much as the one they’re living at the end; in that way, they really did grow from those experiences. This is proven as Annie’s breakout of Owen from a mental institution is based on her experiences as Linda Marino, the New Jersey working class mom from the ‘80s who rescued a lemur.
Drawing on Linda’s Garden state drawl, Annie is suddenly as charmingly duplicitous as Linda (as opposed to haphazardly creepy, as how she blackmailed her way into the drug trial during the second episode). The show suggests these realities have some karmic connection, as the name on the sign-in sheet to the mental hospital above her own is Bruce Marino, the name of Owen’s husband in that Jersey Shore reality. And the one Annie quotes as being the patient she’s visiting is Wendy Lemuria. Which, by the by, is awfully similar to the name of Wendy, the lemur.
Similarly, the surrealist reality of Owen and Annie’s real world isn’t exactly ours either; not when they have robots that pick up dog poop on New York sidewalks and MTA trains that haven’t been replaced since the 1980s (never mind the Statue of New Liberty). Yet its truth is just as real for them as the fantasies they wind up living in the NPB drugs. And those experiences give them a real connection, even when they hardly know each other—and the chance to find community and happiness in Owen’s idealized future made real. Finally, he has a true relation, and finally Annie is able to finish her road trip to Salt Lake City.
As they drive away during the ending credits, Owen asks “Do we actually know each other?” Annie replies, “We’re off to a good start.” And that is how you learn to adjust around pain.