This Maniac review contains spoilers.
Maniac Episode 2
For as intriguing as Maniac’s “premiere” episode was (can you call any one episode a premiere when they all debut at the same time?), its biggest drawback as an episode of television is that it wasn’t really an episode of television.
“The Chosen One!” with its abridged ending and expansive world building instead felt like merely the first part of a larger entity. That’s not necessarily an issue as that first part was still effective and in this brave new world of content and content alone, no entertainment entity should feel the need to conform to any one kind of storytelling. At the same time, however, Maniac was granted 10 full episodes and it would be well served to consider those episodes as their own pieces within a larger tapestry.
Thankfully, that’s exactly what Maniac does with its second episode, “Windmills.” “Windmills” serves as a kind of second iteration of “The Chosen One!” where we’re able to see this alternative universe once again with fresh eyes. It’s also unmistakably an episode of television.
Just as “The Chosen One!” takes us back to the very beginning of the universe, “Windmills” taks us back to the beginning of the show itself. Jonah Hill’s Owen doesn’t appear until the episode’s very end, when everything is caught up to the previous episode’s ending point. Instead “Windmills” charts Annie’s path to the NPB drug trial and does a better job of character building along the way.
Perhaps this is too simple of an observation but damn, the leads on this show can act. Hill’s performance as Owen last week was justifiably understated as his character is muted and depressed and the environment of the show was the real standout. Still, in hindsight I definitely didn’t sing his praises enough in the original review and it wasn’t until I saw the Emma Stone showcase this week that I fully appreciated the level of talent on display. Far be it from me to continue to encourage the stereotype of television as the movies’ jealous little brother but the effect of having two incredibly charismatic, well-known, and talented actors onscreen has been revelatory through just two episodes.
Like Owen, Annie has entire overhead compartments full of emotional baggage. Annie doesn’t have Owen’s schizophrenic symptoms but she is clearly massively depressed. She spends her days crushing up mysterious pills and disappearing deep into the couch of her crowded apartment, cigarette smoke swirling above her like rank spirits.
This is the last pill, however, and she picks up a massive copy of Don Quixote to celebrate. “I am healthy Annie now and healthy people read books,” she says aloud to herself. But like the windmill slayer, himself, Annie is not healthy. The drugs don’t help, as she’s clearly addicted to this mystery substance. She even visits her would-be dealer, who is in the process of losing a game of chess in the park to a purple koala bear robot puppet. But the unhealthiness goes beyond that. Something is deeply, fundamentally wrong with not only Annie, but the world around her – and she cannot ignore it much longer.
Maniac’s strongest trait two episodes in remains how it reveals the state of this strange world through only privileged glimpses. The sight of a purple kola bear robot puppet is certainly a pretty strong visual indicator that things have gone a little screwy in this sideways-world New York. But the heavier, more worthwhile stuff still comes in the background – like the fact that Annie clearly has up to 10 or so roommates in her tiny apartment. There’s also the omniscient Ad Buddy employees, who seemingly pay people just to look at ads, and the apparent friend and spousal “proxy” services where people pay for strangers to pretend to be close to them.
So much of this could easily come across as freshman year philosophy 101 “isn’t capitalism wild, maaaaaaan” stuff. As long as the world believably and subtlety exists in the background though it’s effective. It also helps that the characters themselves are believable and subtle so far as well.
No one can relate to a world in which people hire “friend proxies” because we don’t live in that world (yet). But hopefully we can relate to the kind of characters who is simply lonely. When Annie realizes she can no longer live without this drug she utilizes another kind of dystopian service that digs up dirt on any individual. Annie receives the information for NPB employee Patricia Lugo. Annie finds out that Patricia has a friend proxy appointment coming up at a bonsai garden and decides to pose as the friend.
While at the garden, however, Annie gets one detail of her story wrong and just defeatedly admits that she was going to attempt to blackmail Patricia for NPB drugs. This is all a fascinating look into Annie’s temperament and desperation but the real interesting reveal comes after her cover is blown. Patricia (as played by Orange is the New Black’s Selenis Leyva) has just dodged a massive bullet. Someone just admitted to her face that they were going to attempt to blackmail her but lost their nerve. Instead of counting her blessings and moving on, however, Patricia won’t leave Annie alone. Annie wants to move past this whole episode yet Patricia wants to talk with her, help her if she can. In this world true companionship has grown so rare that you’ve got to find it where you can – even if that means with a would-be blackmailer.
“Windmill” does such a good job in continuing to build its world and its characters in the margins that it’s disappointing when its ending once again becomes e too explicit. With Patricia’s help (who Annie eventually does have to blackmail after she “fails” her interview), Annie finally gets into the drug trial to get more of her beloved “ULP.” Once there, we’re finally entreated to an appearance from Justin Theroux as Dr. James Mantleray, albeit in a corny orientation video alongside Dr. Muramoto. Drs. Mantleray and Muramoto explain the process of this new drug therapy. There are three pills, A, B, and C. A is for diagnostic purposes. It will help the user and supercomputer GRTA access memories. B is Behavioral. It will tear down the self-defense mechanisms, walls, and mazes of the user’s mind. C is confrontation. GRTA will use all of this information to create a plan for a more efficient you.
This is all interesting, easy to understand stuff. The problem is Annie’s experience with “A” is just too on the nose. Annie had previously told Patricia that she wanted to get better so she could get to Salt Lake City and see her estranged sister, Ellie (played by Julia Garner, bringing Maniac’s count of The Americans alums up to two after Lev “Arkady Ivanovich Zotov” Gorn popped up as a convenience store owner in episode one). That motivation is so simple, so direct, and so comprehendible that the show likely didn’t need to explore it more deeply – especially this early.
The end effect of seeing Annie’s memories of an ill-fated road trip with her sister is that the show undercuts its own intriguing sense of “something is off here” for more explicit trauma. Annie and her sister had a falling out over their respective relationships with their mother and Annie’s inability to take things seriously. The whole experience is punctuated by a massive car crash that leaves Annie with extensive scarring and Ellie’s survival in doubt. Is Ellie really out there in Salt Lake City? She must be because Annie told her father, who was naturally entombed in a home deprivation chamber called “A-Void” that she was going to see her.
Regardless of whether Ellie is alive or not, the car crash is too overtly cinematic and consequential for an episode that was doing so well quietly picking its spots, building characters, and dropping hints. It’s small emotional misstep and Maniac is so good at crafting tone and aesthetic that it doesn’t matter that much for now. Creating an emotional framework is harder though and the show is going to have to find the correct balancing act for it soon.