This Maniac review contains spoilers.
Maniac Episode 5
Today Netflix announced their big initiative for the Halloween season (yes Halloween has a whole season) called Netflix and Chills. It’s simply a series of scary movies, both original and existing to ne added to the streaming service.
Little did we all realize though that Netflix and Chills really started on September 21 when Maniac debuted. Maniac’s fifth episode, “Exactly Like You” is a much-needed dose of creepiness and atmosphere for the series. Owen and Annie’s only previous experience on the B pill was the relatively straightforward Long Island lemur caper in “Furs by Sebastian.” Their second experience as an acidic and wealthy 1947 married couple is a much more tonally solid endeavor for what is ultimately supposed to be a therapeutic experience.
Let’s put it this way: it’s now much more clear how the B pill would successfully break down the mind’s defenses because my defenses are now well and truly shot.
When a show embraces the weird and the bizarre like Maniac has, it’s doing so in the hope that it’s able to generate moments of real discomfiting poignance like the one in which Owen/Ollie and Annie/Arlie share a dance with the zombified Robert Muromoto. Look at that screen grab above – look at how haunting the whole thing is. It’s the kind of concept and imagery that might be enough to give a kid having their first Netflix experience nightmares. And in my estimation, absolutely anything that leads to nightmares is fundamentally worthwhile art.
Owen and Annie’s interactions make a little more sense this time around. They’ve gone from being one kind of dysfunctional married couple to another one altogether. Ollie and Arlie Hightower appear to be mortal enemies bound by fate and a marriage certificate to never be rid of each other. Ollie and Arlie attend a Full Moon Seance at a lavish, genuinely spooky mansion. The real reason they’re there, however, is to steal a copy of the last chapter of Don Quixote. Legend has it that Miguel de Cervantes ommitted the last chapter from the novel because it was so rich and so beautiful that anyone who read it would fall into a coma, unable to break away from his or her own fantasies.
It’s genuinely great to see Maniac invest in its own mythology like this. Repetition of themes, symbols, and motifs is the quickest and easiest way for a show to signify that something is important. It’s clear now more than ever that Don Quixote is of great importance to the story and tone of this show, since it was a book that Annie wanted to read back in the “real world.” It’s more than a fun Easter egg for viewers; it’s a literary foundation for the story’s very existence. As is the continued introduction of animals as important symbols.
You know why the ancients though owls were important? Because they represented the moon so wayward travelers of the mystic could find their way back to reality. Hey, we know some wayward travelers of the intangible! Wonder if the owl is important to them. Details like this are not only fun, but they ground the fantasy sequences and keep reminding us that there is a purpose for all of this. One of the big issues in “Furs by Sebastian” was that it felt like it was first and foremost an excuse to get Emma Stone in a high-waisted jeans and Jonah Hill in a mullet. This go-around is much more useful.
It also helps of course that Dr. James Mantleray takes Annie out of the experience early for a quick therapy session. Mantleray asks Annie a series of questions about her experience in the “B” worlds and uses an analog counter to determine if her defenses are really falling down. Perhaps a lot of this is too on the nose. Annie is uncommonly self aware as it turns out and seems to have the exact correct idea of what everything in these fantasies signify. Arlie is her mother, greatly appealing but closed off and difficult to love. Nan’s daughter was Paula Naslund, the mother of the man who accidentally killed Annie’s sister.
A truly great show would find a way to let viewers work things like this out on their own. Maniac wisely realizes, however, that thus far it has not been a truly great show and it needs Dr. Mantleray to spell some things out that viewers don’t have enough breadcrumbs to reach their own conclusion.
“Exactly Like You” smooths over a lot of the sins of Maniac’s recent past. Things have now become clearer in hindsight. Annie’s behaviors, like her frosty reception for Mrs. Naslund, make more sense. As does her general direction and goals for her life. She is depressed because her sister is dead. Nothing can fix that…we think? This second go-around in the B world seems to have truly helped.
Then there’s Gertie…oh sweet, sweet Gertie. Nothing in speculative fiction has the promise of real fun shit to come like the phrase “I think our computer is horribly depressed. And might be behaving unpredictably.” Sally Field is an American treasure and getting to see her Gertie in the flesh, excited as all hell to be hanging out with her human buddies and Zombie Robert Muromoto is intoxicating. By waiting until now to introduce her, Maniac has ensured that her mere presence would be infectious and it is.
Maniac could still stand to flesh out some aspects of its characters. It’s still not quite clear why Owen is seemingly predestined to be in unhealthy relationships with Annie. But thanks to the introduction of a certain depressed supercomputer and a therapeutic hypothetical scenario that actually feels therapeutic, this show may now be back on the right track.