This Maniac review contains spoilers.
Maniac Episode 9
The nice thing about a show like Maniac is that even if it loses the thread completely (and this show has), setting and circumstances change so frequently that that thread can always be picked up again.
The penultimate episode of Maniac, “Utangatta,” is all climax. Annie and Owen meet once again this time as an Icelandic deputy minister named Snorri and a femme fatale CIA assassin named nothing. Icelandic Owen and CIA Annie make their way out of the United Nations headquarters in a tracking shot gun fight that would make Rust Cohle blush (fitting given that Maniac director Cary Fukunaga first achieved his level of Peak TV fame of True Detective Season 1). It’s all pure action and even finds the time to be emotionally cathartic when it needs to be. This is a good episode of television by almost any definition. Climax and catharsis is really all that we can ask of this late in a season’s game. “Utangatta” gives us both.
Does that mean any of it feels earned – that the time we spent to get here was worthwhile? I would still argue no. Maniac hasn’t earned this climax. It’s own logic and mythology has been too discursive and unclear. It grows only when it wants to grow and moves the plot because it wants to, not because the plot needs to. Still, a fun climax is here. We might as well sit back and enjoy it.
Snorri is perhaps the most pathetic of Owen’s avatars. Snorri is a quiet, weak-willed, and frankly ridiculous Icelandic office drone who accidentally makes first contact with alien life while on an expedition. Snorri loves his little alien friend, Ernie, going so far as to “tit feed” him (Oh my God. Whose tit?) and build a translator device for him. During the party to celebrate first contact, however, Snorri accidentally spills some of his gimlet on the translator machine and Ernie is shocked to death when he picks up the microphone, spraying all the Icelanders with blue glue a la the lawnmower scene in Mad Men. Now Ernie’s friends are gathered just outside the moon with a massive heat ray pointed at Earth.
“Looks like Earth is fucked,” the U.S. representative to the U.N. observes.
At first this sojourn into yet another corner of Owen and Annie’s mind is frustrating. Annie made a pretty big decision at the end of “The Lake of the Clouds” to stay behind in Gertie’s wonderland. Why isn’t that being addressed? As it turns out, however, this new, weird Icelandic scenario is addressing it in its own weird way. We can reasonably conclude that Owen’s “character” is so pathetic and so passive because he, himself, is actually in the confrontation phase of therapy and his defenses have been successfully broken down. Either that or Gertie is mad at him for not wanting to stay behind and become a McMurphy* so she’s taking out her rage on him.
*I’ve been meaning to carve out some space to commend Maniac for its genius use of “McMurphy” but haven’t been able to yet. With just one more episode to go, however, I’ve got to go the footnote route to do it here. Well done, Maniac! Credit where credit is due. Using the ultimate fate of Jack Nicholson’s character in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to describe what happens to people whose consciousness Gertie harvests is a very clever move. Also Owen Milgrim is probably an allusion to Stanley Milgram. So, uh…good job on that too.
Since Annie has already made the decision to stay behind, her CIA character is far more empowered. She can fully indulge all of the perks that come along with living in a dream world. These perks of course include having Jason Bourne level skills to go along with her Jason Bourne level amnesia.
“Wow! You are very good at gun!” Snorri cheers as the two enter an elevator to level -65. It’s one of Maniac’s more legitimately hilarious lines.
“Utangatta” does an excellent job at capturing a general sense of “things fall apart” that a climactic penultimate episode like this must capture. Do to the failings of previous episodes, Gertie’s ultimate takeover here comes across as kind of abrupt but at least it’s cool. Dr. Mantleray becoming so worked up over his mother’s perceived treachery that he experiences psychosomatic blindness is a hilarious touch. As is Gertie replacing “Leisure Time” on the room’s monitors with “End Time” and “Seizure Time.”
The little details here work as does the larger pitched battle of what’s really going on and why this is all failing. For all its bombast, Maniac really excels when it’s explores the simple motivations and frustrations that come along with being alive. Mantleray and Fujita want to keep the experiment going because it’s their life’s work. Greta begs them to put a halt to it because she’s seen firsthand Gertie’s depression and penchant for creating McMurphys. The satisfying thing here is that logic isn’t playing a role for any of them. It’s all emotionally driven. James wants to prove to his mother that he’s a special person in spite of her. Azumi wants to prove to Greta that her brand of science is more legitimate than her pop psychology. And Greta wants to prove to them both that mommy knows best.
James, in his delightfully literal way, even communicates the real Oedipal struggle at play here when he makes the final decision to shut Gertie down.
“I have to kill my simulated mother, Azumi,” he says.
Then of course when Gertie has disabled that function altogether, Greta can’t help but get the last word in.
“See, it’s not easy to kill a mother’s love!”
All of this stuff works stylistically and logically but the most important part of “Utangatta” is that it mostly hits the right beats emotionally. I’m a little cold on Owen coming to terms with his imaginary friend brother. It seems clear that the guy still probably has schizophrenia and I don’t know why Maniac is ignoring that at best or indulging it at worst. Billy Magnussen continues to be truly wonderful though. The mechanism of using a Rubik’s cube to shut down Gertie is also pretty weak. That’s what we’re gonna use? Just because we’ve seen Owen hold a Rubik’s cube before?
Thankfully, Annie’s final encounter with Gertie and then with her sister hits all the right notes. It’s beautiful that Annie convinces Gertie that she doesn’t have the answer for heartbreak because no one does. And then equally beautiful that Gertie guides her to a little bonsai forest that resembles where her sister died for one last goodbye.
“Why wouldn’t you take the picture?” Ellie asks her sister.
“I don’t know,” Annie says.
“Yes you do. We always get to this spot but we never get past it.”
“I wouldn’t take the picture because it broke my heart that you were going to New York. You were the only person who knew all my stories. How am I supposed to do this?”
That’s real. We’re all afraid to lose the person who knows all of our stories. That’s a real level of intimacy. Maybe it’s love. I mean, it probably is but it’s love for those of us who are sometimes afraid to say the word “love.”
Moments like that are why we’re able to indulge the occasional nonsense of shows like Maniac. There has to be a real trust that all of the absurdity is leading to at least one moment that will ring emotionally true. I haven’t really trusted Maniac but it delivered that moment anyway.