'Maniac' Nails What It's Like Living with Mental Illness
The Netflix series stars Emma Stone and Jonah Hill as New Yorkers seeking a psychological cure-all.
Emma Stone and Jonah Hill. Michele K. Short / Netflix
Warning: this post contains spoilers for Maniac on Netflix.
The best part of Netflix's new series, Maniac, isn’t Emma Stone and Jonah Hill in 1980s Long Island cosplay, or the show’s superb retro-futuristic imagining of New York. It’s not even those adorable pooper scooper robots that act like Roombas for dog shit—though honestly, the city should look into them. Aside from falling onto subway tracks or being crushed by a construction crane, stepping in poop is one of the biggest hazards of NYC habitation.
No, the best part of the 10-episode limited series created and written by Patrick Somerville (The Leftovers) and directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga (True Detective) comes midway through the season, when Annie (Stone), Owen (Hill), and the other subjects of a mysterious pharmaceutical trial talk through their drug-fueled hallucinations, or “reflections” as they’re called in the show, with the scientist in charge of their study, Dr. James K. Mantleray (Justin Theroux).
One by one, the subjects sit at a table with a dozen obtrusively close cameras trained on their faces. A wall of monitors behind them magnifies every expression and eye twitch while Dr. Mantleray quizzes his patients on their latest medically-induced drug trip.
He’s ostensibly debriefing them to verify data collected by a sophisticated supercomputer, the GRTA (known as “Gertie” colloquially), but his questions quickly start to resemble the gentle prompts a psychologist might use during traditional talk therapy. It’s the first time any of them start to demonstrate real awareness and understanding of their issues, and it’s a turning point in the series. (It’s also a moment of exceptional acting by Stone—watching her process Annie’s trauma, you can almost see the wheels turn in her brain. “Is this therapy now?” she snarks at one point. “I thought this was supposed to be better than that.”)
The drug trial in Maniac is like ayahuasca on steroids, mixed with LSD experiments from the 70s. It captures the extremes people are willing to go to exorcise their psychological demons, even if it means puking your brains out in the Brazilian rainforest or spending three days trapped in a lab that looks like the set of a Stanley Kubrick film.
The treatment Owen and Annie sign up for promises to fix its subjects’ brains with just three little pills—A, B, and C—administered one after another over the span of three days. The first forces you to relive your trauma; the second exposes your blind spots; and the third pill forces a confrontation. Each individual drug trip is analyzed and manipulated by the GRTA, which functions as sort of an AI spirit guide.
Of course, Maniac wouldn’t be a TV show if everything went as intended. The series of experiments lets Fukunaga and the writers play with genres and time periods in a way that’s genuinely fun.
Aside from a permed and mulletted married couple in the 80s, Stone and Hill get to play dueling thieves at a swanky 1940s seance; a drunken elfin mountain guide in a knockoff Lord of the Rings scenario; the tattooed, platinum grilled, pigtail braided son of a New Jersey mafioso; an undercover CIA agent from Texas; and a dopey Icelandic diplomat. Anyone with imagination and a cross-genre love of storytelling will get a kick out of watching the cast and crew of Maniac play pretend.
But the show isn’t perfect, and in trying to comment on so many of-the-moment issues—like consciousness, technology, capitalism, big pharma, mental health, addiction, corruption, and power, the story gets spread pretty thin, and there are a lot of threads that never get resolved. (What the heck did Dr. Mantleray do at that gala? Is his mother, celebrity therapist Dr. Greta Mantleray—embodied impeccably by Sally Field—dying of cancer? Why on earth is Jemima Kirke engaged to Billy Magnussen? And why does Dr. Azumi Fujita, played by Sonoya Mizuno, hate going outside?)
I found Maniac entrancing, because I’m drawn to the kind of skillful sci-fi world-building of Spike Jonze’s film Her or George Saunders’s short stories. Similarly, Somerville and Fukunaga built a fictionalized world just one or two clicks off from reality. In Maniac’s parallel New York City, there’s a Statue of Extra Liberty and the advertising is more insidious (if you’re broke, a human “Ad Buddy” can read you commercials to pay for everyday things like MetroCards and cups of coffee). But nobody owns an iPhone and the technology looks lifted from the 1980s, all square buttons and monochrome pixels.
Yes, Maniac is aesthetically gorgeous, with its IBM-meets-Kubrick bathed in neon production design and hauntingly beautiful musical score. The writing, acting, and directing is pretty stellar, too. But what really made me love this show—what propelled me through all ten episodes in the span of several days and left me weeping on the couch next to my roommate’s cat—is the way it tackled mental illness.
We’ve yet to get many stories that grapple with the experience of living with mental illness and trying to fix yourself. And that desperate desire—that yearning—to get better, to be normal (but to be time and time again thwarted by your mind) is pervasive in our society, even if we’re not that good at talking about it yet.
Today we call it existential dread, a mid- or quarter-life crisis, depression, anxiety, the news cycle. A generation or two ago, general malaise and an aversion to mainstream cultural norms were enough to get you institutionalized. I don’t mean to trivialize mental illness—Hill’s character Owen is schizophrenic and has stopped taking his meds; Stone’s character Annie is self-medicating her depression by abusing the A pill from the clinical trial. Their mental health issues are evident and complex.
What I mean to say is that there aren’t enough narratives for any of us—the people grappling with evident trauma or the ones whose minds just don’t feel good, for whatever reason. There’s still stigma around seeking treatment, therapy, and medication, when at the end of the day those are just a few of the tools at our disposal to help us live happier, healthier, more balanced and productive lives. Not having access to those tools—or not feeling empowered to use them—is one of the reasons people self-medicate, both with drugs and alcohol, but also in myriad other nuanced, sometimes toxic ways.
Maniac is being compared to films like Melancholia and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I was reminded of Girl, Interrupted especially during Maniac’s final scene. Watching Annie break Owen out of a psychiatric ward, the two of them peeling away in an old truck, reminded me of the scenes where Lisa, Susanna, and the other girls gleefully sneak out of their hospital rooms at night. Those analogies don’t really nail it, though. Melancholia frames depression as aimless antipathy set against the looming apocalypse. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is more about lobotomizing painful memories, then accepting that life contains a full spectrum of emotions. Girl, Interrupted, meanwhile, is a memoir of treatment from another era, when women who were different were “troubled” and institutionalized.
I’m not sure whether Maniac is an ultimately triumphant story—the series leaves its ending pretty vague. As his subjects leave the clinical trial, Dr. Mantleray congratulates them, despite the chaos that has ensued. “It’s been a complete success. Congratulations, you’re healed,” he gasps unconvincingly.
If Annie, Owen, and the others are healed of their trauma, it’s in spite, not because of, the doctor’s pharmaceutical cure-all. As Dr. Fujita points out, the GTRA was modeled on psychological therapies pioneered by Dr. Mantleray’s mother, Greta, during her doctoral studies. Maybe the effects of talk therapy were enhanced by the drugs. Annie and Owen’s recovery was certainly aided by their blooming friendship, destined or otherwise. These are all pieces of the puzzle.
Maniac works because, one way or another, we’ve witnessed our protagonists battle something really scary and come out the other side better for it. They may not have saved the world or rescued a loved one from the clutches of death, but they’ve figured out how to survive. Plus, they’ve found each other.
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