Major spoilers for Maniac below.
From a 30,000-foot view, Maniac seemingly ends with an observation about mental-health treatment that’s as rote as it is offensive. Throughout the ten-episode Netflix series, directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga and largely written by Patrick Somerville, Owen (Jonah Hill) and Annie (Emma Stone) are tortured by a pharmaceutical company’s disastrous attempt to make talk therapy irrelevant by replacing it with three pills that allegedly wash away all your neuroses like Drano running through a hairy sink. But lest you think Maniac is endorsing talk therapy, it offers up one of its most odious characters in the form of abusive celebrity therapist Dr. Greta Mantleray (Sally Field). What’s more, at the very end, Annie helps Owen bust out of a mental institution that is presented as something of an open-air prison, and we’re supposed to revel in his freedom from its dull stasis and the harm those uncaring doctors are surely inflicting upon him. For those of us who get by with the help of medication and mental-health professionals, these apparent viewpoints are retrograde at best, downright harmful at worst.
Yet by the time the final credits rolled, I couldn’t find myself hating Maniac. In fact, I loved it. Perhaps I was overwhelmed by the whiz-blur pacing and astounding inventiveness of this genre-hopping epic. It’s possible that all the bells and whistles hypnotized me into affection for something that was all flash and no bang. But upon much reflection and rewatching, I think there is a there there. Despite everything I said above, I think the ending contains hard, beautiful truths about humans’ struggle to understand and heal themselves in an abusive world.
Maniac isn’t necessarily against medication or therapy qua medication or therapy. It’s against arrogance. Despite its experimentation with other modes, Maniac is more a science-fiction story than not and, as is true of so much of the sci-fi corpus, it includes characters who believe they have made God irrelevant. The big-pharma megalith NPB and its expert doctors — Justin Theroux’s Dr. James K. Mantleray being the most notable — convince themselves that they can make all existing mental-wellness techniques obsolete through the testing and manufacture of their tri-pill regimen. Similarly, Dr. Greta — who is Mantleray’s truly terrible mother — long ago adopted the belief that her syndicated radio show and pop-psych books form a new Torah for the suffering masses. (I deeply, passionately wish I could read I’m Okay, You’re a Bitch.)
These claims of modern-day magic are, of course, ludicrous, and the show portrays them as such. But are Fukunaga and Somerville truly against moderate versions of each? Think back to the fantastic first episode: We find Owen hallucinating a never-born brother, spontaneous earthquakes, and those nagging “popcorn problems.” A truly anti-medicalist show would have shown him taking meds and seeing a shrink but still experiencing these visions, thus demonstrating the ineffectiveness of conventional techniques. Instead, we have evidence that Owen is going through these ordeals because he’s not heeding medication or therapy. Alone in his railroad apartment on Roosevelt Island, he idly flicks his pills into a cactus pot and barely mouths along while a personalized tape from a doctor encourages him to remember he’s not the Chosen One. Is it unreasonable to think things would be better if Owen were keeping up with the regimen? Not miraculously cured, of course, but at least improved by a little bit?
Therein lies one component of Maniac’s message, one of urgent necessity for anyone dealing with an ailment of the mind: There are no miracle cures. That point seems obvious when you say it out loud, but it’s easily elided. We too often tell those who are suffering and untreated to get into therapy and get medicated, but we rarely get into the details of what happens next. The mere act of starting therapy or medication doesn’t quell your problems. There’s no binary switchover into health. Even with the proper tools and help, you still have to put your back into it. And then, once you’re doing the work of exploring your issues, your improvements can be still agonizingly gradual.
We see that lesson in the final episodes of Maniac. Owen and Annie have, by that point, been diagnosed as having paranoid schizophrenia and borderline personality disorder, respectively. Neither Dr. Greta nor the three pills got rid of those conditions. Yet the experience of plumbing their minds for hidden truths has pushed them ever so slightly forward on the path to wellness. In the climax of their induced fantasies, Owen saw that his schizophrenia doesn’t make him a worthless person and Annie accepted that she can’t keep living in fear of letting go of her dead sister, Ellie (an excellent Julia Garner). As a result, Owen opts not to take the fall for his golden-showering schmuck of a brother, Jed (Billy Magnussen, also excellent) and Annie has a frank discussion with her father (Hank Azaria) before deciding to complete the trip to Utah that she never finished with her sis. There is no evidence that they are rid of their problems. But they’re finally working on them, and that’s way better than nothing.
True love has not conquered all, either, but the fact that it doesn’t is another part of the brilliance of Maniac’s conclusion. In the first episode, we see Owen gaze longingly at Annie, and as the story develops, many of their dual fantasias involve them being romantically linked. But counter to your assumptions, when Annie’s FriendProxy™ (the always-welcome Ben Sinclair) pretends to be Owen and proposes to her, she’s completely grossed out. She wants to be with Owen, but as her dad points out, she wants to be his friend. There is no true love, only true friendship. That, in and of itself, is a fascinating inversion of expectations that merits praise.
Of course, subverting your expectations is what the entire show is about. I do sincerely hope you’re only reading this after you’ve watched the entire series, because one should walk into Maniac without any information about it. You shouldn’t even watch the trailer. Every episode features surprise after surprise, whether it’s the radical paradigm shift that occurs when we first find out the show is going to deal with imagined worlds, the different genre-natures of each of those worlds, the fascinating bits of mise en scène, or the wild filmic swings that get thrown in late in the game (e.g., the single-take shootout in episode nine). When it repeats itself, it does so deliberately and intelligently through remarkably subtle callbacks. (Did you catch that Jed’s gerbil and Snorri’s alien friend have the same name?) As such, this is the rare Netflix series that completely avoids the dreaded Netflix Bloat. It keeps flowering and unfolding until the very last second.
By that last second, though the characters’ lives haven’t been wrapped up neatly in a bow, the show itself has. After an initial credits fake-out, we get a little scenelet in which James starts the narrative soliloquy that kicked off the first scene of the first episode. Tellingly, it’s a soliloquy about the need for connection in order to create life. That, ultimately, is what the whole show is about: the unending struggle against loneliness. Put simply, I have rarely seen a depiction of isolation as haunting as the one shown in this series. Or perhaps I should say “ones,” plural — each of the narratives, from those that only last an episode to those that span the whole series, are uniquely insightful in their interrogations of solitude and the urge for contact.
There’s the con-artist world, where two people who once loved each other are estranged due to a lack of trust and make one last go of it before they both betray each other again. There’s Owen’s gangland story, where he learns that family is no guarantee of love. There’s Annie’s elf fantasy, where she learns that those you’ve lost are truly lost forever, no matter what kind of bargain you try to make to be with them again. There’s the lemur caper, a rare vision of a loving bond successfully forged, but which still reminds us that a parent and a child can so hate one another that they cast spite even across the line of death. There’s James and Dr. Greta’s parable about how getting too close to someone can ultimately drive them into a life where they’re addicted to solitary masturbation with a blow-job robot.
And, of course, there are the stories of Owen and Annie in the real world, especially in the first three chapters. Annie’s path of addiction is fascinating and moving to watch — I still get chills thinking about the schedule sign at the bus station flipping until it reveals that big “A” — but Owen’s journey in episode one really takes the cake. There are sci-fi homages throughout it, from the retro-future production design of Alien to the gargantuan electric signage of Blade Runner, but perhaps the most resonant echo is that of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Like Brazil, Maniac shows us a man caught up in both isolation and relentless fantasy while trudging through a tragically stupid world. In both cases, his pain feels all too familiar.
But while Brazil ends — at least in the director’s cut — with brutal certainty about faith and hope being wastes of time, Maniac dares to envision some measure of happiness. Not perfection, mind you, nor full health. Just a little bit of happiness, much more than was there before. That’s the true magic of the ending. Here are two characters (well, maybe four, if you count James and Sonoya Mizuno’s Dr. Azumi Fujita) who have reason to believe the world can get better if you reach out and hold the hand of some other sad sucker. There’s no guarantee, but it’s profoundly worth a shot. In life, you have to get to that difficult realization on your own, but when done right, pill regimens and therapy sessions can help you get closer. Not all the way there, but closer. Manic is proof that art can do that, too.