Americans have spent the last several decades in the zealous, exhausting pursuit of happiness. It’s all a matter of the right mindset, we’ve decided. Hack your life just the right way — by decluttering your apartment, and dropping toxic friendships, and airing out your grievances — and the path to bliss just might open up before you. Never mind that sadness and grief and anxiety are necessary components of our humanity — it’s time to exorcise the demons!
Owen and Annie wouldn’t think of their participation in the Neberdine trial that way — Owen wants cash, and Annie wants the drug — but of course, relief from their unbearable urges is really what they’re after. And if you thought the premiere was emotionally brutal, this dip into Annie’s family — complete with her missing mother, A-Void-ant father, and tragically dead sister — will rip you open like you’re on your own bad ULP trip.
The basis of Annie’s need for the “A” pill is rooted in a bizarre addiction. As we find out later, the pill recreates the user’s very worst day, down to the minutiae, over and over again. It’s the anti-Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind drug, designed to dredge up your most traumatic memories at will.
But for some reason Annie can’t quit it. She got her first batch from a dealer whose father works at Neberdine and brought some home — an action which surely should have resulted in his termination. But the same dealer also plays chess with a vulgar animated purple koala, so who is to say exactly what the rules of this particular world are?
At first Annie is determined to give up the drug and go visit her sister Ellie (Julia Garner, who I adored in The Americans as Philip’s naive but vibrant teenage girl toy, and was delighted to see back onscreen) in Salt Lake City. She snorts her last pill, lapses into a stupor, and then wakes up reinvigorated. “I’m healthy Annie now, and healthy people read books. And travel, and exercise. And take care of their minds.” Really, healthy people tell themselves they’ll do these things and usually don’t get around to it, but she’s on the right tack.
The flipboard at the “Brooklyn Public Library Terminal” (thank God that this alternate reality kept that now-defunct New York treasure) spins itself into the form of an “A,” like the pill, before Annie can board her bus, and sends her hightailing it back home, ready to blackmail her way into the study if need be. What follows is far more fascinating as a world-building exercise than a character-building one. Annie takes the cash she’s “borrowed” from her dad’s safe and heads to Dox Stop, a storefront that is essentially a completely legal hacking operation. Despite its analog nature, privacy is essentially nonexistent in Annie and Owen’s version of New York.
The shopkeeper at Dox Stop casually mentions something called the “Banner Act,” which made it legal to search through another person’s records and de-expunge them. Fellow workers are carting in shredded papers to reassemble in some back room. The AdBuddy blurs the line between business and pleasure by voicing excitement at the idea of accompanying Annie to Salt Lake City. It’s a move that reeks of desperation, the same way that the FriendProxy meet-ups — where total strangers pretend to be your friend and reenact artificial relationships — do.
Admittedly, the hastily arranged FriendProxy meet-up between Annie and Tricia, the Intake Director at Neberdine, rang a little false. It’s hard to believe that anyone, no matter how patient or generous, would risk her job to help a desperate junkie who’s just threatened to blackmail her. But the scene hints at the broader loneliness in Annie’s world. When Annie mocks Tricia for using FriendProxy and Tricia hits back “Oh, you have real friends?” it’s pretty clear that authentic friendship is a rare beast in this New York.
From there the episode veers off in two wildly divergent directions.
After Annie blackmails, and threatens, and generally forces her way into the Neberdine study, she’s met with an introductory video of epic wackiness. Mantleray and Muramoto are like Penn and Teller, dodging and weaving around each other in front of a green screen that’s filled with the video equivalent of that laser background everyone used to pose in front of for elementary school pictures. It’s an exercise in how not to run a professional and dignified experiment (although that may gone out the window with the legalization of schemes like this one) and there is nothing reassuring about it. “No one sees into your heads,” Muramoto proclaims, “and the multiple fantasy selves probably hiding in there,” Mantleray interjects, “but us.”
But as a guide to exactly what we’re going to see unfold over the next eight episodes it’s absurdly entertaining. The study will be devised of “three pills, taken in three steps, analyzed by the most sophisticated mega-computer ever developed, the GRTA,” whom the scientists lovingly refer to as Gertie, and to whom they read William Blake passages as a sort of warm-up exercise. (“Hello friends. I’m a smart computer,” ought to be the tagline of every Apple commercial from here on.) Gertie will then “identify, map, and confront the learned programming” of their brain. Pill A seeks out your core traumas and pulls them to the surface, Pill B maps out various scenarios for your subconscious to work through, and then regarding Pill C, as Dr. Muramoto explains jubilantly, “Finally, it’s time for confrontation!”
In the closing scene, Mantleray gazes directly into the camera — and misses his shirt pocket with the pen.
Once the subjects are put under with Pill A, we leap into Annie’s mind to watch the worst day of her life play out, and it’s even more excruciating than watching Owen psychologically melt into a puddle. There’s a real element of truth to the way Annie and Ellie fight on their roadtrip, like they’ve so long ago figured one another out that the only way to break any new ground is via experimental cruelty. Both sisters are miserable and terrified, although their assertions ring true, that Annie can’t stop performing her sadness, just like Ellie can’t stop performing her normality. Even though Ellie is one hundred percent certain that Annie’s cutting honesty is just her way of working through her sadness about Ellie’s move, it’s a wonder Annie has moved on at all after her little speech: “Every time I think of New York without you in it — this is seriously true, this isn’t a lie — I feel happy. Because now I won’t have to feel bad about not calling you or doing anything with you. You’ll be far away. And we can grow apart, and we won’t have to pretend we didn’t.”
The next day, on the road, you can see the truck coming for them, literally and figuratively. When Annie’s body — luckily, it turns out — flies out the window, while Ellie stays belted into the truck that lands well over a hundred feet below. That speech must be stuck in Annie’s head on repeat, even without the ULP. So why does she keep diving down this same dagger-lined rabbit hole? I guess happiness is only desirable for people who want to stop revelling in their sadness.
• Annie asserts that she is “finally” going to read Don Quixote on her aborted bus trip out West. I’m eager to figure out what the obsession with this book is all about.
• Weird thing that annoyed me: Are there cities where you can accumulate as many tickets as Annie pulls off her dad’s truck without being booted or towed?
• Annie’s dad in the A-Void pod in his backyard was one of the brilliant moments of this episode. I’d never really thought about the connection between the word “avoid” and the idea of nothingness, but the simple logo on the side of what looks like an abandoned pod jettisoned from Luke Skywalker’s X-wing fighter, was profound. And Annie’s dads claim that he’s “really busy right now” felt like a delicious little slap at our culture of self-important busyness.
• Maniac thrives on the small moments of weirdness, like Annie’s roommate Jackie casually lathering up and then shaving her mustache in the bathroom mirror.
• Judging by the “Missing Dog” poster Annie tapes up around town, Ellie died seven years ago, a brutally long time to be living with this kind of grief and guilt.
• “I’m not fucking crazy, I’m just goal-oriented” is my new mantra.