“Every time I take that pill,” Annie explains in the most poignant moment of this episode, “I have to live through the worst day of my life. I have to listen to myself say the worst, ugliest things I have ever said to anyone. And it ends with the worst thing that ever happened. I fucking love it. Because I get to be with her.”
Annie, her fragile psyche cracked by her mother’s absence, by Ellie’s death, and then even further by her father’s vacancy from her life, is at a crossroads. She can either convince Dr. Muramoto — who, before he keels over at his desk in an almost comedic overdose, had figured out that she’d been dosing herself with the “A” pill at home, and flagged her as trouble — that she wants to move on from the trauma of Ellie’s death and that she needs to stay in the study and find out what happens when she takes the “B” pill; or, she can leave Neberdine Biotech’s underground lair and search for a way to keep her pain alive so that the last remnants of her sister don’t die. She’s addicted to her own grief, and no matter what choice she makes, more loss awaits her.
This episode in particular is interested in the idea of how we hoard our sadness, nurse it like an injured bird, give it succor as if it weren’t a parasite feeding off of us. It’s there in the way a fellow study participant expectantly reads Black Beauty — universally acknowledged as the Saddest Book Ever — wondering when “that fucking horse is gonna die.” It’s there in Dr. Fujita’s insane dedication to the study and the way it provides her with a false sense of purpose in staying at the Neberdine tower: She’s so agoraphobic and work-oriented that Mantleray points out that something must have been very wrong for her to have left the building and gone out into the real world. It’s there in Mantleray’s (hilarious and most likely very slippery) retreat into a phantasmagoric sex romp with an animated Atlantean goddess; he’s lost his job, but he’s gained plenty of time to use three bottles of Johnson & Johnson baby oil, a mannequin with a strategically placed hole, and a Jason Biggs-ian pie. (I’m assuming he uses all of these in tandem at times.) Even Gertie the supercomputer tucks her sadness inside herself: her “tears” short some circuits and send Annie and Owen careening into each other’s subconsciouses. In her own words, poor Gertie has “all the feels.”
Owen, on the other hand, may just be the only participant truly eager to skirt the dark recesses of his own mind. He flicks the “A” pill into a corner (a talent, if you recall, he picked up to dispense with his antipsychotics) and fakes a deep slumber while the rest of the subjects live through the “worst days” of their lives. Owen can’t escape the faulty wiring of his brain and he damn well isn’t going to dive back into his most traumatic moments on purpose.
When Muramoto calls him into his office, just like he’s called in Annie (and #5, who was just trying to practice safe sex), Owen recounts the experience he expects that he would have had had he swallowed the pill. And it’s a doozy.
It’s his brother Jed’s engagement party, and Owen has just started on some new meds. Jed, sensing his brother’s vulnerability and desperate to ensure that Owen will act as his alibi for an as-yet-unknown crime, essentially corners him and alternates between threatening to set his brother up as an anthrax-mailing lunatic who has once again gone around the bend, claiming that he’s joking, and pointing out that Owen’s got a good thing going there and it would be a shame if anything were to happen to it. Jed then slides in front of the piano, turns on his thousand-watt grin, and begins serenading his fianceé, Adelaide (we need more Jemima Kirke, please, showrunners!), with the most inappropriate “love” song of all time, the Police’s “Every Breath You Take.”
And so while Jed simultaneously threatens his brother with the immortal words of Sting and uncomfortably hints that he’ll keep his wife captive inside an abusive marriage, Owen heads to his parents’ rooftop garden, where he unhesitatingly leaps from the edge — and lands, alive and uninjured, on the glass roof covering the party. Not only has he failed at his suicide, he’s also humiliated himself in front of virtually everyone his family knows and loves.
But oddly enough, this isn’t what Owen sees when he actually takes the “A” pill at Muramoto’s loud insistence. (I’d love to know what he shouts in Japanese — any Japanese speakers out there, please leave a translation in the comments!) Instead — as he explains to Annie as they rifle through Muramoto’s files and make sure they’re cleared to continue on in the study — what he saw was his first schizo paranoid break with reality, when he screamed at a girl he liked that he knew she had been paid by his parents to love him, marry him, bear his kids.
So is the “A” pill really dredging up memories? Remember that moment when another participant explained to Annie that she had seen her husband swept away by a hurricane, but that it “wasn’t like I remembered it”? Memory, science tells us, isn’t like a filing cabinet in which the documents stay fixed and unchanged until the drawer is opened. So perhaps the memories the participants are accessing are the true memories and the more recent ones are strange mutations. Or maybe none of these memories are “real” and they’re all just subconsciously created narratives. As Joan Didion so ably put it, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”
We don’t know the backstory of why Dr. James K. Mantleray was dismissed from the study he founded, and from working with the drug he invented. We don’t know why he broke up with Dr. Fujita (she had a key to his apartment, so I’m assuming a past relationship, here). But the man in the squiggly waves on the television being held by the dude in white gloves (one of my favorite bits from this episode) admits that they need Mantleray back if they’re going to complete the study. Neberdine has sunk a lot of money into this puppy, and it’s time for the dividends.
For all the bluster and unearned swagger built into Mantleray’s personality (he is far more concerned that Fujita has caught him without his toupee on than that she walked on in him wearing a device called a SuckTube on his penis while fondling some sponges he’s pretending are breasts), when he shows up at Neberdine it’s clear that he and Fujita are truly invested in the study. He does believe in the idea that “we can all be fixed” and that “pain can be destroyed.” (Of course, he also works for a pharmaceutical giant, so … shrug.) His speech, with the sad smattering of applause that follows, is brilliantly idiotic, but nonetheless, his earnestness is charming.
When Mantleray administers the “B” pill, it’s impossible to know what might happen. Then, suddenly, Annie and Owen are a Long Island married couple. We don’t know whose mind we’re in, or how we got here, but the hair alone promises this will be worth the trip.
• If you’ve ever worried that your therapist isn’t quite listening to you, you must have really enjoyed the moment when Owen finished the story of his attempted suicide and Dr. Muramoto leaned in to ask: “So, Sting was at this party?”
• Admit it: If you were part of this mad science experiment and the doctor suddenly slumped over at his desk, you’d also wonder if it was part of the test.
• Fujita’s mug reads, “I can read your mind and you should be ashamed of yourself.”
• The man who killed Ellie was named Greg F.U.N. Nazlund. “His middle name was fun.”
• After Fujita busts in on Mantleray busting a … well, you know where I’m going with that, she gives a slight little cough before telling him, “We need your help to finish,” with a lot of emphasis on the word finish.
• Fujita’s white laminate raincoat is my #falloutfitresearch.
• Of all the tech Maniac has introduced, KakunoBeds are the worst, like sleeping in a coffin. But the fact that they work like the Clapper is a redeeming feature.