If you’ve watched all of Maniac and still feel lost, don’t panic. First, know that you’re supposed to feel a little confused. This Netflix mini-series is not like Westworld, a show in which direct lines can be drawn from clues in early episodes to revelations in later ones. In ten episodes, Maniac leaps from genre to genre within the minds of its protagonists, Annie Landsberg (Emma Stone) and Owen Milgrim (Jonah Hill), as they undergo an experimental drug trial meant to cure mental illness. In one, they’re caught up in an imaginary lemur heist set in 1980s Long Island; the next, they’re thrown into a mid-century séance held inside an opulent mansion. You never know what you might see.
The point of all that chaos, aside from the thrills of such a genre-bending narrative, is that not every question in Maniac has an answer, and much of it is designed to be open to interpretation. The worlds in which director Cary Joji Fukunaga and creator Patrick Somerville are playing are intentionally dreamlike and surreal, working with theme more than fact. Of course, it’s still worth digging into each of these dreams to understand the big questions the show is asking about trauma, mental illness, and the emotional health of Annie Goldberg and Owen Milgrim as they confront the issues of their real lives. Let’s take a close look at the many worlds of Maniac and how they shape the show’s broader message.
The Real World
Before Maniac dives into the dream worlds sparked by the Neberdine trial, it sets a surreal baseline for Annie and Owen. In a world inspired by the way filmmakers imagined the future in the ’80s — think Terry Gilliam and David Cronenberg films like Brazil and Videodrome, respectively — Maniac posits a funhouse mirror version of today’s society. The New York City of Maniac is a heightened version of our own, with a “Statue of Extra Liberty” now standing in New York Harbor. It’s a place that highlights a lack of true emotional connection, through concepts like the Friend Proxy, a person who’s paid to be your BFF, and the Ad Buddy, who literally reads ads to you when you need cash. Ad Buddies and Friend Proxies may be there in person, but they’re really just part of a transaction.
It’s in this world where we meet Owen, the black sheep of the Milgrim family, who’s brought back into his clan’s poop-cleaner empire to serve as his brother Jed’s alibi in a sexual-assault trial. Owen has been told he’s crazy most of his life: He speaks to Grimsson Milgrim (Billy Magnussen), an imaginary version of his brother who swears that he’s fated to save the world, and he experiences jarring hallucinations that alienate him from others. But when he enters the Neberdine trial, he spots Annie and believes they have an immediate connection. In a sense, what follows in Maniac’s dream worlds proves him right.
As for Annie, she is dealing with grief and isolation after the death of her sister, Ellie (Julia Garner). She comes to the Neberdine trial primarily for the drugs, blackmailing and threatening her way into the “Odds” group of test subjects. There are three pills in the Neberdine trial: The A-pill, which Annie is addicted to, recalls a patient’s most painful memories; the B-pill presents the patient with their blind spots and defense mechanisms; the C-pill is all about confrontation and finding a way to face a patient’s greatest fears. In the first few episodes of Maniac, the A-pill brings to the surface Annie and Owen’s most painful memories. The B-pill is when the fun really starts …
Dream World No. 1: Raising Wendy
In the first dream world, clearly inspired by Coen brothers films like Raising Arizona, Owen reimagines himself as Bruce Marino, a Long Island man married to a spitfire named Linda, who’s actually an alternate version of Annie. Linda has a mission: She wants to recover a stolen lemur named Wendy from a goon named Sebastian, who runs a strip-mall storefront where he sells fur coats. In his Warren Moon jersey (with Owen’s trial number “1” on the back), Bruce is a loyal husband, willing to do whatever it takes for Linda to be happy. In the end, he even turns himself in for Linda, taking the rap for the gunfight that erupts between Fish and Wildlife officials and Sebastian’s crew. Does this represent Owen’s defense mechanism of self-sacrifice? In the real world, he’s about to perjure himself to protect his family, so it makes sense that he would dream about criminal behavior and taking a fall.
Meanwhile, Linda is a reflection of Annie on multiple levels. She has a focus and purpose that Annie seems to lack — a drive that will define her alter ego in both B-pill fantasies — and, of course, the narrative draws her into the life of the mother of Greg F.U.N. Nazland, the truck driver who killed her sister. Like Annie in the real world, Linda is also a “fixer.” As we will see when Annie speaks to her father in the Maniac finale, Annie makes assumptions about people close to her and tries to fix broken family dynamics. Linda does the same with Nan, the patient to whom she thinks she’s granting a beautiful dying wish, but really, she’s just helping her give a final F.U. to her daughter. This fantasy highlights both Owen’s and Annie’s need to make things better in their families, and how they often dig themselves into deeper holes by doing so.
Dream World No. 2: The 53rd Chapter
The second B-pill fantasy reimagines Owen and Annie at the other end of the charisma spectrum. Gone are Bruce and Linda’s 1980s hairdos and football jerseys, replaced by the refined fashion of Ollie and Arlie, former lovers who invade a séance to steal the legendary 53rd chapter of Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote. A dream world inspired by the Coens has been supplanted by one that recalls classic Hollywood, in which performers like Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn alternated flirting and fighting. At a party that feels reminiscent of an earlier, actual celebration at the Milgrim house (only with less Balderdash), Ollie tries to impress those around him, doing a magic trick and telling an anecdote about getting a peerage. Of course, he’s really there to nab the incredibly tiny book, but Arlie gets in the way at gunpoint. Quirky dancing, a portal to the “astral plane,” and a very loopy appearance by Sally Field ensue.
But what does it all mean? Much of Owen’s life feels like a magic trick, like an act he puts on to impress his family and others, so it makes sense that his psyche would place himself in the form of someone defined by tricks and titles. But Ollie also sounds like he literally speaks for Owen at several points in this episode. “Every mistake I’ve ever made started with ‘It’s too good to be true,’” he says. Later, after being betrayed at gunpoint by Arlie, he says, “Life is simple as hell until you bring on a partner.” Owen’s fantasies often fall apart when he’s forced to trust someone else, and so it makes sense that his defense mechanisms would attempt to teach him never to do so.
Dream World No. 3: Owen Brasco
After taking the C-pill, Owen and Annie’s fantasies diverge into worlds that are designed to “confront” their issues and fears — and it’s not a coincidence that the real-world action during these sequences also finds James K. Mantleray (Justin Theroux) forced to confront his mother, Dr. Greta Mantleray (Sally Field). Owen’s mob-family fantasy, which starts in episode seven, is like a lost Brian De Palma movie, replete with shocking displays of violence and really bad accents. His C-pill vision is a more direct confrontation of his family issues, with his father Porter Milgrim reimagined as a bloodthirsty villain. Gone is the passive-aggressive awfulness of the real Porter, replaced by a crime lord who violently seeks the rat within his family. Also, much like in the real world, Owen’s father wants him to take the fall, but this time it’s for killing a bookie.
Of course, Owen himself is the rat. And the one person in the Milgrim circle he trusts — his soon-to-be sister-in-law, Adelaide (Jemima Kirke) — is recast as a cop sending him undercover to bring down his family’s illegal empire. In this world, Owen has to confront how he feels about a family who literally built their millions on shit. (Remember, if you look closely at the newspaper Annie is trying to buy in the premiere episode, you’ll see that the Milgrim fortune comes from those dog-poop cleaners that patrol the streets of New York.) One of the brilliant turns in the final episodes of Maniac is that while the fantasies become more surreal, the characters within them become more self-aware. Instead of just diving off the deep end, our subjects become more cognizant of their issues through confrontation. Owen goes from an exaggerated mob stereotype to someone who rather closely resembles himself: soft-spoken, kind, and desperately looking for connection, which he finds with Olivia Meadows (Grace Van Patten), whom he reimagines as a waitress at the diner. You can see Owen wrestling with the same issues as he does in the real world, including not just his corrupt family but his feeling that no one really knows or cares about him.
Dream World No. 4: The Elves We Met Along the Way
Annie’s first C-pill fantasy is, well, a fantasy, inspired by the Tolkien-esque movie that she and Ellie watch together in a hotel room in episode two. Here, she’s recast as Annia, an elf hired to take a sick girl named Ellia to the healing waters. It’s easy to read significance into nearly every beat of this fantasy, in no small part because the genre is always inherently symbolic. Good fantasy characters typically represent real-world fears, and so it’s easy to interpret the evil forces at work against Annia and Ellia as the demons that chase Annie in her daily life.
However, this fantasy transcends simple analysis as it progresses, particularly after Annie shoots an invisible version of herself with an arrow. Does this mean Annie needs to kill a part of her own psyche? That her inner demon is herself? And then, as Annie’s and Owen’s alter egos start to realize that they are in their own fantasies, all surreal hell breaks loose. Owen turns into the notorious hawk from his childhood, the injured animal that he healed only for it to kill his brother’s gerbil; the GRTA computer that’s running the drug trial appears in the form of the evil Queen Gertrude, tempting Annie to remain in the fantasy forever; and so on. What’s most important to remember is that Annie’s greatest inner demon involves being unable to save her sister. The only way she eventually progresses is when she learns she needs to divest herself of that guilt.
Dream World No. 5: Dr. Snorri, or How I Learned to Love Ernie the Alien
The final fantasy allows Annie and Owen to find significant closure, though not before GRTA tries to trap them within a surreal, Kubrickian bit of lunacy. A wide-eyed Owen is now Snorri, who recalls the death of an alien named Ernie (which also happened to be the name of Jed’s hawk-digested gerbil) at NATO headquarters. Snorri tells the tale of the great interplanetary accord reached with Ernie, only for the poor guy to go boom after touching a microphone turned deadly by a fallen gimlet. All of this is a visual and thematic riff on the heightened lunacy of Dr. Strangelove, Stanley Kubrick’s vision of the military-industrial complex at its craziest.
Annie seems to emerge from this absurd dream world relatively “cured,” and finally able to go to and speak to her father. Is that because of the control she takes as her sharpshooter CIA alter ego, and the eventual realization it leads to regarding her guilt about her sister? While Owen is still deeply buried in the fantasy of Snorri and a pending alien attack, Annie bursts in and basically pulls him out of the Matrix, shooting just about everyone around them in the process. She barrels in and destroys the cover stories around them, forcing Owen to become the rescuer he always wanted to be in the real world. And, of course, whereas Owen saves Annie from becoming a McMurphy — the show’s term for people trapped in a dream world with GRTA, in a nod to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest — Annie returns the favor by reinforcing their connection in the real world after he takes the courageous step of defying his family. One of the most surprising elements of Maniac is that its conclusion seems to prove James Mantleray’s cautious, sweaty declaration after the final test: “It was a resounding success.”