The very first thing I thought when this episode opened was, “Wow, Jonah Hill makes a spectacularly unattractive woman.” Sitting in the dark, with long Anne of Green Gables braids and a glinting gold necklace, it was difficult to see his entire look. That’s the nature of Maniac, that I thought perhaps they’d sent Owen into a woman’s body in his latest subconscious jaunt, Quantum Leap-style. Turns out he’s actually the world’s least convincing son of a mafioso.
Despite their surety that they’d be together again in the “confrontation phase” of the Neberdine trial, Annie and Owen’s brainwaves have been electronically separated, and while he struggles with his decision to wear a wire and turn on his family, she embarks on a Lord of the Rings-esque quest to guide “Princess Ellia” to the Lake of the Clouds, a magical body of water that will cure the royal’s fatal ailments. They’re each essentially stuck in a nightmare — Owen is fully under his father’s suffocating wing, which he leaves under penalty of death, and Annie (styled as Annia here) must listen to the soporific trills of her voluble charge.
I wanted to love this episode. I really did. It was still, essentially, fun and romp-y, dedicated to the art of high camp, and smart in the ways it uses film tropes to reveal more about its main characters. It was also relatively short, and it’s always appreciated when a show doesn’t fill out a full 48 minutes just because it can. But something dragged here. Perhap the shtick is just losing a bit of its luster. Or maybe it’s the braids. Who knows?
Let’s start with Owen, whose brain has fashioned a far more sensational version of his own family for him to confront. Rather than heading up a prominent corporation, his father is the don of the Milgrim family and owner of Milgrim Monuments, a headstone business whose owners do a lot of work putting people in graves. His brothers, minus Jed, are stooges, loyal to his father but inept at even the small things, like keeping the drill — their weapon of choice — charged.
In real life, Owen’s father didn’t seem especially dangerous — we’ve certainly never seen him threaten Owen if he chooses not to testify for Jed. But here, he’s downright vicious, encouraging Owen to take the fall for the damage the Milgrim drill did to a most-likely-now-dead bookie. Why exactly should Owen do it? In a word: loyalty. Owen’s father claims he can sniff out disloyalty, explaining that Owen once had another brother who “had a lot of feelings, too. He cried nonstop, couldn’t take care of himself. He was hiding things, wasn’t loyal.” What happened to him, Owen asks. “I put him up for adoption, he was only four months old.” That’s the kind of man he is, willing to dispatch with a baby who he senses won’t bow down to him.
He’s also the kind of man willing to put a drill through somebody’s temple and straight into their hippocampus. The scene, in which Milgrim Senior jams a domestic tool so far into the ear of a filching courier that blood splatters out and bursts in people’s face like a water balloon, is played for laughs and gore. It’s over-the-top in every conceivable way — an homage to mobster movies that simultaneously giggles at their absurdity. There’s the sinister don, his absurd henchmen, the unique torture method, and then the double-crossing insider — in this case, Owen himself, who is wearing a wire for the police, including an officer played by Adelaide.
If this is Owen’s confrontation, it’s interesting that there isn’t a trace of Jed — that Jed is most likely the disloyal baby-son whom the Milgrims gave away. Perhaps the situation is meant to be broader than that, with Owen confronting his entire family for their worship of capitalism, or utter lack of humanity, or indubitably irritating, spontaneous a capella. Either way, it’s reasonable that Owen is having second thoughts about ratting on his father. What’s not reasonable is that his father doesn’t notice Owen following him in a car WITH FLAMES ON IT and then waltzing right into the diner where he’s seated. Then again, that’s how mob movies go.
It was a relief every time the episode bounced back to Annia and Ellia, tramping through the forest, Ellia practically leaving a trail of pixie dust behind her. This is a fantasy movie I want to see, where the beleaguered guide is genuinely pissed (ahem, using both the American and English definitions for that word) at how chipper and fragile her human cargo is. Imagine The Lord of the Rings if at some moment Aragorn had just told Pippin and Merry to shut the hell up already — a far better film, right? Here we have a boozed-up Annia reminding her charge that “we are not companions, this is a business arrangement” — surely a more realistic depiction of how a mythical forest guide would talk to a nincompoop.
“She was unaware how many times she’d failed the same quest,” comes a sudden, narrating voice, “to guide Princess Ellia to The Lake of the Clouds.” Just as Annie dipped back into her worst day over and over, Annia has repeatedly taken this same journey, never delivering Ellia safely. It’s unclear if this expedition is just another failure in that long line.
In another smart indictment of fantasies, Annia’s hangover truly does get in the way of her battle skills. When arrows rain down on her from an unknown foe, she doesn’t magically shake off that last bit of drunkenness — she hits rock after rock, clumsily loading her bow and generally failing at her one job. But, in a nice touch, one arrow punctures her leather flask, sending Annia into a fury and enabling her to finally land an arrow in her attacker — who happens to be another version of herself.
It’s a little on the nose (but then again, so are most dreams) that Annia is sabotaging herself, just as Annie sabotages all her own attempts at recovery. But we’ll play along since the costumes are so enchanting and Trudie Styler, here as Lady Nora, is enchanting, by which I mean the feminist leader we need in these dark times.
Is Lady Nora friend or foe? It’s hard to tell (and it’s also strange that Owen’s mother has slipped into Annie’s brain, almost like Owen left some loose data there when he and Annie interconnected). What we do know is that her choice of seating is admirable, and that something in the mirror she offers to Annia snaps her out of the reverie and allows Annie to step into the moment.
It’s sheer bliss for Annie to see and recognize her sister outside of the dream of their car wreck, and to laugh with her — even if Ellie is adamantly Ellia — about how pointedly the scenario is aimed at pissing her off: “Of course, it’s fantasy! It’s my least favorite genre.”
For Annie at least, is it possible the Neberdine drug is … working?
• Milgrim’s Monuments is literally located on Confrontation Blvd, in a neighborhood so seedy it includes a “Just because you did it doesn’t mean you’re guilty” billboard ad for a hack attorney.
• The episode’s title, “Ceci N’est Pas Une Drill,” is a play on words — there’s the reference to the famous Magritte painting that depicts a pipe with the words, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe,” which means “This is not a pipe.” Then there’s the more urgent meaning — “This is not a drill.”
• As Milgrim Senior drills into Hank’s brain (note that Hank is played by the same actor who portrayed Owen’s boss — the one who fires him via “long-term furlough” in the first episode) he screams out that he’s heading for the hippocampus, which is the part of the human brain that controls memory.
• It’s no shock that Olivia has again invaded Owen’s brain, but it is weird that her skin is 106 degrees. Is Owen feverish back in reality and it’s worming its way into his dream? For that matter, Ellia and Annia keep mentioning Annia’s tingling fingertips, which could be nerve damage from excessive alcohol abuse or another neurological telegraph from the real world.
• Ellia pisses diamonds, which is, by the way, exactly what a UTI feels like.
• The voice of the little bug who whispers, “These assassins that keep popping up, I think they’re your inner demons,” is Ariel Kavoussi, who played the AdBuddy in episode one, and the woman desperate for a card trick at the Neberdine Mansion.
• Annie and Ellie’s roles are especially poignant if you remember back to episode two, that on the night before Ellie dies in the crash the two sisters briefly snuggle up to watch a fantasy movie and Ellie whispers in an accent, “Annia, I’m Ellia your cursed elven sister. Rescue me.”