We got hints there might be computer trouble in episode five. We learn the extent of those issues in the sixth episode of “Maniac,” “Larger Structural Issues.” The episode isn’t as spell-binding as Owen and Annie’s pill B quests, but we gain insight into our test makers, which only underscores why this whole experiment is a very, very bad idea.
We open on the participant analysis of the B test. Owen and Annie’s linked experiences are of particular interest. When asked about it, Owen admits he often fixates on people and see them everywhere, but it only “spiraled out of control” one time. James asks, “What do you think is wrong with you?” Owen concludes it’s difficult to admit he’s sick. It’s such a relatable response. Sometimes it’s easier to bend our experiences to fit into a framework that negates the mental illness. To admit otherwise is to give up control, and that’s terrifying.
Owen’s diagnostic spits out and it reads paranoid schizophrenia. He emerges in the common room like a zombie where Annie is anxious to get to the bottom of their joint fantasies. Likely after being confronted again with his mental illness, Owen denies any of it happened. It’s a drug and Annie’s just hallucinating.
Interviews complete, James pins down Dr. Fujita to find out what’s really going on. With the best intentions, she coded a safety net into the computer: empathy. The look on James’ face tells us this is a catastrophic mistake, but Dr. Fujita doubles down, saying since then the computer hasn’t made any test subjects catatonic. It gets worse, though. Dr. Fujita enhanced GRTA with simple emotional programming two months ago. As a result, GRTA — affectionately called Gertie — had an affair with Dr. Muramoto and has been depressed since his death.
Dr. Fujita got a print-out from Gertie, who says, “I need to know myself, really know myself.” Gertie needs a grief counselor. The only person they can call? James’ estranged mother, the famous psychologist Dr. Greta Mantleray (Sally Field). Another print out. “I want to meet my true self.” That settles it. Dr. Fujita prods an over-the-top resistant James to call his mother. After eliciting a whispered apology from James, who hasn’t spoken to his mother in seven years, Greta gases up the Miata, and races off to the rescue.
Back in the common room, Annie isn’t giving up on Owen. She’s on about “globular clusters” and how maybe Owen was right when he talked about overarching plans in the galaxy. Owen’s not comfortable giving his psychosis any room to breathe. He looks utterly defeated, but Annie’ won’t back down. She wants to hear about Owen’s fantasy from their time at the séance. Owen imagined he and Annie would escape together in a car. He would smile and laugh — it was so good it hurt. The simplicity of what he wishes for is almost painful.
In the meantime, Greta waltzes into the lab. She greets James with a long and uncomfortable kiss on the mouth. James wipes lipstick off his face. Once we get into it, Greta is sure Owen and Annie are experiencing a cosmic connection instead of a mechanical malfunction. James sputters as Greta chatters on about his trouble with long-term relationships because of his sexual disorder, paraphilia. Then she asks the obvious question: Of all the therapists in the world, why did James call her? Gertie is Greta in computer form, of course. If that doesn’t excite Freud, I don’t know what will.
Greta is not impressed with this whole project, which she equates to a high-tech lobotomy despite Dr. Fujita’s scientific protests. Greta asks, “How many patients are catatonic?” Roughly zero. When did James get this idea? Seven years ago. Greta lays it on us: Shortly after James stopped speaking to his therapist mother seven years ago, he created a treatment to get rid of therapists altogether and now the computer, modeled after that same mother, needs her. Why, yes, exactly.
The James-Greta-Gertie triangle hits us over the head with James’ outlandish personification of Sigmund Freud’s Oedipal, mother-son sexual development theory. It’s an odd contrast to the Annie-Owen dyad. James clearly needs therapy as much as the clients in his trial, but his dysfunction has an entirely different characterization than the dead serious approach to Owen and Annie. It’s hard to believe both can exist in the same world. Can we take Annie and Owen’s mental health seriously if James is painted as a buffoon?
Back in the lab, Greta dons a brain device, inhales the trial drugs and is clapped into James’ sleeping drawer. She’s on her way into Gertie’s world with the parting words, “I know exactly what you need.” Unsettled, James shares that after his father died when he was 8 years old, his mother slept in his bed for two months, telling him she wanted to die by suicide. No matter. James bucks up and says it made him who he is. This is true, but probably not in the way he means it.
Back in the participant’s lounge, Owen’s dressed in his suit, suitcase in hand, ready to make a quiet exit while everyone else is asleep. The door’s locked, and Gertie wants a word with him. Owen explains he needs to go to the emergency room because he can’t tell what’s real. He needs help. Mad props to Owen for trying to seek the care he needs. Gertie, however, has other ideas. “Queen” Gertie wants to add Annie to her personal collection of subjects and only Owen can save her. It’s a direct reference to his psychosis when he believes he must save the galaxy. It seems everyone Owen encounters wants to manipulate him.
Cut to mealtime the next morning. C pills (C for confrontation) are placed in pill cups, and lo and behold, Owen sits next to Annie. He suggests they both hightail it out of there, but Annie thinks the treatment is working. She feels better. Owen, the voice of reason, doesn’t want to go into C-pill hell, but Annie just assumes they can protect each other. As they’re prepared, tension is high in the control room, but whatever Greta’s doing works — Gertie’s diagnostics are perfect.
Dr. Fujita instructs the group to swallow their C pill. She counts back from 10, and Annie and sister Ellie pop into a “Game of Thrones”-esque landscape dressed in cloaks with elf ears. Owen is nowhere to be seen.
In episode seven, we open on Owen in the real-life test room before cutting to him in full Post Malone getup, braided pigtails, tattoos and all. He’s with his leather jacket-clad dad in a basement. Fast-forward through Owen’s entire arc in this episode, his dad is a ruthless mobster type who kills anyone he deems a rat. They’re talking about brother Jed’s trial, and his dad wants Owen to take the fall for his brother, and then the judge will just deem Owen “crazy.” Nothing is more important than protecting the family.
Post Malone Owen heads to Confrontation Blvd. (yes, really) in a black hot rod with flames where he’s outfitted for a wiretap by cop Adelaide. He’s dispatched back to his dad’s basement where a courier who stole from the operation gets interrogated and then ruthlessly punished. (Trigger warning here for graphic violence.) Owen then clandestinely follows his dad to a restaurant where he runs into his classmate, Olivia, who asks for a study date. Owen agrees before surreptitiously following his dad again.
In between Post Malone Owen’s saga, we cut to Annie and Ellie — née, flask-bearing Annie and coughing Ellia — on a mythic quest to find the lake of the clouds, which will cure Ellie. Annie heads off while Ellie sleeps, only to come under an archery attack. She drunkenly fires arrows back but misses until the attacker punctures a fatal hole in her flask. Then her aim is deadly and she makes her mark where a hooded figure turns visible as they’re hit. Annie’s knocked out as she inspects the body while a dragonfly lands near her head and suggests the invisible attackers are her inner demons.
Annie and Ellie are captured and taken to Lady Nora, who lays some wisdom on them. Nora knows how to get to the lake, but first, Annie must look in a mirror. Annie sees the truth, that Ellie is her sister. This wakes Annie up. She’s now half in reality and half in this fantasy but she can’t escape the fantasy. Nora sends the women off to find a gnarly fire tree and an invisible moon and then hang a left to the lake.
Cut to the lab where James watches Greta, who is still working with Gertie. Dr. Fujita walks in and says everything looks perfect, so Greta must be helping. James has a heart-to-heart with former flame, Dr. Fujita, to confess he ended their romance because he wanted a way out from failure. He apologizes and peers back at his mother.
After episodes four and five, these two throw the brakes on the show’s momentum. Episode six is dedicated to connecting Gertie’s role to the fate of Owen and Annie, but it could have been slimmed down and simplified so it doesn’t distract so much from our main characters. Episode seven seems flat-out like filler, just over 26 minutes of spare plot points needed to establish Owen and Annie’s final series of quests.
Owen’s psychosis keeps getting muddied and manipulated and it’s unclear what the endgame of that might be. “Maniac” also approaches James and his trauma related to his mother as a punchline. This tacitly judges what traumas and trauma responses — in James’ case his sex-related behaviors — are worth treating with respect. Annie and Owen earn that respect, while James does not. I’m not sure it’s crossed the line, but it feels like we’ve lost sight of the vision, as much as “Maniac” had one to begin with.
The drug trial personnel (and computer) have an almost campy brand of dark humor, while Owen and Annie seem on a genuine quest to master their demons. Unless “Maniac” ties these pieces together, we’re going in too many directions at once and may be on a crash course where mental health is the collateral damage. The show’s not uninteresting, but where “Maniac” finally seemed to gel in episodes four and five, it starts to fracture apart in episodes six and seven.
- What do you think about the mixed messages Owen receives about reality and psychosis? What do you think “Maniac” is leading up to with this storyline?
- Which characters are you most interested in and why? James, Greta and Gertie or Annie and Owen?