Netflix’s “Maniac” is not the type of show you can put on and half-pay attention to, especially the first episode. While intriguing, the limited-series is reminiscent of Netflix’s “Black Mirror,” and features an alternate world that mixes 1960s aesthetics with futuristic technologies like advanced robots.
The first episode starts with a condensed version of the Big Bang theory and the beginning of life. Viewers are first introduced to Emma Stone’s character, Annie Landsberg, who is attempting to buy cigarettes. When the gas station attendant tells her she can’t use an “AdBuddy” to pay for it, she breaks open a metal newspaper container to get the quarters. Here’s how old and new first clash — newspaper vending machines are rarely used now, but we don’t have AdBuddies, either. An AdBuddy is a person you request when you need money. They tell you a bunch of ads and then you’re able to pay for things like subway rides like we’ll see later with Owen.
Though we’re first introduced to Annie, the episode focuses on Owen, played by Jonah Hill. We first meet the 30-something-year-old Owen while prepping for a trial as a witness. He’s testifying on behalf of his brother, though we don’t know why his brother, Jed, is on trial. At the beginning of his prep, the lawyer asks Owen to explain his psychotic break that he experienced roughly 10 years ago.
Owen, understandably, is thrown off by the question. He asks his dad if the attorney will seriously bring that up so quickly. His dad tells him it may be a tactic the attorney uses to “crack” him. As someone who has been a witness in a trial, this is incredibly relatable. At the time, I was not diagnosed but experiencing symptoms. Because there wasn’t anything official, the lawyer couldn’t capitalize on my mental illness. I was still terrified they’d ask me about my mental health to somehow make me seem unreliable or that my mental illness would interfere with my ability to testify.
While I understand someone’s competence or mental health history may be pertinent to some lawsuits or criminal suits, mental illness is often weaponized to break people down and make them seem like they’re not a credible witness. This isn’t fair as many people live with a mental illness, and it doesn’t impact a trial or someone’s credibility.
For Owen, though, this line is blurred. Though schizophrenia is never stated, Netflix’s teaser for the show says Owen has it. The trial is about his brother, and Owen’s hallucinations are of his brother. While he tells the lawyers and his father during trial prep he no longer has hallucinations, it’s clear to the viewers this isn’t the case.
The lawyer says to Owen, “Don’t you think your mental illness should disqualify you from testifying as a witness on your brother’s behalf?”
At this point, Owen has had a hallucination that the glass of in front of him has started shaking like there’s an earthquake. While this moment might make viewers think Owen shouldn’t testify, the lawyer doesn’t know about this hallucination since Owen doesn’t tell anyone. I understand where the lawyer is coming from — he has a case to win, so he wants to make sure his witnesses are good — but he’s implying that Owen isn’t capable solely because of his mental illness. Plenty of people are capable while also living with a mental illness.
In the next scene, Owen hallucinates his brother, who tells him he’s been chosen to save the world. Though Owen tells him he doesn’t want this, Jed tells him he’ll receive details about the mission from a woman. Jed says, “the pattern is the pattern” before disappearing.
When Owen can’t get on the subway because he doesn’t have money, he uses an AdBuddy who accompanies him on his subway ride. The AdBuddy gives him a card with an ad that tells him he could be substitute husband for recently widowed wives. Annie is the woman in the ad. The AdBuddy also tells him he can supplement his income with pharmaceutical testing with Neberdine Pharmaceutical Biotech (NPB). While at work, Owen finds out he’s permanently on “furlough” from work.
He gets sick in his work’s bathroom and uses toilet paper with NPB printed on it to wipe his mouth. Frustrated, Owen breaks off the toilet paper dispenser and reads, “the pattern is the pattern.” It’s implied that this is what leads Owen to decide to look into becoming a part of a clinical trial.
Owen heads back to his incredibly small studio apartment, and viewers can overhear audio from a tape with Owen’s therapist presumably. He’s told to listen to the tape anytime he feels paranoid. Before he enters his apartment, Owen sees another ad with Annie’s face on it. He’s intrigued by her, as if he believes she’s the woman his brother told him to look out for.
Owen is in his apartment sitting on the edge of the bed while the tape of his therapist continues to play. He lines up his pills on a nearby table. Instead of taking them, Owen flicks them as he aims to land them in a potted plant across the room (it’s a small studio, so this isn’t so hard).
When the camera shows the potted plant up close, you can see days worth of pills in the soil. I don’t know how many people routinely flick their psychiatric medications into a potted plant, but I know many of us who take or have taken medications understand the desire to stop taking them. Some of us stop taking them because they don’t seem to be helping, or we think we’re better and no longer need them. I connected with Owen in this scene. I may not have flicked them into a plant, but I’ve had the desire to flush them down the drain.
Owen seems like he’s trying to make it on his own. He recently moved into his own place, and even though his family is incredibly rich, he’s trying to be completely independent (hence the tiny apartment). It’s unclear if this has to do with his medication, but I can understand the desire to stop taking medications if your goal is to restart your life. Pills can be a reminder of your mental illness or what’s happened in the past because of it. I understand wanting to distance yourself from that.
Now that we now Owen isn’t taking his medications, it makes more sense why he’s having hallucinations and delusional thinking. After Owen’s done playing with his medications, he receives a package from NPB and a mysteriously simultaneous call from the company. The woman on the phone tells Owen he’s very desirable for a study and calls him a “hero” candidate. Part of Owen’s delusion is that he’s meant to save the world, so this is obviously very intriguing for him.
We aren’t told if Owen will participate in a study yet. Instead, the next scene cuts to Owen at his family’s house, complete with a personal doorman. The whole (very large) family is having a dinner party, and it’s clear Owen doesn’t fit in with everyone else. He’s withdrawn, prefers to interact with the kids and is uncomfortable when the attention is on him. A painted family portrait further proves Owen is the black sheep of the family — he isn’t even in it. He has a framed headshot next to the huge portrait instead.
While looking at the painting, Owen talks to Jed’s fiancee, Adelaide. He tells her he was fired and is contemplating becoming a temporary husband like he saw in the ad. Adelaide points out how every plan of his always has to do with starting over. Owen and Adelaide have “moment” where Owen tells her they should run away together. Clearly, there’s some kind of chemistry between the two. Adelaide takes it as a joke, though Owen wasn’t being hypothetical.
When the two make their way back to the rest of the family, Owen tries to leave but the entire family tells him he should stay to play Balderdash. As the scene gets more chaotic with the children entering and everyone yelling over each other, Owen becomes flustered. Owen’s family doesn’t seem attuned to Owen’s needs nor do they give him the space to speak. The family has a lot of loudmouthed members, so Owen’s voice is easily lost in the noise. After a few more moments of his family begging him to stay, Owen yells back and everyone is surprised.
Someone asks Owen if he’s off his meds — which, yes, he is, but, no, that’s not how you approach that topic. Asking someone if they’re taking their psychiatric medications is highly personal. It’s incredibly irritating when someone asks this because it can feel like they’re invalidating your emotions. If someone gets angry or sad or overly happy, it doesn’t mean they aren’t taking their medications. People still have a whole range of emotions when they’re taking psychiatric medications. Also, blurting out this question in the middle of a family gathering is not the correct environment for this sort of conversation. If you’re worried a family member isn’t taking their medications, it’s something you should approach delicately and privately. The show does a good job of showing how inappropriate that question is because anyone watching this scene can tell his family is super annoying and would probably yell themselves.
Owen’s father walks him back to the subway station. His father doesn’t understand why Owen won’t let him buy him a place or why Owen doesn’t want to work for the family’s company. Owen tells his father he doesn’t have to worry about paying off Owen — he’s already agreed to testify for Jed. It seems that Jed is guilty, but they’re covering for him. His father tells Owen he’s giving his brother a “gift” by providing an alibi. It’s still not clear what the trial is about, but Owen’s father tells him “this woman is an opportunist. She sees an in.”
Owen tells his father he’ll be out of town for work before the trial next week. It’s revealed Owen has decided to sign up for the NPB study when the next scene shows him filling out paperwork for the NLP trial. He notices a woman making a scene in the lobby and recognizes that it’s Annie, though he doesn’t know her name yet.
Annie sits down in the lobby, and Owen is called back for his test to see if he’ll be a part of the study. In his test, a woman shows Owen a slide of pictures while he tells her the emotion he feels when he looks at each photo. He’s also hooked up to a blood pressure machine and other monitors. The woman tells him to look at her while she asks the final question — except she doesn’t say anything.
Owen and the test attendant stare at each other for a painstakingly long time before Owen asks if she’s going to ask the question. Somehow, this response tells her something about his defense mechanisms and Owen is accepted into the study.
Owen returns to the lobby and sits across from Annie. She tells him to stop looking at her, and seems annoyed. Confused as to how models in ads work, Owen asks Annie if she lost her husband recently, alluding to the temporary husband ad. Annie, looking increasingly annoyed, tells him no.
A woman on the intercom tells the “odd numbers” to line up for intake. Both Owen and Annie have odd numbers on their lanyards. Before standing up, Owen sees Crimson again — the name for his brother he hallucinates. He tells Owen he’s following the pattern. Crimson tells him Annie is the woman he’s looking for and that he has to follow her orders.
We’re introduced to the scientists running the study next. The female scientist tells the other one that they need to finish this trial without the problems the other trials had. As the female scientist, Dr. Azumi Fujita, leaves his office, the other scientist, Dr. Robert Muramoto, puts away a pipe for smoking something.
The last scene is of the participants settling into where they’ll live for the duration of the trial. It’s a room with “pods” to sleep in on the walls and a large round table in the middle. Owen approaches Annie. He asks her what are his instructions. Owen becomes visibly anxious, and Annie tells him his instructions are to go back to his pod and await her signal.
There’s a lot to process in the first episode. Because it’s an alternate reality, viewers already have to figure out the intricacies of this new world. There are AdBuddies, sanitation robots and other things that don’t exist for us. On top of the “culture shock” of a new world, there are a lot of characters to learn and a bunch of little plot points. It isn’t the show you’d want to watch if you were hoping to relax.
With that being said, the show is quite intriguing. While there is a lot to process, I’m excited to see where all of this is going. The show also makes me feel a bit unsettled with the weird technology and arbitrary time period, but I have a sense that’s an expected reaction.
I also approve of how the show handled mental illness. The scenes were relatable and fairly accurate to the experiences of some with mental illnesses. The show is weird, for sure, but the interactions between Owen’s family and his refusal to take his medication seem pretty normal to me.
- What do you think of the show’s portrayal of hallucinations?
- What do you think Jed did?
- Where do you hope to see this story go?