Netflix's 'Maniac' Season 1, Episodes 2 & 3 Recap: 'Windmills' & 'Having a Day'
Renée Fabian, The Mighty’s associate editor of news and lifestyle, reviews Netflix’s “Maniac,” a show that references topics like psychosis, trauma and addiction for The Mighty’s mental health community.
This post is a review of episodes two and three of “Maniac” and contains spoilers. If you struggle with addiction or experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.If you or a loved one is affected by addiction, you can contact SAMHSA’s hotline at 1-800-662-4357.
In its dense first episode, Netflix’s “Maniac” introduced us to its world — a plausible alternate reality had we gone left with technology instead of right, NPB’s enigmatic ULP phase III drug trial and one of our co-protagonists, a reserved Owen Milgrim (Jonah Hill) who experiences bouts of psychosis. The second episode launches the story of our other focus, Annie Landsberg (Emma Stone), in full.
We open on Annie doing drugs alone in her apartment. Then she’s out cold and the world moves on around her, roommates swirl in and out, time passes. We learn more later as Annie interrogates an AdBuddy about using the service to pay for a trip to Salt Lake City. It could be possible by listening to thousands of ads, but why? Annie owes her sister a visit. In the end, Annie finds a source of cash closer to home.
With a grocery bag in hand, Annie enters a house where she spots a broken vase of dead flowers on the floor. She resignedly heads outside to greet an “Avoid” pod, which looks like an ’80s car without wheels, in the backyard. Turns out it’s her father. He doesn’t make an appearance — he’s been in his mechanical shell for some time. Technology and emotions seem uncomfortably intertwined in the world of “Maniac.” He gives Annie the new safe combination, one that doesn’t remind him of her mother.
Cash, and possibly a pistol, in hand, Annie heads to the Brooklyn public library bus station. She zeroes in on the fare to Salt Lake City, but as it comes into focus, the lettering scrambles until it’s a bunch of letter As. Scarlet letter, anyone? Annie aborts the mission and runs to her friend Calvin, who’s got the lowdown on who can get her more of the NPB trial drugs she’s addicted to.
In this alt-reality, Annie taps an information clerk, who, for a few hundred bucks, gives Annie enough intel to blackmail intake doctor Patricia Lugo (Selenis Leyva), who is responsible for admitting patients into NPB’s trial. Under the guise of a FriendProxy — a pay-per-order companion service — Annie attempts to coerce Patricia into giving her a spot in the study. Though it turns heated, Patricia empathizes with Annie, who admits she isn’t able to make up with her sister after a big fight they had years ago. Annie gets her interview.
Like Owen before her, Annie is asked by an NPB tester to respond to a series of photos projected on a screen. Annie’s too perky, too eager, and when asked that final question from the tester that never comes, the light blares red. Annie’s out. Outraged, she tells the tester she told the truth during her evaluation. Truth seems to be a hotspot for Annie. However, the test isn’t about the truth but defense mechanisms. Annie says she doesn’t have any.
She storms out, where we catch Patricia at the intake desk trying to thwart Annie’s advances. Annie finally pins Patricia down and barges her way into the trial by threatening Patricia’s daughter. Patricia maneuvers the number nine badge away from another participant, which Annie hangs around her own neck instead. Patricia says she’s crazy, but Annie says she’s just “goal-oriented.”
Even this far into Annie’s story, we see her oscillate between addiction and wellness. She doesn’t always beat the addiction, and it pushes her behavior farther over the line than she would go otherwise. By its nature, when addiction gets ahold of us, it can exert an overwhelming amount of control. We see Annie struggle plainly with this dynamic. There’s no doubt she’s trying even when the addiction wins.
Now we’re back in the common room of the test facility watching the pharmaceutical welcome video. Here’s how it works. Participants will take a series of three pills (pills A, B and C) in three stages, during which time their reactions will be analyzed by a supercomputer named GRTA. Using artificial intelligence and microwave technology, the supercomputer will monkey around in the unconscious, Sigmund Freud’s last frontier. The goal? Test subjects will experience pure joy by the end of the trial. What could possibly go wrong?
Side note: The “Maniac” show title likely has less to do with its mental health themes, and more to do with MANIAC, the computer. A one-of-a-kind, 1,000-pound machine built in the early 1950s, its reference in the title underscores the use of technology throughout the show, where it’s both state-of-the-art and archaic at the same time. I wonder if this will have a connection to the brain’s complexity or larger emotional themes as the season develops. In another interesting parallel, three versions of the MANIAC computer were built, a subtle mirror of the three pills NPB’s test will administer. This show has lots of layers.
Introductions complete, odd number participants — Owen at number one and Annie at number nine — head into the test room. On the other side of an observation wall, technicians bustle among blinking lights and screens and wires. Oddly, test leader Dr. Muramoto (Rome Kanda) reads some sugary sweet passage about angels to no one. Correction. He’s reading to the supercomputer, which responds to him in a loving voice, saying she’s prepared for the test. This computer has way too many emotions for anyone’s safety.
Dr. Azumi Fujita (Sonoya Mizuno) gives her team a pep talk, ominously adding almost under her breath, “No more mistakes.” The participants in the other room are given an A pill in a cup, the contraption near their head closes in and we’re off. As the technicians turn on blue lights in the test room, Annie closes her eyes and leans back. We’re transported to an earlier version of her life.
Annie fills a red SUV with gas and is soon joined by her sister Ellie (Julia Garner). The two joke and laugh and argue. This relationship has a history of hurt. At a rest stop Annie positions Ellie for the perfect scenic picture before flashing the camera under her arm instead as a joke, which irritates Ellie. At a hotel, Ellie and Annie argue about their mother, and Ellie shares a fantasy of moving away from New York to Salt Lake City with her fiance. Annie doesn’t take it well.
“You’re so desperate for someone to tell you you’re OK,” Annie says. Ellie shoots back that Annie’s a perpetual liar. Annie wants to say one last real thing. “Every time I think of New York without you in it, this is seriously true, this isn’t a lie. I feel happy because that way I won’t have to feel bad about not calling you or doing anything with you. You’ll be far away and we can grow apart and we won’t have to pretend we didn’t.” It’s harsh, and perhaps speaks to the “I hate you, don’t leave me” dynamic of borderline personality disorder. A stricken Ellie, who seems to get Annie, says she’ll miss her too.
The next day they’re driving again. Annie does her best serious impression and tells her sister she wants a real picture of both of them. Ellie doesn’t believe her, but Annie gets out the ’90s-era disposable camera, quipping there should be a stick for this kind of thing. She aims the camera for a selfie. They’re ready for the shot but Annie pulls the camera away again, laughing.
They argue. The car drifts into the wrong lane. There’s an 18-wheeler coming, and you can guess the rest. The head-on collision sends the two women flying over the edge of a short wall, pulling Annie out of the car. A panicked truck driver slows his rig and peers over the edge. Wedged at the bottom of the boulders rests the SUV on its side, bits of car strewn all over. A battered Annie lies at the top of the rocks. Her sister is nowhere to be seen. Present-day Annie comes to in the test room.
Episode three opens on Owen’s perspective after the test subjects take pill A. It’s time for an interview about their experience, and Owen is first. As he stands up, we see his A pill fall on the floor. Seems like his habit of not taking his meds extends here too. We flash through other’s reactions to the test. Sad and hungry. Bleeding internally. Annie is exhausted and devastated but also satisfied. She wants to know more about the second pill. Owen is speechless, just speechless.
Back in the common room, the subjects share their experiences, while three participants — Owen and Annie among them — need to report for further questioning because of anomalies in their results. While they wait, Owen tells Annie he didn’t take the pill in case he was attacked. Owen is still worried about the mission given to him while experiencing psychosis. Annie admits she lied about being his handler to keep him out of her way. Owen — as dejected as ever — takes the hit and apologizes for the confusion.
Owen’s shame here feels familiar. When someone hurts me but it’s somehow related to my mental illness, I apologize because if I weren’t “defective,” the other person wouldn’t have hurt me in the first place. Though a mental health diagnosis has no bearing on a person’s value or their worthiness of being treated well, the way mental health is stigmatized sure makes it feel that way sometimes. Owen’s no different.
It’s Owen’s turn to face Dr. Muramoto, who accuses him of not taking the A pill. It’s true, of course, but Owen makes an effort to explain what he “saw” anyway. He describes his brother Jed’s (Billy Magnussen) engagement party at their parents’ house. Owen’s implored to testify on behalf of Jed, who honestly seems hella guilty from the get-go. Owen tells Jed he’ll only testify the truth, soliciting a condescending laugh from Jed about Owen’s commitment to reality. Then come the threats.
Wouldn’t it be awful if Owen had another psychotic break and public figures in town got threatening letters from him? He would end up in the “looney bin.” Jed pretends he’s joking, but there’s no mistaking the tacit threat. Weaponizing Owen’s mental illness against him is appalling, especially because Owen has worked so hard in recovery, which we see as he battles against hallucinations when they arise. It’s a stark reminder of how vulnerable a mental health diagnosis can make us. We’re deemed “crazy” and “unstable,” and therefore no matter how much we achieve in recovery, it’s a perpetual easy target to those looking for a low blow to bring us to our knees.
Horrible Jed continues his creepiness when he heads downstairs to serenade his new fiance, Adelaide (Jemima Kirke), with Sting’s classic stalker song, “Every Breath You Take.” The crowd smiles along while Jed spells out the future horrors Adelaide likely has in store with lyrics like, “Oh can’t you see/You belong to me.” Owen’s at max capacity and leaves the room. Content warning here for what looks like a suicide attempt. The moment passes quickly without any examination, which is jarring and you may find triggering.
Now we’re back from Owen’s memory in Dr. Muramoto’s office. He doesn’t buy Owen’s story, as traumatic as it is. Owen didn’t take the A pill. After the doc barks a series of stern commands, Owen swallows the pill and experiences the “worst day of his life” for real this time. The mechanism of how this treatment is supposed to work is revealed more clearly. By focusing on one “core trauma” or the “worst day of their life,” the ULP drugs can fast track the rewiring of the brain back to a healthy state that would typically take months or years in traditional therapy.
This idea has a ring of truth to it, because trauma research suggests effective treatment includes retraining the brain’s handling of traumatic memories so they lose their potency. But what’s missing is complexity. Though it can be, trauma isn’t always a single moment we can pinpoint — it’s often a series of events over a lifetime that get compounded when we don’t resolve them. What I do appreciate is the gravity given to traumatic experiences, whether it’s Owen’s psychosis or the crash that killed Annie’s sister. Trauma is taken seriously, and the relatable science gets the point across to those who know what they’re seeing.
Owen walks out of the office looking like he’s seen a ghost. Annie’s next, and in the middle of her interview, which isn’t going well, Dr. Muramoto face plants on his desk. We’ve seen him fast asleep before, but this time he has died. Annie cracks open the door and calls Owen in. As Annie rummages around the office in a panic, modifying her patient file and staring at a bottle of A pills, Owen recounts his story. He really liked a girl named Olivia, with whom he developed a strong relationship, until he got suspicious.
He thought his parents were paying her to spend time with him while recording the whole thing so they could laugh later. Turns out this is Owen’s earliest memory of psychosis and its impact on his life, the way it wrests away his confidence to form deep connections with others. Annie, half paying attention, tells him it “sounds like you were having a day,” which is something her mother used to say when she “got her wires crossed.” Annie apologizes to Owen again for manipulating him earlier, and the pair decide to leave the doctor like nothing happened.
Eventually Dr. Muramoto is discovered, which leads Dr. Fujita up to the mysterious 77th floor to speak to a voice coming from a computer screen about the trial’s status. She’s determined to continue, and she knows just the guy. Impossible! Says the voice. But a resourceful Dr. Fujita’s got it covered. She lands on a gritty street in a plastic white coat and leans one shoulder in as she beelines across the road. Turns out she doesn’t like the outside world much.
Here we meet Dr. James K. Mantleray (Justin Theroux), the illusive creator of the ULP treatment. What’s he doing? Well, let’s just say it involves a scantily clad purple fantasy woman, a well-positioned virtual reality device and good, old-fashioned human nature. (Porn in this world is delivered via floppy disk.) Dr. Fujita busts in and explains that Dr. Muramoto died because he was abusing the trial drugs. Seems like these drugs are quite addictive. In any case, James is needed. He slaps on his toupee and rises to the occasion. The drug trial is back on.
James and Dr. Fujita return to base, where James takes a moment to re-introduce himself to GRTA and deliver the hard news about Dr. Muramoto. GRTA doesn’t take it well. When everyone else has gone to bed, GRTA shows her face in coordinated computer lights and is crying. A tear runs through the circuits and somehow comes out as a drop that sizzles wires plugged into the number one spot, Owen.
With no time to waste, the next morning it’s off to take pill B. Participants, Owen included, swallow the B pill as the technicians cue the green light. Next thing we know, Owen’s lounging in a recliner with a mullet. In the kitchen is — Annie in the role of his wife with a hot hair crimp and mom jeans straight out of the ’80s. The country tunes swell and then…we’re out.
While these episodes hold your attention and there’s plenty to discover in the dense layers, it takes too long to get to the point. When episode three ends with mulleted Owen, it seems like we’re finally seeing the promise of the show, whatever turn it’s taking here. What came before was three episodes of essentially exposition, no matter how well-done. Was it important to introduce Dr. Muramoto and then James? Did we need seperate episodes for Owen and Annie to get to the drug trial? I guess time will tell, but there was a lot to digest. By spreading it out over three episodes, from this vantage point, it seems excessive.
What I do appreciate so far is how “Maniac” approaches the mental health topics. When we see Owen and Jed, it’s Owen — the character with the mental illness — who’s most relatable. Annie’s story isn’t only about her addiction. We see her complexity as she wrestles for control, which makes it easy to empathize with her, even when she hurts other people. Not to mention, addiction and trauma go hand-in-hand for many people.
And finally, trauma is given its due while also using real, science-based storylines about its impact on the brain and what that might look like in this sort of drug trial. Though I hope this method of treatment is never actually a thing. It’s not an overt message, so I don’t know how much the lay viewer is going to learn about how trauma works, and some of the oddities of the show may serve as a distraction.
For once, mental illness isn’t the butt of the joke. At least not yet. It’s a little slow going, but we finally seem to be ramping up to something worthwhile. From here, it’s easy to press play on the next episode.
- How do you think technology will play a role in this story? What do you think it might represent?
- What are your thoughts on how the show handles trauma?
Episodes 4 and 5 Review: Netflix’s “Maniac” Gives a Non-Stereotypical Portrayal of BPD
Header image via Netflix’s Instagram.