TRAUMA: THE FIRST FIVE EPISODES OF ‘MANIAC’
“Everyone’s a maniac. I mean, which is true in life also … there’s no one untouched by trauma or damage or some form of mental tic, I guess some more extreme than others.”
If I were on a cocktail of drugs and under some level of psychosis, I’d probably understand every episode of Maniac. This show is a psych ward’s nightmare and the wildest dreams of people who live for dark humor— but you’ll either really love the show or you’ll absoluely hate it.
The show isn’t really “funny” per se. It makes you think, and sometimes overthink, as you are trying to piece together parts of your sanity through each scene. It does force you to delve deeper into the director Cary Joji Fukunaga’s and writer Patrick Somerville’s take on healing.
Fukunaga shares, “We wanted to be compassionate to mental illness, and not make that the butt of the joke.” Both main characters, Jonah Hill as Owen Milgrim and Emma Stone as Annie Landsberg, are two New Yorkers with their own traumas looking to cope through escape.
In episode one, we learn about Owen who is a son of an aristocratic family (which is now faced with a sex scandal), who is in love with his brother’s wife, and he has just lost his job— he’s also losing touch with reality through various hallucinations. He thinks he’s well on his way to saving the world, and during this, he signs up for a trial study with Neberdine Pharmaceutical and Biotech. On his first day, he sees if he qualifies for the study, and he meets a blonde-haired Annie whom he believes is apart of his “world saving” adventure. We learn little about Annie until episode two where her addiction to one of Neberdine’s drugs is revealed, explaining why she blackmailed her way into the study. However, this addiction is a coping mechanism to cover-up deep trauma she’s hiding that is connected to the death of her sister (and may also tie into why her dad, Hank, chooses to live in a sensory deprivation chamber in his backyard).
The retro-futuristic world of Maniac is colorful and inventive visually, while also going past the theme of trauma into other issues like big pharmaceutical, the underlying dystopia of the digital age, and our relationships with technology. By episode three, we see Muramoto state to Owen, “Verify your experience of your core trauma,” and he begins describing what is supposed to be one of the worst days of his life as “intense;” which is an exchange with his brother, Jeb, where we see Owen fall onto the glass roof encasing the party. In a poignant scene in the episode, Mr. Muramoto suggests that there are patients addicted to their trauma— a point in the episode that reveals more of Annie’s truth, as we saw her so easily recount her “worst day” in the last episode. By the end of the episode, we see both Owen and Annie take their second pill, entering into Owen’s fantasy/hallucination that takes place in what seems like the 1970s or 80s.
I’d love to wrap this up in a nice bow and say that by episode four and five we got deeper into each character, and along into the budding, fully formed story, but like a manic psychosis, both episodes are tangential. The dreamlike moments that shift in-and-out of reality are full-blown minor storylines within the show. Nonetheless, it has a purpose of “working through their trauma’s” with the B-pill. With episode four being an over-the-top play on action movies centered around the main characters purchase of a lemur, each of their roles gives them a chance to see themselves through a “healed” lens— with Owen saving the woman he loves, and Annie helping a dying woman. By episode five, we completely shift gears again into a 1940s seance scene where there’s an underlying issue of Annie and Owen jumping into each other’s subconscious. Staying true to the overarching story, are the references to Don Quixote and minor characters present in previous episodes, while also revealing the Sally Field’s as Lady Neberdine.
Yet episode five, like most of the season, went deeper into childhood trauma and how its linked to our behaviors as adults. Many of us know that most of the crap we went through as kids overwhelmingly affects how we act as adults. Where Maniac does a great job is opening up a broader conversation behind how we cope with trauma, and how we relive trauma over the course of our lives, directly and indirectly, playing roles in our relationships with ourselves and others. While I have yet to watch episodes six through ten, I imagine that each fantasy will serve as a means to express the different paths our lives can go, as a result of our trauma and unpacking how to truly address the core of our pain. We all have our own ways to cope, one way being more detrimental than the other like not coping at all (suppression), or coping through vices like drugs, alcohol, or sex. The show is binge-worthy if you are willing to not give up due to confusion after the first episode. As whimsical as the show is, it calls into conversation a lot of issues our society is more open to discuss now than ever before.
“‘How do we feel better?’ What works? What doesn’t work? How can we move forward after trauma? And I think the show posits a pretty good answer.”
The question is: Will Maniac continue to hold my attention and tie up loose ends by the end of the season, or will the extreme nuances take the show well off track? I’ll get back to you with my thoughts on episodes six through ten soon.