This Maniac review contains spoilers.
Maniac Episode 8
OK, this is nonsense.
Too often we ask our TV shows to provide us with answers that no one has. Years after the Lost finale, Damon Lindelof’s poor put-upon baby smoke monster still comes under fire for not providing “answers.” Well of course Lost, and other shows of its ilk couldn’t provide answers because it was asking questions that no one has the answers to.
Maniac is a show in a similar position. The questions it’s asking have no answers, or at least have no answers that we’re aware of. What is reality? Who are we? What does it mean to be OK? Maniac doesn’t have to answer these questions outright. All it has to do is make the journey to find the answers (and end up inevitably disappointed) as compelling as possible.
It also has another, seemingly obvious obligation to its audience. And that’s the obligation to just not be pure nonsense. So far, the show has done a decent job of balancing its visual and conceptual flights of fancy with a believable enough internal logic. In “The Lake of the Clouds,” however, Maniac’s high-wire balancing act finally fails. This is nonsense pure and simple.
It’s nonsense not because it’s C pill confrontation therapy is nonsense even though it is. This is clearly by design. The path to wellness is supposed to be disorienting. And of course it’s complicated by the suicidal depressed supercomputer meddling in the process. The problem is that the thematic and logic conclusions the show is drawing is pure nonsense.
Take the resolution of Owen’s C pill journey. Owen’s involvement in an organized crime family doesn’t have much emotional resonance because it’s remains too literal. His family essentially is an organized crime family or at least emotionally operates like one where the goals of the family supersede the goals of the individual.
Or as Owen puts it himself, “for people who are supposed to love unconditionally, families seem to have a lot of conditions.” That’s a pretty trenchant observation but it’s also one that Owen wouldn’t need to have undergone experimental drug therapy for. Owen has a pretty solid handle on what sucks about his family life: namely that his family fucking sucks. He has other issues of the clinical variety that greatly supersede those issues. Maniac’s “solutions” to those (granted there are still two episodes to go) are…. well, they’re nonsense.
Gangster Owen witnesses his father murder his brother, who he thinks is a rat. Then he witnesses his other brother murder his FBI handlers. Then he witnesses another mob family member murder his brother. Surely, this must be cathartic for someone with family issues but it doesn’t address any of his deeper underlying issues.
But wait, you say! That’s what the brief coda with Olivia is for. Owen is granted the opportunity to enter into witness protection and he convinces Olivia to come along with him. No sooner has she agreed than does Owen’s fantasy flash forward several years later when he and Olivia have seven awful kids in a small, awful apartment. Owen announces that he now understands he doesn’t belong here and jumps out the window only to find he’s in a Lilliputian world where everything is in miniature. Olivia chastises him for being stupid so he turns into a hawk and flies off to find Annie.
To be clear: this is all nonsense. Nothing here is therapeutic. Nothing here is helpful. No conclusion drawn about the characters or the world around them is worthwhile. Owen’s repeated observations of “I’m a hawk!” are certainly intended to be bizarre and funny but they come so quickly after the non-resolution of the previous nonsense that it can’t help but feel unintentionally bad the first few times.
I suppose if you squint hard enough, you can find meaning here. Owen leaving his seven fake children and Olivia beyond is him “confronting” his problems by realizing that Olivia was never who he was supposed to be with anyway. But Olivia isn’t the problem here, Owen’s clear schizophrenia is. The A pill didn’t show Owen Olivia because he was sad she was gone, it showed him Olivia because she came about during a time in his life when he first experienced paranoid delusions. Those for the moment remain unsolved. Should those be addressed in the next two episodes, great! That doesn’t make the time we went spinning wheels with Owen in “The Lake of the Clouds” was time well spent.
It’s also not as though Maniac can’t be clear when it wants to be. On the contrary, Maniac tends to lean towards the expository rather than the abstract. So why abandon that for Owen? In fact, “The Lake of the Clouds” ends up being a touch too literal and obvious on the Annie side of things. Annia and Ellia’s journey to The Lake of the Clouds continues while Annie tries to convince “Ellia” that they really are sisters.
Ellia points out that if Annie thinks the world isn’t real and everyone else does, then clearly she must be the one that’s crazy. This is a legitimately interesting and fair point. Unfortunately, it means that Annie and Ellie don’t have much time to reconnect as Ellie is really slow to the uptick on this actually not being reality.
Annie retains some of her old Annia persona and is surprised to realize that the lies she fed to previous people on this “journey” are now true. The tree is really burning and the invisible moon is really revealed. The path leads Annie and Ellie to the Lake of the Clouds, which ends up being the cliff face on which real Ellie died.
Why does Annie get to visit such a viscerally cathartic place while Owen just gets an apartment full of seven kids? It’s unclear, and that’s a big part of “The Lake of the Clouds” failings. Certainly Gertie may have played a role as she turns up to entice Annie with the opportunity to stay in this world forever.
“What I really need is a friend and I think you could use one too,” Gertie tells the real world version of herself when Greta is trying to intervene. This is the simplest, most-direct motivation of any of the characters thus far and is indeed rather refreshing. Gertie, not unlike many sci-fi robotic creations before her, is the most human character on a show full of humans.
The fact that she’s able to entice Annie into staying works from the perspective of Gertie’s storyline and goals but also acknowledge the purpose and humanity of Annie in making it to this point.
There are still two episodes to go here and while it’s tempting to reach back to platitudes to Maniac being able to “stick the landing,” that ignores the fact that there is no landing to make. Maniac is not going to be able to have all the answers and that’s ok. That does, however, make it frustrating that it’s botched a lot of the journey to those non-answers so far.