Photo: Michele K. Short (Netflix)

The second episode of Maniac picks up parallel to the first, tracking the events that led Annie to the drug trial where the primary action of the series starts. Is there a reason these two episodes are separate, rather than weaving Annie and Owen’s lives together? By the end of “Windmills,” I’d forgotten why I cared about Owen in the first place, and mostly wanted watch a show about Annie dealing with her grieving over her sister’s maybe-death.

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At least thus far, Annie seems like a much more interesting character than Owen. Though just as antisocial, her problems tend to manifest in aggressive outbursts, rather than withdrawal. Over the course of this episode alone, Annie impulsively decides to watch a mind-boggling number of ads to fund a trip to see her sister in Salt Lake City, tries to steal money out of her father’s safe, then just as quickly shifts her focus to acquiring more of a mysterious drug, which leads her to blackmail an innocent woman to force her way into the study.

Why does Annie need this drug so badly? She tells Patricia that she’s “goal-oriented,” but outside of the idea that Emma Stone characters should do zany things like this, it’s hard to say exactly why she’s so fixated on it—even when, half an hour into the episode, the study finally begins, and we see what the drug A does. The pill causes the user to relive their most traumatic memories. In Annie’s case, that means the road trip she took with her sister, Ellie, in which they had a nearly relationship-ending fight and got into a devastating accident. (Ellie maybe didn’t die as a result of the accident, since Annie tells her dad that she’s going to visit her, but it’s hard to say for sure.)

Told in an extensive flashback, this is one of the better sequences on Maniac so far, largely because of Julia Garner’s performance as Ellie. Garner, one of my favorite young actors working today, makes an instantly compelling younger sibling to Stone. Ellie is full of youthful insecurity about a big decision—in this case, moving to Salt Lake City to be with her fiancé—and the scenes she shares with Annie establish their relationship as something real and solid, in contrast to the comic absurdity of Owen’s family. When the two have their huge fight, partially prompted by Annie’s habit of taking disposable camera photos of her own armpit, it feels like an actual breaking point for the long-simmering tensions between two family members and is by far the best dialogue on the show so far. Annie takes advantage of Ellie’s insecurity and cruelly suggests that they would have grown apart anyway, perhaps as a way of prematurely getting over the loss. When they try to make up, a truck driving in the wrong lane smashes into them.

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There are, again, a ridiculous number of fun little details. When Annie visits her father, he’s living in some kind of cybernetic box in the backyard made by a brand called A-Void. (Not very subtle.) There’s a gun in the safe that the camera holds on for a moment, all but declaring that the manufacturer is named Chekhov. (Less subtle.) Annie’s reading material of choice is Don Quixote. (Dawg, come on.) Some of these things are great—but it feels like Maniac’s obsessive quality manifests in where to place little details fleshing out the world, rather than the content of what those details actually are.

I’m optimistic about the next episodes of Maniac, largely because everything that’s part of the trial feels much funnier and more interesting than the material outside of it. Besides a quick instructional video cameo from Justin Theroux as Dr. Mantleray, there’s the oddity of Dr. Muramoto reading to GRTA, the computer overseeing the data-collecting aspects of the study, and the related shots where the camera follows the knotted wires and electrodes from the computer and into the patients’ heads (again, Matrix-style). This episode is still way too long and shaggy, but there are enough moments of extreme competence from director Cary Fukunaga to get through it.

In particular, I’m thinking of the shot of Annie waking up in the motel bed on the road trip the morning after the fight, framed in such a way to heavily suggest that she’s going to roll over and discover Ellie has left. But Ellie is still there physically, if not emotionally. And her continued presence is what makes the accident possible. I’m hoping there will be more moments where Maniac plays on the expectations of where you think the show is going and suggest that, no, it’s not what you think—it’s worse.

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Stray observations

  • The goofiest scene in this episode follows Annie going to meet her friend Calvin, who has been supplying her the A and is the son of someone working at the pharmaceutical company. (Annie tells Calvin “I’m not a junkie. I’m a recreational drug user,” which is definitely not something an addict would say.) Calvin is, naturally, playing a robotic koala at chess in Washington Square Park. After winning the game, the koala crows that Calvin’s money is going “right into the eucalyptus fund.”
  • Garner’s fantasy elf voice is incredible, and demands its own animated comedy—it’s basically what Disenchantment should have been, in five seconds.
  • There’s a book in Owen’s apartment in the first episode by a Dr. Greta Mantleray. I think it’s safe to say that the GRTA computer is related to Greta, who is in turn related to Theroux’s character.
  • I didn’t know the episode was called “Windmills” when I watched it to write this, but Don Quixote still feels like a bit of a reference to the idea of Don Quixote so far. Maybe that will change!

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