Goofy Maniac is back, and it’s got some momentum. “Larger Structural Issues” starts to set up the likely endgame of the season—GRTA taking control of the study while the C pills induce even wackier reflections, as Owen and Annie are forced to actually confront their issues—and the necessary place-setting, which might have been frustrating on another show, works wonders here.
As has been the case for the whole season, much of what works in “Larger Structural Issues” comes from, if not Justin Theroux himself, then at least from everything in the study surrounding Annie and Owen. When GRTA demands to meet her “true self,” we get the moment that’s been teased all season: Dr. Mantleray having to call his mother. The way Theroux freaks out at the mere prospect of interacting with her is delightful, especially with Sonoya Mizuno presenting a mostly-together, collected foil. A few critics have likened Dr. Mantleray to John C. Reilly’s pantheon-level character Dr. Steve Brule, a comparison that makes even more sense given Theroux’s physicality in these scenes. He might not be doing something as remarkable as Reilly’s performance, but it’s still pretty great.
And blessedly, Sally Field finally shows up in the “real world,” as Dr. Greta Mantleray, an overwhelming presence who immediately threatens to steal the entire show. Dr. Greta awkwardly, intensely kisses her son on the mouth, then proceeds to pettily squabble with Dr. Fujita, who makes a point of noting that GRTA was drawn from Dr. Greta’s earlier, “more serious” academic work. Sally Field is just a wonder on this show, in the specificity of personality she gives Dr. Greta while also having very different ways of speaking to everyone she interacts with. (Literally everything Dr. Greta says to her live-in boyfriend-slash-sugar baby Julio is a dream, starting with “Gas up the Miata.”)
It’s hard not to draw a straight line from Dr. Greta’s force of personality to the tightly-wound, intense, insecure younger Dr. Mantleray. And even though Dr. Mantleray and Dr. Fujita are mostly condescending about Dr. Greta’s work, her read of the situation—that Annie and Owen are “soul mates”—is, at bottom, kind of what Maniac is asking us to accept about the two characters.
Annie and Owen’s dynamic is, essentially, reversed here. Now Annie is the one who believes in a deeper connection between the pair, while Owen is resolutely insisting that everything is totally normal. I’m not quite feeling whatever kind of chemistry I’m supposed to be seeing from Emma Stone and Jonah Hill here, but there’s a bit more to their interactions here, at least. She explains the Don Quixote connection: Ellie read it when she was younger, and their father used it as an excuse to talk about how intelligent she was. Owen, meanwhile, says that he wants a normal life, and briefly tries to leave the study. (Though he didn’t seem very happy at his job? Maybe the point is really that Owen doesn’t know what he wants.)
But when he does try to leave, awkwardly dressed in the suit he was wearing when he entered the lab, Owen has a very uncomfortable conversation with GRTA. He says he needs “real” medicine and to be hospitalized, which is honestly probably the most reasonable thing anyone has said on the show. Then, GRTA threatens to kill everyone else in the study—sorry, cure them—and the high stakes of the end of the season set in. Is it not enough to have Annie and Owen’s mental health, and Dr. Mantleray’s investment in the project, be the stakes? Does there really need to be the possibility of death? The idea of the depressed AI is as funny as it is old (has there been a Marvin The Paranoid Android reference yet?), but I’m not sure that’s a sufficient justification for the hologram of life-or-death stakes. The (unlikely) possibility that Annie or Owen will actually die is, as Dr. Mantleray puts it, “your brain lying to your mind.”
We’ve gotten a sense of some consequences of the trial through Dr. Fujita and Dr. Mantleray’s oblique references to “McMurphys,” which I suspect is a reference to One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. But until we know what’s actually going on, it’s harder to get invested in the possibilities. Instead, other, quieter moments in “Larger Structural Issues” present places to think harder about Maniac; especially the interviews with the other subjects that open the episode. These people have been minor characters so far, but it’s nice to learn a bit more about their pathologies and the ways they interact with the doctors. (Even when that takes the form of one of them saying, “I was just murdering people with a hammer, trying to find my dead father’s balls.”)
As they enter the C phase of the trial to become elves and stuff, Annie and Owen seem to be basically in the same place they were at the beginning of the seas, with only some slight deviations. (Annie is even back to her old tricks and defense mechanisms: Emma Stone delivers the line “I’ve never had a therapist that could figure me out” with panache, but it’s hard to take Annie the character seriously.) It’s too bad that she’s so reflexively opposed to the practice. As in the real world, what everyone in Maniac really needs is therapy.
- I’m not sure if this has been in earlier episodes, but we get a glimpse of a photo of Calvin on Dr. Muramoto’s desk, confirming that Annie’s friend is in fact the doctor’s son. (Also, the nature of GRTA and Dr. Muramoto’s romantic relationship raises some very weird questions for the real Dr. Greta, right?)
- The names of Greta’s books: See Her See You See We; Past Lives, Present Pain; I’m OK, You’re A Bitch.
- “How many of your subjects have ended up catatonic?” “Zero. Roughly.”
- I had the thought watching this episode that it is absolutely baffling to me that no one on the show has asked “How’s Annie?” yet. It’s going to happen later in the season, right?