Image: Michele K. Short (Netflix)

At one point during their attempted heist, Ollie—Owen’s incarnation in the 1940s setting of “Exactly Like You”—turns to Annie’s incarnation, Arlie. He asks her, “Do you ever think your condition is a lot simpler than you think?” He’s asking about their relationship: In this world the two were married, then separated, and though we’re led to believe Arlie is the one with the power to perpetually betray Ollie, Ollie tries to suggest it might be the other way around. But he might as well be asking about Maniac as a whole.

Five episodes in, I think I’ve gotten a clearer handle on what, exactly, has been giving me pause about Maniac. The specificity of the production design, and the level of thought that has gone into a hundred small cool details, is really genuinely impressive. For example: “Exactly Like You” is named after the song playing at the end of “Furs By Sebastian,” on the radio at the beginning of this episode, and again during a climactic dance sequence. (Arlie and Ollie describe it as “their song.”) The layers of betrayal are well-done, along with the brief glimpses of surreality during the extended séance that makes up the bulk of the episode, especially the brief glimpse of two people having sex in a random room of the mansion. Bobby, Ollie’s driver and partner in crime, is played by the actor who plays the Ad Buddy in the first episode. And the lost chapter of Don Quixote, the object of everyone’s thievery, appears to be a tiny little booklet, which Ollie dryly explains by saying, “People were a lot smaller back then.”

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So much thought has gone into each of these small moments that it feels even more frustrating that seemingly no thought—or, at least, far less—has gone into the bigger picture of what these moments are servicing, and why. In particular, it turns out that during the B pill trial, Annie and Owen keep somehow “finding each other,” which, visually speaking, takes the form of their brainwaves coming together on Dr. Fujita’s computer. This kind of hand-waving sentimentality in the genre context of two people just “coming together” for some reason really needs to be earned, and thus far Owen and Annie, though both exceedingly well-acted, don’t feel nearly full enough as characters to justify it, especially when most of the show’s energy appears to be going into these small, specific details.

Density is a cool thing to have in a piece of entertainment, but it’s only good or valuable as a matter of taste. (If you think that sheer density is enough to make something a quality work of art, I’m sorry!) These moments are exceedingly well-thrown spaghetti, but they still feel like spaghetti nonetheless. (Yes, I know this is the opposite of what I said I was going to do after episode four, but this is how the episode struck me! It just feels a lot clearer now what I think is happening.) That’s too bad, because there’s a lot of other interesting stuff going on in “Exactly Like You.”

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In a sort of parallel to Ellie’s early appearance, we see Olivia, the girl at the center of Owen’s first psychotic episode, for the first time. In case you forgot: Owen was seized by the delusion that Olivia had been paid by his parents to be his friend, and later to marry him and have seven children. She appears much younger than Owen and Annie, largely because her role in the episode is mostly to ask Ollie to teach her how to grift. Unfortunately, like any good noir grifter, Ollie works alone.

Arlie, meanwhile, double-crosses Ollie in order to get ahold of the lost chapter of Don Quixote. Though we don’t hear much about her subjectivity as a “character,” we do get a very intense scene between Annie and Dr. Mantleray, once Annie has been fully awakened from the effects of the pill. Emma Stone’s performance in this episode is fantastic, largely because it feels like she got her hands on a treasure chest full of fun period props. The exuberance of the ’40s material is even more deeply felt in contrast to this scene with Dr. Mantleray, who awkwardly attempts to express his condolences about Ellie’s now-confirmed death and diagnoses Annie with border personality disorder (making a repeat TV appearance after its guest stint on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend). 

The Full Moon Séance itself is a lot of fun, if slightly thinner than I’d like it to be. Your enjoyment of “Exactly Like You” will depend largely on your interest in moments like Ollie saying “Why don’t we lay our cards on the table?” while slamming a deck of cards on the table—a moment that is, bizarrely, played totally straight, even though Arlie tells Ollie that he has to pay up for a bad joke. At the very least, Sally Field is finally fully introduced as Greta—or, in this case, GRTA, inserting herself into the B pill experience. Apparently GRTA is going to be a villain going forward, which we largely can tell because of the ominous, heavy-handed music playing under her first appearance. She also has a zombified version of Dr. Muramoto with her, wearing a primitive football helmet and a bunch of electrical wires, and makes him dance to “Exactly Like You” with Arlie and Ollie in a sequence that is fun, but aggressively calls to mind the “Puttin’ On The Ritz” sequence from Young Frankenstein. What could compare positively to that?

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Back in the “real world,” Annie learns that the last two episodes have been what Dr. Mantleray calls “reflections,” dream-like experiences that represent potential lives and other selves. Though Annie has apparently experienced hundreds of these reflections, these two are the ones she remembers the best. (Also, the doctors somehow are able to “see” everything that happened, to the point where Dr. Mantleray knows about the lemur.) The best thorough-line of Maniac’s treatment of Annie and Owen’s issues to date comes during this interview, when Dr. Mantleray tries to interrogate the extent to which Annie’s defense mechanisms have fallen. It seems that they have, to some degree—she admits to herself how depressed she is, and how much her behavior has been shaped by her’s and Ellie’s childhood.

It’s not that I need to know what’s actually “happening” on Maniac to enjoy it. For example: the strange sequences of Arlie appearing in the “real world” and wandering around the facility before zapping back into the reflection are really great, lyrical and abstract enough to conjure the collection of feelings that Maniac feels like it’s trying to interrogate without actually understanding, at least some of the time. (Related: I totally misinterpreted Linda and Bruce’s conversation in the last episode; Annie is clearly re-experiencing her mother leaving, which seems to have actually happened. Her lying was an attempt to create a facade of normality during the reflection.) It’s more that, even while I’m enjoying a lot of the trees that are part of the Maniac forest, I don’t like feeling like Ollie—like I’m constantly being double-crossed.

Stray observations:

  • Justin Theroux continues to be the Maniac MVP: “Azumi, we’ve shared intimacies. You don’t have to call me sir.”
  • But Sonoya Mizuno gives him a run for his money, especially with her ridiculous delivery of the line, “I think our computer is... horribly depressed.”
  • During a tarot reading, Arlie is told: “Sudden change and destruction will lead to your liberation.” Relatable.

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