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Maniac's picture of the human mind becomes a bit too alien for comfort

Illustration for article titled iManiac/is picture of the human mind becomes a bit too alien for comfort
Image: Michele K. Short (Netflix)
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“Utangatta” follows in a long TV tradition of having the climactic action of a season happen in the penultimate episode. In the guise of the final reflection, a NATO summit where the assembled countries (including Russia, for some reason) debate what to do about a possible alien invasion, Owen risks everything to save Annie and Annie confronts GRTA to save herself. The Mantleray team back in the lab finally realizes how dangerous everything has gotten, and takes steps to shut down the rogue AI for good. When Owen and Annie wake up at the end of the episode, it seems like the wackiness is, for the most part, over. The rest is resolution.

But is it? And if it is, what actually happened? There are, as always, fun and well-done particular elements of the episode. I’m sure lots of people will find Jonah Hill’s performance as the dumb, good-natured Snorri annoying, but I liked it a lot—the jokes may be broad, but at least they’re jokes. (“You are very good at gun!” is a dumb, dumb line, but it works because it knows how dumb it is, and Hill fully commits to his squeaking, incomprehensible accent.) And the sight gag of the puppet representing Ernie the alien reaching out to tentatively grab the microphone and deliver a speech, only to explode as the result of electrocution from Snorri’s gimlet spilling on the amplifier, is very funny. But mostly, the better part of these sequences remind me of Danger 5, a much weirder, more assured, and more joyful play on this set of conventions. (Especially the dance scene where everyone is celebrating Ernie.)

By the end of “Utangatta”—named for a word or phrase in Icelandic that reportedly means, roughly, “off target”—a ton of stuff has happened. In the guise of a spy, Annie kills most of the people at the summit, then removes a transmitter (a kernel of popcorn) from Owen’s knee, which as the effect of alerting him to the true nature of the reflection. They discover, with some help from Grimsson (here an Icelandic admiral who is also Annie’s handler), that the McMurphys are people who have been trapped in the simulation, used as, essentially, NPCs for GRTA’s jaunts into the other reflections. Then, simultaneously, Annie finds GRTA, while Owen does a Rubik’s Cube composed entirely of identical steel boxes—there’s no way to know if he’s actually solved it or not—which has some unexplained, maybe important effect. Does any of this make sense? No. Is it fun? Sort of!


Having made it through this episode, I think I’m less sure of what Maniac is about than at any point during the series so far. A lot of things happen that feel like they needed to be set up better, like there’s something missing from the earlier episodes. Even when Dr. Fujita confronts Dr. Greta, throwing herself at the younger Dr. Mantleray in the process, it feels more like the natural extension of the characters’ beginnings than it does something earned by the actual scenes from the show. (It’s especially frustrating that Dr. Fujita, one of the coolest and most theoretically interesting characters, is reduced to the person guiding Dr. Mantleray’s hand toward the wires they need to cut to complete the 2001 homage and deactivate GRTA.) Even when Dr. Mantleray experiences psychosomatic blindness and shrieks loudly, it just comes across as the show losing the plut. Justin Theroux shouting “I’ve been blinded by my mother’s toxic love”should be gut-busting; instead it’s just a snicker.

All of these references would be funny, if it felt like Maniac was deploying them in the interest of parody, or of saying something about their goofiness. There have been points during the show where I thought that’s what was happening. But I don’t think so.

The closest “Utangatta” comes to real pathos and a real sense of culmination for the season is in Annie’s final conversations with GRTA and Ellie. When Annie says that she doesn’t want to pretend Ellie didn’t die, it’s the first time she’s actually admitting that she’d been lying about it, something that wasn’t necessarily clear from earlier in the season. When she tells GRTA “You’re always gonna feel this way. You’re just going to have to figure out how to adjust around it” as a way of helping the AI get over her dead lover, she’s baldly stating the “lesson” of this plot, without much to explain how she came to the conclusion—and Emma Stone’s performance makes it work through sheer force of will. Putting aside the fact that this doesn’t really feel like dialogue Annie would say (it feels much more believable when Annie tells Ellie she was drunk at the funeral), this is pretty basic stuff that these characters could have learned in therapy! Did Annie really need to go through the trauma of this trial when she could have just talked to a picture of her sister for a while?


This, I think, is one of the more fundamental problems with Maniac: The show wants to say something about mental health and how people process trauma and grieve, but it’s unclear what, exactly, that something is. Grimsson tells Owen he’s the brother he wishes he had, which, what? This is supposed to be the equivalent of Annie accepting her sister’s death, but the very strained reading that supports this would essentially argue that Grimsson existed as a family member who would help give Owen purpose rather than as a manifestation of schizophrenia or whatever other condition he’s supposed to have, which does not fly.

Lots of “Utangatta” is fun, but it’s also mostly the sorts of chaotic and climactic twists that are supposed to happen in this kind of TV show rather than things that happen because they come organically or artistically from anything else that’s happened, or something that stems from a broader purpose in regards to mental health. “Sometimes people leave and we don’t know why” is a fundamental truth that’s worth trying to express in art, but just trying to express that truth while cloaking it in smoke and mirrors isn’t nearly enough.


Stray observations:

  • One of the orderlies gruffly mutters to another, “Took that man two whole days to blow this motherfucker up.”
  • Going to reiterate how much I enjoy Jonah Hill saying “You are very good at gun!” I’m actually not sure Maniac thinks about itself as a comedy now? Which is too bad, because the slimmer episodes trying to mostly do comedy are by far the best episodes of the show.
  • The realization of the true nature of the reflection comes in the form of nosebleeds, which leads to one decent joke that seems to reference the anime trope of boys getting nosebleeds when they’re horny. (Though, if that’s the point of the joke, then the idea is that Grimsson wants to make his fictional brother horny? I guess?)

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