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Maniac: Capitalism and its Discontents

In watching Maniac I continually found myself thinking that I enjoyed the frame more than the painting, that is, the world-building that the show engaged in—from the weird mix of a 1980s aesthetic with futuristic technology (about which I am tempted to coin a term in analogy with “steampunk”), to the idea of an “Ad Buddy,” or rent-a-friend—was something I found deeply fascinating. The scenes in the lab, featuring Doctors James Mantelray and Azumi Fujika, grabbed me way more than the putative substance of the series, which focused on what was happening with Annie and Owen.

I found myself enrapt by episode 3, for example, and then turned off as I continued to an episode 4 that focused on a reflection wherein versions of Owen and Annie set about stealing a lemur. It was fine, but I just kept finding myself caring way more about the project of the trials than anything else. I kind of wanted to see a show where they went to plan, even; though there was great humor in how things fell apart.

Hannah Searson’s review focused on the relationship between Annie and Owen that forms the heart of the series, and I recommend reading it. I love that the show didn’t force some kind of romantic thing between them, instead allowing their connection to maybe just be a friendship. There aren’t enough cultural products that just focus on the value of making a true friend.

Regardless, there were various aspects of the world that Maniac takes place in that got me thinking. Towards the beginning, the 80s aesthetic that I put in analogy with steampunk (and I should really come up with a term here—I could be famous!), along with the way that Owen’s fake brother appeared to him, the popcorn problems, etc., made me wonder if perhaps at the end of the day we were going to discover that this was all a simulation. It would seem not, but the way in which the nonexistent brother and the popcorn show up as we reach the climax of the series does potentially complicate the question.

Justin Theroux stars as Dr James K. Mantelray in Maniac

Further, the series opens with a monologue from Dr. Mantelray that hits on the possibility of many worlds, while it also appears that the B pill gives the subjects the experience of the same. Annie, for instance, tells Mantelray that although a couple of them stand out in her consciousness, she experienced any number of others that she struggles to recall. Could the pills actually be giving the subjects access to alternate realities, as opposed to just exploring their own minds? (It is perhaps worth noting here that it is noted that James Mantelray was born in 1977, which provides at least a fuzzy dating to the timeframe of the show.)

The technical details with regard to how things work remain pretty unclear. As much as I love watching Azumi work to separate waveforms with what amounts to an Atari joystick, the overlap between Owen and Annie’s reflections is at best explained by a fusing of circuits caused by GRTA’s sadness. The computer wept.

That’s fine, but there is a deeper question here about just what is going on. If the pills cause the subjects to explore something like the unconscious structures of their own minds, what role is the computer playing? At first, it seems like it should only be the role of a recorder, but it becomes clear that she has a far more active role in shaping these realities they experience, and that some level of this is to plan. That is, even if GRTA didn’t go off the rails, it seems like the design involved her shaping what was happening.

Jonah Hill as Owen Milgrim, starring at the computer face in Maniac

Azumi gave the computer empathy to create a safety net against subjects becoming “McMurphys” (which I assume is a reference to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), but what we see is that very emotionality leading GRTA to try and do the same. She—computer though she is—does not want to be alone.

This strikes me as the main theme of Maniac: it’s about the value of connection. Even the computer needs it, not just to other nodes in a network, but to other sentient beings, or maybe that is the same thing?

We learn that GRTA’s consciousness was modeled after that of James’ mother: Greta Mantelray. This is interesting in its own right, given the fraught relationship between the two, and the way in which James seems to fully reject his mother’s work. Azumi being responsible only really adds a wrinkle, as she mentions being taken by Greta’s earlier, more serious work; it is still the case that James would have been there to sign off on it at the beginning of the project.

There is great comedy in these scenes, as Sally Field’s Greta pushes back against the notion that her work has become pop psychology and so on, but also something deeper at play in the computer’s insistence to know herself.

Sally Field stars at Greta in Maniac

This is, of course, an age-old dictum, that we might pin to Socrates: know thyself. What, exactly, does that mean, though? Is there some stable self to be known? Do I have some kind of essence, which one might call a soul? Annie, Owen, the others in the trial, and presumably all human beings are in some sense striving to know themselves, striving to know who we are and where we are going in this ocean of chaos—to make sense of things.

Thus, GRTA’s insistence to literally know herself—to know the woman who served as the template for her mind—is actually another moment of comedy. To meet a copy of oneself is not to know oneself, and, indeed, such a copy would probably make the worst possible therapist.

The surrounding world continues this kind of critique. There is an absurdity to the pharmaceutical trial itself, which is only further emphasized by the moment near the end of the series when a guy who looks burnt and maybe bleeding enters the elevator with James and Azumi. “Remarkable work they’re doing up there.”

The human cost of what they are doing is consistently overlooked, even if James pulls a lever when GRTA has gotten out of control (to no effect), and seems genuinely relieved when the subjects are still alive. How many McMurphys were there before this? Clearly not enough to make them shut the whole thing down.

The push to “fix the mind” technologically—as laudable as that might be in spirit—is presented here as just as unfeasible as something like L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics. You just can’t do it like that.

And, thus, the world-frame becomes relevant again: the Ad Buddies, and the possibility of taking over a widower’s life, etc. Everything is commodified. You can rent a friend. The Ad Buddy seems like an on-the-nose knock on personalized internet ads, but gets at something about how our experience is thoroughly cut through by advertisements. What does that do to us?

Rent a friend, or a family. Isn’t this just a natural extension of the “gig economy” we already have? And the pharmaceutical company runs its trial without any real regard for human life…

This is capitalism—running in pursuit of profit at the expense of everything else; as though nothing else matters. Pursue the drug trial; commodify everything.

Maybe Mantelray and Fujita have a utopic vision; maybe they truly believe that they are doing something that could change the world for the better. The point is that it doesn’t matter—their intentions don’t matter—it’s the consequences that do.

And the same goes for everyone. As much as I wanted to see a version of the show where everything went to plan for James and Azumi, of course it didn’t. That’s not how life works. That’s not how the mind works. And as much as you might want to put it in that kind of box, or think you can figure it out with neuroscience or whatever, I think it will remain an enigma. The mind is not a puzzle to be solved so much as a problem to engage with perpetually.

Which is probably a good thing, given that there are also concerns about freedom tied up in all of this. If it were true that some course of treatment like what is being tested here worked, would this be a good thing? Whom would we be without our traumas and neuroses?

I’m not trying to play down mental illness at all, and I am certainly not trying to romanticize it, but I do think there is a question here as to how our “core traumas” define us. The project at the center of Maniac is perhaps not only questionable in its methodology, but in its very goal.

Azumi and James seem to think that if they could get things working properly they could “fix” everyone; there is even the suggestion that in overcoming their traumas, the subjects might be left in a state of joy. In contrast, take Sigmund Freud’s comparatively modest claim that the goal of psychoanalysis is to transform neurotic suffering into average everyday unhappiness.

On the other hand, Maniac takes elements endemic to the late capitalism in which we live and carries them a step further: the commodification of virtually everything, up to and including personal relationships; the alienation, or separation from others that is certainly exacerbated by the same, with even familial relations getting caught up in the web of success defined by profit; the potential paranoia about what’s real and what others think about you in an age that is perhaps defined by the tension between one’s identity on social media and one’s identity “in real life.”

Deleuze and Guattari insist that desire invests a social field directly—that is, that it is illegitimate to separate off some kind of private sphere when it comes to mental illness and the like. It’s not all about mommy and daddy; the whole world is implicated. And if that’s right, we should also push back against the way in which mental illness is often presented in the ads pharmaceutical companies put out and so on.

There is both an issue with the notion that mental illness can be magically fixed with a pill, and with the idea that it is simply a problem of the individual sufferer. Take a look at the world—would it really make sense to be well-adjusted to it? What kind of person would experience this reality we are living in and come to the conclusion that everything is just fine and dandy? And would we think such a person sane?

Again, this is not to valorize mental illness, or to romanticize it, or anything like that. It is to suggest merely that we recognize that the world plays an aetiological role here. Maniac puts a point on that, by presenting us with a world that ramps up elements of our own: pervasive advertisements, the dissemblance of the rent-a-friend, familial relations that seem more determined by business than love, the entitled rich white guy who expects to get away with sexually assaulting a woman because of his privilege, the pharmaceutical company with a clause in the contract that has subjects sign away ethics, and so on, and so on.

But, in light of all of this, the show finds hope in human connection: in a friendship that forms between two deeply flawed people as they try and navigate the world. It is important to me that it is not presented as romantic love. This isn’t the fantasy of finding a partner who will save you from yourself; it is about making a true friend—someone who is in your corner even when you are, or have, fucked up. This is not something to be taken for granted, particularly when there are all of these social forces that work to potentially alienate us from one another. When Annie arrives to Owen in the mental hospital at the end of the series, it is not at all to suggest that he doesn’t need help, or meds; it is to question his isolation in that place. She comes to him to say: you and me are in this together; you are not alone. And that is pretty powerful stuff.


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Written by Caemeron Crain

Caemeron Crain studies philosophy and is a writer and head of the TV department at 25YL. He is also one half of Drink Full and Descend, a podcast that started in relation to Twin Peaks, but has now moved beyond it, and has begun to explore Surrealism. He lives in Brooklyn and has a cat.

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