Netlix’s Maniac: A Psychological Masterpiece
If you were to take a picture of Jonah Hill today, tomorrow it would be outdated. This isn’t just a comment on his weight loss, but on his unparalleled versatility that has been constantly evolving throughout his oeuvre. The Wolf of Wallstreet marked the beginning of his transformation from his humorous roles in the likes of Superbad and 21 Jump Street to critically acclaimed ones. Jonah Hill’s newly released film, Mid90s, was greeted with a wave of praise. For me, however, what truly cemented Jonah Hill as one of the most versatile actors working today was his role in Netflix’s Maniac.
Directed by acclaimed True Detective director Cary Fukunaga, Maniac is a limited series on Netflix that centers on the psychological turmoil that is at play for main characters Annie and Owen. Both characters enlist into a pharmaceutical test trial for a new medication that hopes to cure a variety of mental ailments. The medication itself is 3 pills, each inducing the patients into a dream state, each having their own purpose. The trial consists of the A pill, which stands for Agonia, a Greek word for struggle; the B pill, Behavior; and the C pill, which stands for confrontation. What ensues are two storylines structured around the subconscious projections that each pill conjures and the company who administers the trial. Behind the lustrous visuals and kaleidoscopic characters lies a profound statement on trauma and the steps we must take to overcome it.
The A pill is introduced to the audience before the pharmaceutical trial even takes place via Annie’s addiction. It is this addiction that leads Annie to take part in the trial, hoping to receiving a new supply after her dealer runs out. With the A pill, users go back to what is considered their most traumatic episode. With each time that Annie takes the A pill, she goes back to the car crash her sister was killed in that Annie survives. This ordeal took place during a vacation in which the two sisters had been arguing for its entirety. The irony is that Annie only stops at the A pill, when the medication is supposed to span all 3 pills. It may seem confusing to many as to why Annie would be so adamant about going back to relive the memory, but in truth it forms an elaborate metaphor for our own tendency to obsess over past traumatic events. People are quick to dwell on past events when they feel that they are responsible, leaving them in a moral constriction. They are pinned down by the guilt they feel because of their actions and feel that the punishment for their past decisions are to never forget or move on from these events, a move they would consider to be selfish. Annie’s main arc and struggle, or rather her “Agonia”, revolves around her inability to forgive herself for her past actions and her unwillingness to move on.
The hallucinations induced by B pills are a study in Freudian theory. The behavioral pill focuses on the diminsihment of our defense mechanism so that we can begin to address our inner issues. Maniac writer Patrick Somerville perfectly summarized the pills intention. “The B pill is meant to expose to people the ways in which they lie to themselves. I think to get honest looks at those kinds of things, people have to face ugly versions of themselves or face behaviors that they are capable of.” What separated Maniac to other psycho-dramas for me was its dedication to replicating the lives of the main characters and the aspects of their lives that are most salient. Maniac uses character who were featured in real life in the hallucination, and they often fill the same role in the hallucination as they take in real life. Think of how in The Wizard of Oz the “tin man”, the witch and a variety of other characters all had real life counter parts. Through these parallels, we are able to see the values of the characters and the means in which they deal with these issues. Sigmund Freud constantly remarked upon subconscious manifestation into our daily life. Maniac furthers this study by flipping this motion, studying how our conscious situation appears and effects our subconscious.
With the C pill, confrontation, test patients took their final step to overcome their trauma. However, as the name implies, this would serve as the most difficult step. This portion of the show raises its own questions, primarily regarding whether we can place full responsibility on medication to cure our ailments. Maniac tells us that we, ourselves, must undertake the most difficult aspects of overcoming trauma. Medicine should function as an enabler to change, but not the sole proponent of it. Each character is required to go out and confront their own inner issues. The consequences of refusing to acknowledge it may leave us in an emotional state of limbo, a state that we can never return from, and a state that no amount of pills can bring us back from.
The philosophical and psychological questions brought up by Maniac are not the only enjoyable aspect of it. Disregarding these quandaries, Maniac is still a show that features absurdly entertaining plot lines, admirable characters, witty dialogue and the ability to truly capture its audience. We all watch movies and tv shows for different reasons. Maniac not only features all these reasons, but perfects them.