“That was just your brain lying to your mind, and your mind was listening.”
On September 21, 2018, Netflix released its highly anticipated miniseries, ‘Maniac‘. It is an American adaptation, or more of an interpretation, of the Norwegian show with the same name. The miniseries attracts a serious early buzz from viewers since it promises to reunite Emma Stone and Jonah Hill on screen for the first time since 2007’s breakout comedy, Superbad. In addition to that, this dark comedy is helmed by the brilliant Emmy-winning director Cary Fukunaga of True Detective fame and The Leftovers writer, Patrick Somerville. With its impressive line up of cast and crew, casual viewers were already counting the days before the show had even had a release date. However, what excites television lovers most is its subject matter.
Maniac tells the story of Annie (Emma Stone delivering a career-best performance) and Owen (Jonah Hill in an Emmy-baiting role) who are both struggling with their mental state and decide to enter a pharmaceutical trial called ‘ULP’. Of course, this is no ordinary drug test. It requires our two leads, along with other patients, to undergo several experiments that play out like an extended colorful sequence of the movie Inception. These patients enter a dream state powered and monitored by an artificial intelligence in the form of a super computer named GRTA. Each dream differs from one another, depending on which pill they have to swallow before being put to sleep. There are three pills involved, each in the alphabetical shape of A, B, and C. The A pill triggers the function of ‘agonia’ (the Greek word of struggle) identification, the B pill triggers the ‘behavioral’ experiment of the mind, and the C pill triggers the state of ‘confrontation’.
While viewers may take away the commentary thought on connection, Maniac really puts its mark when it discusses the effect of the B pill. During the behavioral dream sequences, viewers could see how Annie and Owen would behave if their realities had been altered. The alternate realities inside their dreams are based on a reimagining of their real lives, dubbed as ‘reflections.’ Speaking to dr. James K. Mantleray, played with a Supporting Actor Emmy in mind by Justin Theroux, as part of her post-B pill examination, Annie explains,
“In one I was Linda from Long Island. She was a nurse and a mother and a wife, which is the opposite of anything I ever wanted. And then I was Arlie, she was a thief and a con artist. Arlie is like my mother. She could charm anyone, she would make deals with people. She would say things to me like, “This is just between you and me, Annie. You’re the only one who understands.” That’s how she would get you. And then she knew that you gave a shit, and so your guard was down and she would gut you.”
From her own words, we could identify how much hatred Annie has for her mother. Inside her mind, she is afraid that she would behave the same way as her mother and is disturbed by the very idea that she could have done the same to her sister if she were still alive today.
The C pill dream state also offers the idea of how far our minds could go to find real life closure if we use the dreams as a tool to confront. For instance, Owen has problems with his older brother, Jed, and keeps having this visual hallucination of him in real life. This hallucinated version of Jed does not behave in the same way as the real one does. In Owen’s dream sequences during the C pill trial, he is able to put several altercations to his brother Jed within the same dream state. As a result, we get to see how Owen is around the real Jed when he’s a douchebag and when Jed is a hallucination that Owen’s mind creates. The hallucinated version of Jed comforts and helps Owen in an end-of-the-world dream sequence, which triggers him to question who this manifestation is. As an extension of Owen’s buried-in-deep thoughts, ‘Jed’ explains,
“You always thought of me as the brother you wish you had, right? Maybe I’m that. Or maybe my purpose was just to get you to this moment.”
That moment is confrontation. That moment is Owen’s ideal narrative playing out in his dream. To call it a fantasy would simply be wrong. Yes, the visual setup is fiction, but the moment is constructed based on his real life experience. It is based on the fact that he needs to address the relationship he has with his brother, not to mention family in another dream sequence where Owen dresses like Post Malone, and what comes of it. While the C pill medically helps, it’s the initial dependency on dreaming that creates this reality-bending manifestation of what his mind wants to figure out. He needs to hide in them to create some sort of guidance on how to confront the real life situations.
Let’s think about this idea for a second.
Dream states drive the consequential narrative of identifying what is real and what is not, which is something that us human beings often contemplate about. Imagine going to sleep and theoretically knowing that you are about to enter an unrealistic realm. Once we close our eyes and go to sleep, we expect a happier escapism in the form of dream sequences. Often times, these sequences are what keeps our eyelids so glued to the face and never wanting to wake up early. It gives us a sense of calm as we rest our heads from reality. But how much does it differ from real life? How many times do we experience a dream that depicts our daily routine, but with a twist? This twist may actually come in an exaggerated version of the reality that our brain develops. It exploits our memory and turns it into a gigantic ball of presumption. For example, when teenagers have a wet dream about someone who has constantly been on their minds and or call logs. Yes, it may be biologically different and yes, some might think that this subject is taboo. However, it is a universal example of a dream in which we often take as a sign that we might actually have a chance to develop a romantic relationship with whoever’s on that dream. That dream drives the very narrative of our upcoming thoughts and actions once we wake up. It makes our brain argues whether it is pursuable in real life or not. Thus, the dream itself becomes intertwined with our reality.
What Maniac implicitly teaches us is that we often don’t realize how powerful a dream can be in helping us journey through real life. Dreams are what drive Annie and Owen to confront their mental illness and the underlying burden that comes with it. They even confront the issue of them being entangled in each other’s dreams. We see them realizing that the potential connection within their dreams may actually be developed in real life. While Owen is hesitant at first, he finally agrees with Annie that they need each other as a helping hand. They may be mentally ill, but they have each other to help navigate reality. A reality shaped and influenced by what their brain makes them think during those dream states, just like ours. We go to sleep, we wake up, and we contemplate on what could have been or what could be based on the thoughts that our brain manifests as dreams during sleeping hours. And just like that, we are all maniacs in real life.