Maniac, Cary Fukunaga's mysterious new Netflix show, is about connections. Connections between two strangers. Connections between the illusion of happiness and actual happiness. Connections between science and nature. The Netflix series has existed in a pretty enigmatic space leading up to its premiere on September 21. We knew that the show reunited Jonah Hill (as Owen Milgrim) and Emma Stone (as Annie Lansberg) or the first time since Superbad, we knew that, unlike Superbad, it's not a comedy — at all —, and we also knew Justin Theroux (as Dr. James Mantleray) would be playing a mad scientist in aviator frames. It would be Black Mirror-meets-The Leftovers, with touch of The OA's trippiness.
But what does it all mean? Refinery29's Binge Club will break it all down for you here with our recaps of each episode. It's been one of the most highly-anticipated shows of the year, and it does not disappoint. Watch along with us! Read with us. Theorise with us. Let's form a connection.
Episode 1: "Infinite Cosmic Orgasm"
The universe. The Big Bang. An “infinite cosmic orgasm.” That's how we all ended up on this planet, and that is exactly where Maniac starts its story. The Big Bang gave us life, and life gave us connections. And these connections are what fuel the story of our "hero," Owen Milgrim, and his trusted contact, Annie Landsberg. None of this makes sense yet because it's only episode 1. But let's have a little faith in the show that's put Cary Fukunaga, Stone, and Hill all in one place.
Meet Annie Landsberg. Annie just wants a pack of cigarettes, a black coffee, and to be left alone. For the duration of the first episode, Annie is an enigma. She's clearly angry, or maybe depressed, but her motivations are unclear. She depends on the combination of Ad Buddys (are these like food stamps?), and volunteer medical trials to make money. With her oversized trench coat, and bright blue shirt and piercing green eyes, she might have seemed approachable if it weren't for the scowl on her face. She's seen some shit. But what? Later in the episode, when she's in the lobby of the pharmaceutical building, she seems upset — distraught even. Has an experiment already gone horribly wrong for her?
Now, meet Owen Milgrim. Owen's life is dull. He's prepping to testify in a trial on behalf of his brother, who, it appears, is in some high-level legal trouble. Owen's sanity is called into question in the boardroom prep for the real-life courtroom testimony, which is when we learn about his mental health history. Ten years ago, Owen had a psychotic break. He was hospitalised and medicated, and started experiencing illusions. While in the room with his family's lawyers, he is asked, point-blank: "Owen do you know what is real?"
"100 percent," he says.
In the next scene, that promise is proven to be untrue. “You thought you were rid of me, but I have new information," a glasses-wearing man, visible to only Owen, tells him at a public park. "This time I know. You’ve been chosen to save the world. You’re going to be a hero.” From this conversation, the first of two this episode, it's clear that Owen has been sent on various "missions" throughout the years, and that they have not ended well. The wording of "this time" feels ominous.
For this mission, Owen is to look for a female agent, who will give him the information he needs. "A pattern is a pattern," the man tells him, before POOF — he's gone. After the conversation, we witness the first of Owen's breakdowns, if we should call them that. They coordinate with his stress levels — as he gets stressed out, his world begins to literally shake. Random popcorn kernels start to pop in front of him. It's a mini-earthquake in his mind, playing out in front of him.
With his new mission on his mind, Owen goes back to work only to find out he is fired. He doesn't seem to care. On the way home, he listens to a tape that a some sort-of therapist has made for him. "The voices aren’t real," it says. "The voices are just noise. I am just a guy with a vivid imagination." He doesn't take his pills, and instead answers a mysterious phone call from a woman who informs him that he is a prime "hero" candidate for a study going on at Neberdine Pharmaceutical Biotech. The word "hero" sparks something in him — he's been waiting for a sign like this.
That evening, Owen visits his wealthy Succession-like family for a bougie, heartless dinner. His brothers, which include Jed (Billy Magnussen), are too loud, too obnoxious, too entitled, and too preppy. He exists in the shadows of their world, partly by his own doing, and partly by the voice in his head's doing. Speaking of the voice, we realise here that the voice in his head is Jed, but a different hallucinogenic version of him. Let's call him Voice Jed, versus Real Jed. We meet Voice Jed before we meet Real Jed, which may cause you, like it did me, to do a double-take because of their varying appearance. Voice Jed exists to send Owen on missions. Missions for what? Unclear. For who? Also unclear. With what intention? Well, that's easy: To save the world. Owen is, in his head, a hero. A hero waiting for direction from the voice in his head. Owen is an extremely unreliable narrator, which makes this show unpredictable, and already a bit frustrating. Is the random woman calling him from his tiny, sad, and futuristic apartment a real person? Is his boss? Is the random man on the subway talking to him about his rent?
Speaking of rent, Owen has to figure out his money situation now that he has been fired. His father offers to support him (they have the money), but he denies him. Instead, he tells his father he will become a Temporary Volunteer Husband. He'll get rid of his lease, and bounce from widow to widow. In this conversation, we also learn that Jed is the brother who is about to be put on trial. And the reason why will not shock you: He is being accused of some sort of sexual harassment or assault. His father calls the woman an "opportunist." Owen begrudgingly agrees to change his testimony to lie for his brother. Clearly, though, something weird happened, and only Owen knows the truth.
So, about that trial — Owen visits NBP the next day to see what he qualifies for. He's put through a series of tests and is hooked up to machines. The woman testing him seems impressed by his blank stares, and compliments his "good defense mechanisms." It's a high risk test, but in the lobby, he spots Annie and knows he is meant to be there. He's been seeing "Annie" all over town — in ads, on bus signs — and, as Voice Jed informs him in the lobby, she is the contact. She will help him complete his mission. “A pattern is a pattern," Voice Jed tells him. "A pattern got you here. Trust the pattern.” Owen trusts the voices and makes contact, literally, by poking her, moments after first asking her if she's a widow (still confused about how his widow job and this trial payday coincide). She tells him to basically fuck off, and scoots away from him. But Owen's convinced. Once they reach their pod and meet the completely whack-a-doodle team of scientists in charge of them, he approaches her again. "You’re my contact. What are my instructions,” he begs. She suddenly breaks out of her steely glare, and whispers, intensely: “Yes, you’re going to save the world. But not if you blow our cover.”
The Biggest Connection:
When Owen met Annie for the first time. Or, for what we believe is the first time.
Episode 2: “Windmills”
Annie is consumed with a pill. A tiny pill in the shape of a letter “A.” Sitting in her apartment, somewhere in Chinatown in Maniac’s parallel universe New York, she crushes and snorts the pill — her last one. She curses at it before she snorts it, telling it “Fuck you” before surrendering to its power on her dirty couch. A significant amount of time passes, and friends, roommates, move in and out of the apartment, but she stays in a comatose state. She finally wakes up with one lone tear streaming down her cheek. It’s a powerful drug. But what the fuck is it? Is this what they’re testing at NPB?
“Fuck you” she says once again to the empty pill bottle, chucking it in the trash. She sits on her bed, and starts sketching in a notebook, and then moves over to her computer to print out a “missing” poster, featuring said drawing, for a dog named “Groucho.”
This is Annie’s backstory. Or rather, the condensed backstory leading up to her connection with Owen. She’s an unemployed young adult looking for a few short cuts. She meets up with an Ad Buddy, which is someone akin to a hirable assistant (Update: a commenter pointed out an even better explanation for Ad Buddys : the "ad" stands for advertisement. You can agree to listen to their advertisements in exchange for cash. It's a quick payout, hence Owen nabbing on to pay for her subway ride home when his card wouldn't work.) In the Maniac world, there are lot of hirable people to fill voids of loneliness. There’s the job Owen mentioned in episode 1, where single men become stand-ins for widows, and, as we find later in the episode, there are also Friend Proxies. It’s TaskRabbit for instant connections. Annie asks her high-pitched Ad Buddy if she could bring her to Salt Lake City (and help pay for it) so that she can visit her little sister.
She agrees somewhat reluctantly. Annie’s really into her pitch, and leaves to pack her things for the trip. “I am healthy Annie now,” she tells herself in her room, where she commits herself to finally read Don Quixote. “And healthy people read books and travel and exercise and take care of their minds.” Healthy Annie’s only been healthy for about 2 hours, and it won’t last long.
Before her trip, Annie stops by to see her dad who lives in a pod in the backyard of his house outside of NYC. The pod is a mash-up between a futuristic coffin and a mini-submarine — never see his face, and only hear his voice through the machine’s filter which makes him sound like R2D2. She tells her dad she’s going to see her sister in Salt Lake City, and requests some funds. He gives her the code for the family safe and she takes a pile of money in it. She also eyes a handgun. She definitely take it, and we’ll see it again — it’s just the rules. I want to like Annie, but she’s sus. And she only gets more sus.
At the bus terminal, Annie looks up and instead of reading the time for her bus’ departure, all she sees are rolling numbers until they configure to spell out “A,” the letter of the drug she is addicted to. “Fuck you!” she screams, before ditching her whole Salt Lake City plan to hang out with her chess-playing friend and tepid drug dealer, a fellow “not a junkie, a recreational drug user.” He questions why she’s so addicted to the drug, but tells her where to score it: NPB. He warns, though, that the place has gotten a “lot more secretive since the suicides.” He gives her a contact, Patricia Lugo, who may be able to help Annie into a study so she can score some “A.” Annie decides that she wants to blackmail Patricia into helping her, but then reroutes her plan and decides to pose as a Friend Proxy to convince her to help her. They meet in a bonsai room at a greenhouse, and Patricia clearly has her own issues, too, stemming from her gambling addiction which resulted in her losing her daughter.
“I have real friends,” Patricia tells Annie. “This is just more convenient.”
Annie shares the story of how she got addicted to drugs to appeal to Patricia’s maternal side. Annie has a boulder rock in the pit of her stomach over a big, unfixable, fight she had with her sister.
“It is the only thing that makes me feel good,” she says, talking about the drug.
It sounds like way more than just a fight (did she die?), but it’s enough to convince Patricia. She’s in. Almost. At NBP, Annie’s put through the same questioning as Owen, including the baffling final question which is really just an empty prompt, with no real question ever being asked. It becomes a stare off, and Annie fails it. She is livid that her defence mechanisms are not up to par for the test, and threatens to kidnap Patricia’s daughter if she doesn’t get into this trial to get “A,” claiming that she isn’t “crazy,” just “goal-oriented.” Patricia’s spooked, but steals an ID badge for Annie to let her into the study, and get her off her back.
Enter Owen. We’re finally where episode 1 ended. We see Owen spot Annie across the room, but we never see him confront her from Annie’s perspective. Did it really happen? Or are we just skipping it narratively because we already know it happened? With more questions rising, at least a few crucial questions have been answered: We finally learn about the trial and drugs the group of 11 subjects, including Annie and Owen, will be testing. We also finally meet Dr. Mantleray in the wacky introduction video. The subjects will be given a first round of pills, and with the help of the sultry-voiced Her smart computer, GRTA, an individualised batch of the two other pills will be produced. The goal of the pills is to give the participant a joyful and conflict free-life. “You will ever be the same again!” the video promises. Ominous. Let’s break down the process as we know it:
First is the “identify” step, with pill A, aka Agonia which is Greek for “a state of agony.” It’s fitting because this pill (the one that Annie is addicted to) seeks out core trauma and key terrible moments from your life and makes you relive them... Don’t worry — it’s safe, promises Dr. Muramoto (he is one of the other three doctors in charge, and the messiest. We saw him passed out from smoking crack at his desk in ep. 1, and in ep. 2 he flirts and fondles the buttons of GRTA). What GRTA learns from what’s uncovered in pill A is used to create outline for pills B and C. Next is pill B, which stands for Behavioural. This pill maps out and identifies all the self-defense mechanisms that your mind creates to hide yourself from you. With those barriers down, you’re reading for the third and final pill, pill C, aka Confrontation. This elusive step is the “end of the rainbow.” Once the doctors have identified your core traumas and identified your issues, GRTA will create a custom solution pill to better your life.
Got it? Good.
Annie is practically crawling out of her skin while waiting to consume pill A. Owen approaches her in line, while they’re waiting to enter the testing space, and quickly whispers how grateful he is that she is around — she can prove that he is not crazy. He is a hero, and together they will save the world. Annie nods and gives a fake smile. But does Annie really know what Owen’s talking about? No. She is just playing along while she waits to get her “A” fix, and it’s finally about to happen. The odd numbers — Annie is 9 and Owen is 1 — are each assigned dental chair in the room down the hall from where their pods are stationed (they’re also given a vest to repel radiation — a red flag). Dr. Fujita (Sonoya Mizuno) stands on the other side of the glass, with her killer banged bob, warning the other scientists that there will be “NO MORE MISTAKES.” She must be referencing the suicides we heard about earlier. She instructs the participants to take their first pill. The room is set of a moody blue (that must come into play later based on the promo images. Maybe the colours provoke a certain type of hallucination.)
And we’re off inside Annie’s head.
We’re experiencing one of Annie’s most traumatic memory. She’s a little bit younger, and on a road trip with her little sister, Ellie (Julia Garner). They’re driving in her cherry red Jeep, taking weird photos on a disposable camera. She is silly, light-hearted, and in control. She teases her little sister constantly (these are small, but painful moments she regrets being mean to her). Her sister opens up about the crossroads she is facing: She plans to move to Salt Lake City with her fiancée because it will make her happy, and she sees a life for herself there. Instead of being supportive, Annie grinds into her sister. She smiles as she tells her that she can’t wait to stop pretending like they are close sisters. She’s ready for them to grow apart, and move on. The next morning, when the sisters are back in the car, they get into a fatal car accident. It’s a brutal crash — Annie is thrown from the car and winds up bloody on a rock, while her sister remained trapped, and died. This is Annie’s trauma: She blames herself for her sister’s horrible death.
That’s why she’s addicted to the drug. Not because of how it makes her feel, but because of what it makes her remember. It resurfaces her most painful memory, but that means she gets to see her sister again. Even just one more time.
The Biggest Connection: When we see the sisterly bond between Annie and Ellie, which is tragically cut-off, until pill A reunites them.
Episode 3: “Having A Day”
“It was fucking unethical,” one patient sobs after being taken out of the pill A-induced trauma trance. One of the medical professionals (if we can call them that) quickly reminds her that they — the patients — waived all of their rights on their consent form.
Annie still rattled by seeing his sister’s death again, and Owen looks weirdly content. Dr. Fujita, lit cigarette in hand, asks if the team of scientists, observing this emotional reawakening, is “liking what we’re seeing on the neuromatricies.” The model of neuromatricies follows the idea that pain isn’t produced by physical injury, like torn muscle tissue or a broken bone, but instead pain is a product of the brain, spinal cord, and nervous system. Those who believe in it believe, essentially, that the experience of pain is just in your head and can be controlled. This must be the theory, or one of the theories, being tested at NBP. And it doesn’t seem to have any effect on Owen. One of the other scientists question if he was even put under by the pill. They also notice that Annie already has “the grooves of the narrative,” which reveals that she has taken the drug before — a lot of times before. She has willingly re-entered a place that few people ever want to revisit. In the post-exam room, Owen says he is “speechless” over the experiment, but he sounds blank, speechless because he simply has nothing to add.
Later, to Annie, Owen reveals she didn’t take the pill (hello, it was so obvious) because he wanted to remain fresh and ready for activation. Annie rolls her eyes and admits, like I thought, that she was just saying what he needed to hear so that he would stop talking to her.
She snuck into the study, she tells him, and she was just afraid he would going to blow her cover. Owen asks her how she knew his name (they said it on the intercom), how she appeared to him in ads all over the city (she sold her face to a stock image company four years ago), and how she knew about the patterns (she just randomly said it — she doesn’t believe in the patterns because the world is just chaos). After Owen hears this revelation, he allows himself to go back to the worst day of his life after prompted again in Dr. Muramoto’s office. It’s the evening, seven months ago, of Jed and Adelaide’s (Jemima Kirke) engagement party, and we get a better look at the dynamic between Jed and Owen.
Jed thinks Owen is in love with his future bride Adelaide, and a previous conversation between the two in episode 1 would support this claim. Adelaide is patient, kind, and grounded. Jed is rambunctious, aggressive, and possibly a predator. He all but threatens to send Owen to a mental hospital if he doesn’t testify on behalf of him against a woman — a woman whose identity remains unclear. The details are fuzzy but it sounds like he attacked this woman, and that he has no remorse. After the conversation, Owen jumps from the roof of the building and lands on a the glass ceiling of the family living room. He survives. It looks like a bad day, but far from the worst day ever. Dr. Muramoto calls him out for lying and making up this story, and forces him to take the pill again.
Annie, or Mr. Nine as Dr. Muramoto calls her, enters his office for her post-exam conversation. While in there, he tells her he knows why she take “A” so much. It’s a “seductive demon,” he says, and a few users find some sort of pleasure in revisiting their trauma (from his stolen glances of a photo a cute kid on this desk, he may have lost a son and uses “A” to see him again). After the conversation, Annie doesn’t think she deserves to move on in the trial, but this brief moment of bonding is interrupted by Dr. Muramoto literally dying right in front of her. Annie calls in Owen to help her (is this the mission?).
During Annie’s panicked scavenging of Muramoto’s office, Owen tells her about the actual worst day of his life. He’s on his way to study with Olivia, a girl he likes, when he realises that Olivia is actually a plant — no not a literal one, but a girlfriend plant (another proxy) paid for by his parents so that he could have a love interest. She also, Owen believes, was acting as a spy for his parents and brothers, relaying all their private conversations. But in the end, she was real, and Owen’s projection of her wasn’t. He had a “BLIP,” or brief and limited psychosis, as the doctors called it. He kept repeating, “This isn’t real. This isn’t real. This isn’t real.” But it was real, and this moment of chaos (he threw books and screamed at everyone around him) resulted in him going to a hospital, strapped to a gurney. Annie winces, and uses his story a precaution for herself to stop living in her own fantasy world with “A.” She almost steals a full container of the pills from Dr. Muramoto’s desk (he was not smoking crack, but smoking “A”s) but puts them back, and tells Owen to act like nothing “fucking happened” so they can continue with the trial. She’s ready to move on — or at least, to try to move on.
Before Dr. Muramoto’s body is found by Dr. Fujita and bubbled up to the 77th floor, where executive decisions are made, we get to witness dinner time, where everyone is served nutritional cubes that taste like a “cat’s uterus.” It’s food for science, and reminds me of the gelatinous cubes on American Horror Story: Apocalypse. Cross-over? Kidding. Up on the 77th floor, Dr. Fujita suggests calling in Dr. Mantleray to fill Dr. Muramoto’s role. The talking television set, the creator/coordinator/man in charge of the trial says Dr. Muramoto’s been missing.
“No, I know exactly where he is,” Dr. Fujita replies.
Next, is a wild little segue featuring a pixelated Dr. Mantleray as some octopus figure who is having sex with the a purple alien-fairy hybrid called High Priestess of Atlantis. It’s revealed to be yet another proxy in this world, this one called the “sucktube” — where one can puts one’s penis and then enjoy fantastical sex. Dr. Fujita interrupts this virtual hook-up to inform him that he is the replacement for the study. He agrees to join her once he’s done...with his affairs. Once at the lab again, there’s some sexual tension between the doctors, and GRTA mourns the loss of Robert, aka Dr. Muramoto, crying thick, melted metal tears that burn some of the computer’s wires. The next morning, Dr. Mantleray and Dr. Fujita greets the participants, informing them that Dr. Muramoto had to leave for a personal issue, not because he is dead. Obviously, Annie and Owen know the truth, and will probably use that information to benefit them later in the trial. While introducing himself, Dr. Mantleray deems their project (using a product he invented, so he is responsible everything that goes right and wrong) an exploration of “the last great hidden frontier, Mindlantis.”
The subjects are immediately put back in their dentist chairs, and pill “B,” a soft blue, is distributed. It’s time to uncover everyone’s blind spots — what walls have they all put up? The chamber is set to green, and the memory forms. This one is...different. Owen’s in it and he has a mullet and cut-off jean shorts on. He’s watching sports in a tiny house with Annie, who has crimped blonde hair, and acid wash jeans. His name is Bruce and hers Linda. They’re married, they’re happy, and they’re in each others blind spots. This is either very cool, or very bad.
The Biggest Connection: When Owen and Annie lower their walls and open up to each other. This is what the pill is supposed to do, but they’re managing to do it themselves. There isn’t really any chemistry at this point, just inklings of trust, which is even more powerful.
Episode 4: “Furs by Sebastian”
We’re in the ‘80s in domestic bliss with Bruce (Owen) and Linda Marino (Annie), their pill B alter egos. The two lovebirds are on a mission to do...something. Linda sneakily gets an address of some guy from the DMV, and Bruce, who is a dedicated and loving husband, chauffeurs her to said address. It ends up being a fur store, and Linda sketchily sneaks into the back room to steal a lemur being held captive. The animal, worth $20,000, is getting gutted tomorrow. Two (dipshit) brothers, one wearing American flag pants and a white mesh tank, are watching the lemur, along with a slew of other locked up animals who will be killed and skinned. They’re practicing a dance routine (“crisp”) and seem harmless, except for the fact that there are guns laying around and a lot of money in the room. Linda sneaks out of the room, grabs Bruce, and tells him what’s really going on: Recently, she formed a special connection with a woman named Nan, who died of stomach cancer the previous morning. She met Nancy Walton aka Nan at work (she’s reads books at a hospice), and on her deathbed, Nan asked Linda to deliver the pet lemur, Wendy, to her estranged daughter. Bruce agrees to help Linda steal the lemur.
In this parallel universe/memory, the couple has three kids, and a special bond. Linda’s gentle, but still adventurous and stubborn. Bruce is supportive, decisive, and calm. The night of the big lemur rescue, Bruce turns on the radio to tune into a show hosted by Dr. Greta Mantleray, who has the same last name as our other Dr. James Mantleray. Is this his wife, or mother, or sister? Is she who GRTA, the computer system, is based on? The voices sound similar. Could this memory have some truthful elements to it? Breaking into the fur store is easy, until the brother and dad, and later the cops (or rather, the Fish & Wildlife authority) show up at the store. A very dramatic shootout ensues, and the Marinos sneak out with Wendy, unharmed but spooked.
“You always have a way of makin’ life...exciting,” Bruce tells his wife. She goes inside to deliver the lemur to Lena, the daughter, and on the door, in cursive letters is a name that means nothing to Linda, but everything to us: Nazlunds. Nazlund is the last name of the man driving the 18-wheeler that crashed into Annie’s Jeep, killing her sister. (His middle name was also F.U.N. Fucked up.) The illusion of the memory/dream is starting to be infiltrated with the real-life anxieties and traumas of Annie and Owen. Connections!
Annie’s reminded of the death of her sister when Lena reads a nasty letter written to her by her mother, Nan. She tells her daughter that lemurs are better than children because they don’t talk back or ruin lives. Outside in the car, Owen’s reading a book when he sees a photograph of a woman identified as Olivia Meadows, the “emotional poltergeist” whom Owen screamed at during his BLIP.
Back inside, Linda tells Lena that maybe Nan’s right — she shouldn’t have children. It’s too late, Linda tells her – she’s already pregnant and it’s a boy. She’s going to name him Greg Fuck You Nan ‘F.U.N’ Nazland as a tribute to the woman who “wanted a fuckin’ lemur more than she wanted [her].” The clues are all solidified now: This woman’s future son is the same man that will kill Linda’s sister.
The memories keep blurring together: Linda recalls a memory of her father sitting in a pickup truck crying because something terrible happened to her mother, that she either died and was gone forever, and that all she knew was that she had to protect her little sister. But Linda, Bruce says, your parents are still together. This is Annie’s memory coming out of Linda’s mouth. The reveal? Annie’s mother is one of her blind spots. Based on that specific memory, it feels like we are inside specifically Annie’s mind, until the Fish & Wildlife officer shows up the next morning at the Marino house to collect the lemur (he saw their Volvo escape the night before). The lemur’s inside, since Lena didn’t want the her. The officers arrive while Bruce is taking out the trash, and he immediately says he is guilty to protect his wife. Right then we get another sign that Owen’s mind is influencing this scene, because seated in a black sedan is Voice Jed, watching ominously.
The episode ends with flashes of green and red on Owen and Annie’s faces. What did this whole marital bliss-cum-criminal daydream mean? What are Owen’s blind spots? Was this enough confrontation for Annie to get over using the “A” pills to see her sister? Does this really all connect?
The Biggest Connection: When Lena reveals she is pregnant and her son will wind up being the man who falls asleep at the wheel and crashes into Annie and Ellie. Not all connections can be good. He also acts as a sufficient timeline device — he looked about mid to late 20s when we saw him in episode 2. If he wer born in the 80s, as the clothing of the Marion’s suggest, that means that Maniac takes place in an alternate 2000s world, just as I’ve been saying.
Episode 5: “Exactly Like You”
We’ve gone farther back in time in this memory-illusion. Should we just call them millusions? Illemories? It’s so unclear what’s real or not, but it’s a fascinating ride. Here we are now in 1947, according to the book on Owen’s lap which is an almanac for the evening’s “Full Moon Séance.” Owen is now Oliver or “Ollie.” He’s wearing a nice tux and being chauffeured around by his butler, Bobby. He has a posh accent, and is happy to be out of the city, smelling that good good manure air.
Fate intervenes when a woman in a fur coat approaches the car. It’s Annie, of course, but this time as Arlie Kane, swathed in a fur coat (a reference to Sebastian’s furs in episode 4, perhaps). The two have a mysterious past, and Ollie is immediately alarmed. He wants her nowhere near the séance, but Bobby, on the other hand, thinks the two have a “serendipitous” draw to each other. Ollie lets her approach the car then pulls a “presto chango” and seats her in the back of the car as Ollie dips out of the side door, and Bobby whisks her far, far away.
The two have found each other in their millusions again, and the doctors are starting to notice. Participants should neither be sticking together, nor coupling up while they’re under the influence of the drug. Inside of resetting the test like his mother, Dr. Greta Mantleray (that was who Bruce was listening to in the car, and who I think GRTA is named after, and who must be responsible for this whole wacky trial) would have done, he decides they will manually separate them. Dr. Mantelray also confirms that he and Dr. Fujita have “shared intimacies.” Was this what the octopus sex was?
Back to Owen as our dandy man Ollie. He’s walking down a candle lit path, headed to the séance hosted by Lady Neberdine. (God, I love a good séance. The show is getting good.) The fellow chattering guests confirm that Ollie’s real name is Oliver Hightower, which also happens to be the name of the author of the séance book from the first scene. He is a respected scholar, and the man of the hour at this is a bougie spiritual event. Olivia’s here, and she asks Ollie to take her under his wing. He rejects the notion — he flies solo. He prefers a lonesome life. Except...not really. He’s married. His wife shows up at the tarot card table, and it’s Arlie Kane. They’re playful now, and it’s clear, once we leave the memory/illusion that Dr. Fujita has been the one manually separating them during this sequence.
But they’re starting to override her. And GRTA is continuing to cry for Robert as it leaks dangerous computer sludge onto some very important looking wires. As the wires sizzle, Dr. Fujita starts to get more anxious. She realises that GRTA has inserted herself into the narrative as the host of the séance, Gertie Neberdine, a true Goddess of Luna, and the first Neverdie (which I think is a name for those who worship the moon).
“I think our computer is horribly depressed,” Dr. Fujita tells Dr. Mantleray. It gets meta as our compter-brought-to-life Gertie introduces herself to Ollie and Arlie, remarking on their relationship status. “I heard you two were separated,” she says, a bit shocked.
“We were. No longer,” Ollie assures her. Robert Muramoto even appears as Gertie’s date.
Now that we’re down Mantleray and NPB’s rabbit hole, let’s just embrace it, because things are about to get weird. Dr. Fujita, using two game controllers, scrapes Annie as Arlie out of the storyline, and pulls her, in character, back into her chair. Annie/Arlie wakes up, spots a young girl (maybe a younger version of herself or her sister) and follows her down a hall. Bam! Suddenly we’re back with Arlie as she vanishes out of thin air in front of Ollie as he rifles around an old chester drawer in at the séance. The conversation that ensues suggests that both Arlie and Ollie are capable of “zapping” around this world. Ollie tells Arlie to go back to Paris because he’s busy. Are the side effects of trial reappearing as magical powers in this alternate world?
Ollie and Arlie recount a version of the Marion couples story. It’s like they are able to retain pieces of their other memories, but have strung them together in a different way to create a slightly varying backstory. This time, Ollie says he ended up spending three years in jail after Arlie poisoned his gimlet, and set him for that “Sister Wendy” job. He says he’s got to “stop doing that.” Is “that” referring to committing crimes? Trusting his Annie/Arlie/Linda? Or something else? Arlie also mentions a “lost chapter” that holds a key to this riddle they’re living in.
“In 1815 Cervantes writes the final chapter to his masterpiece, so powerful, that anyone who reads it is lost in their own fantasties forever,” says Arlie. She’s referring to the author of Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes. The only thing is, he died in 1616. (Remember, this is the book Healthy Annie’s been determined to read.) The chapter leaves those who read it lost in a dream world, living fantasy after fantasy in a comatose state, which is virtually the goal of this study, to leave the participant in a constant state of bliss. Ollie says it sounds wonderful. Arlie, through the words of Cervantes, describes it as “a fate worse than death.” Arlie says she is here to help Ollie find the lost chapter — she was put here by the GRTA to help Owen uncover his own blind spots. She pops in and out as Dr. Fujita tries to pry her out of the sequence, and GRTA, the computer, puts her back in.
Together, Ollie and Arlie sneak around the mansion, hiding from brooding men (a dreamlike representation of Dr. Fujita’s quest to remove Annie from the narrative), only for Ollie to see Voice Jed seated in a rocking chair, coughing up ectoplasm. “Good luck on your quest,” he says, also mentioning that he ate his twin Jeremiah in the womb, which is, um, news to us. He speaks to the insanity of the situation, calling Gertie aka GRTA “nuts.”
After traveling through a mirror, the duo reach a safe that contains the tiniest book chapter ever written. “People were a lot smaller back then.” (A joke! One joke! Yay.) Arlie pulls a gun on Ollie and demands he give her the lost chapter, the chapter that leaves those who read it permanently in a fantasy world. He gives it to her, and the dynamic between the two is finally clear: Arlie is Ollie’s one weakness. Bam! She’s pulled back into the NPB offices, but this time instead of seeing glimpses of her sister or her own path, Arlie/Annie is pulled out into post-exam testing. It takes her a moment to readjust — her first question is “Where is Ollie?” before she introduces herself as Annie Landsberg. Has she contained both her memories as Arlie and Annie? Or is she out of the daze? How much does she remember, and how much is she covering up?
Finally we get a name for these memory/illusions. Annie calls them dreams (“I felt like I was having 100 dreams on top of each other” she says of her experience taking pill B). Dr. Mantleray prefers to call them reflections. “Neurochemically they’re very similar,” he says, adding, “but so is psychosis.” So, how far are these “reflections” or “dreams” from a psychotic break? What happens when they keep blurring the lines in these pharma trials? Annie says she remembers who reflections well — Linda and Arlie — but that she has dozens more layered beneath those. “It’s a globular cluster of arborized realities,” Dr. Mantleray says. Annie says they felt more real than her real-life. She also admits that she is extremely depressed, and has been for a really long time. She describes the Linda and Arlie characters, and Annie mentions Owen.
“We were connected in all of them,” she says. “With Linda, it was the kind of connection where you meet in seventh grade and you look up and 20 years later he is still there, holding your hand.” (Superbad reference?!)
These connections and memories of a lifetime together are not normal, Dr. Mantleray explains to her. It’s all the patterns that Owen mentioned before, Annie realises, admitting she thought he was crazy but now she’s not so sure. But Dr. Mantleray isn’t interested in their budding status of star-crossed or dream-crossed lovers. He wants to understand why Annie dreamed of delivering a lemur, and being a liar and a thief. Arlie was a fill-in for her mother, who was an emotional manipulator and a con artist and a representation of someone Annie hates, while Linda’s journey was to bring Annie face-to-face with the mother of the man who would kill her sister in an attempt to prevent him from ever being born. Annie’s honest confessional and experience grants her a high enough score (9.2/10) to continue to the final phase of the trial. At the end of the conversation, Annie is presented with a diagnostic that reveals, according to the NPB’s system, that she has signs of borderline personality disorder, pathological grief, and intense self-loathing.
Back in the reflection, Ollie is embracing his partner-free life. His defense mechanisms really are so high. He is able to reject everything form of a connection in the reflection once Arlie leaves. Not with Olivia, not with Bobby his driver, and never again, he says, with Arlie. Owen wakes up out of the sequence and opens his eyes to see Annie’s empty chair. They’ve been disconnected.
The Biggest Connection: When GRTA connects with Owen and Annie is a very psychological way. The computer’s emotions are getting in the way of the trial, and it’s starting to alarm Dr. Fujita.
Episode 6: “Larger Structural Problems”
Dr. Mantleray is weeding out participants who can’t handle, or aren’t receptive, to the treatment. One patient calls him out for his mommy issue (probably true). Owen thinks that his biggest problem and challenge in life isn’t that he is sick, but that he “doesn’t matter.” He gets a 9.2/10, so he will be going to phase C along with Annie. His diagnostic reveals that he shows signs of paranoid schizophrenia, constructing illusions, and cowardice. While Annie’s conversation with Dr. Mantleray was illuminating, Owen’s is extremely bleak.
Back in the pods, Annie excitedly approaches Owen, but the dynamic between the two has shifted. Annie is psyched about their connection, while Owen is putting up walls.
“It’s a drug and you hallucinated all of it,” he tells her stonily. Owen’s B phase experience has left him feeling more isolated than ever. And things are about to get worse, based on a private conversation between Dr. Fujita and Dr Mantleray. Apparently phase C is full of problems: There are abnormalities in sectors 48 and 49 of the experiment. There are 4 McMurphys, which is apparently a Big Problem. Fujitaa coded a safety net in GRTA’s code that gave the computer the ability to feel empathy. In other words, she gave the computer feelings and now it’s starting to backfire. GRTA started protecting the subjects as they entered dangerous territory in the final phase, but then Dr. Fujita upped the programming a little which allowed GRTA to feel emotions like love (her and Dr. Muramoto were having a love affair? I guess?) and now she’s depressed after his sudden death. There’s only one person who can come fix her, and it’s the infamous Dr. Greta Mantleray, Dr. James Mantleray’s therapist mother. The two haven’t spoken in years, for reasons to come, but his mommy issues are very, very real. He rants about her in an exasperated manner, practically spitting and sweating over the idea of her coming in to help. He tries to reason with the...computer… but GRTA insists she needs to “meet her true self” — AKA his mom — to fix her broken heart. James reluctantly calls his mom, and she is a full-ass mood in her glasses, printed silk robe, and headscarf. (She’s also played by Sally Field. Hello!) She’s intense, ruthless, no bullshit, and eager to meddle in her son’s study. She shows up a few hours later at the pharmaceutical center with her very handsome escort in tow. She and James greet each other with a full mouth kiss (again, mommy issues at play), and then she asks what the fuck is going on.
Meanwhile in the community, Annie breaks protocol to sneak into Owen’s pod and talk to him. She keeps thinking about their lives together — their marriage, their bond. The comfort and happiness that she felt. But Owen’s angry, stressed, and wants to leave, despite Annie’s insistence that they have a cosmic connection. Although unaware of Annie’s claim that she and Owen are cosmically aligned, Dr. Greta Mantleray is saying literally the same thing to her son and Dr. Fujita. She suggests that the two subjects’ cosmic dust particles (as mentioned in episode 1’s intro) have been reunited after all this time, thanks to GRTA, the most advanced computer system in the world. Speaking of, let’s breakdown the connection between GRTA and Greta. Greta is a licensed therapist whose early work was used as a blueprint for the computer, ultimately inspiring the computer’s name. GRTA was created by Dr. Fujita, an MIT grad recruited by Dr. James Mantleray to both work with him and date him. But GRTA only features studies and learnings from Greta’s earlier work, before the doctor became a “pop therapist” (think Dr. Phil). James started the trial series for his pills, for which GRTA was developed to accompany, 7 years ago, the same year that James and his mother stopped speaking. The main goal of the pills and GRTA is to eliminate the need for conventional therapy and therapist. His mom is a therapist, ipso facto, James created a technology and medicine to make his mother irrelevant. And now, 7 years later, he is begging his mother to come meet the computer version of herself meant to replace her in other to talk her through her broken heart as a result of her relationship with her doctor. This is like Her meets The Royal Tenenbaums. But, for the sake of science and fucking with her son, she agrees, but not before pointing out the pathetic irony in the whole scheme. She takes the “A” pill to find GRTA and talk her off her metaphorical cliff, and convince her to stop meddling in the study. TBD if it works, or if the Gretas just become obsessed with each other and realise they should take over this rodeo.
Owen packs up his bags with the intention to seek medical help because he doesn’t know what’s real. He needs medication, and he needs help. On his way, he stops in the control room and ends up talking to GRTA, one of the voices in his head — whether he realises it or not. GRTA gives him unsettling news: She loves Annie so much that she is going to keep Annie as her own, and make her the Queen, if Owen leaves. “The Queen will unlock the door for you,” she warns. This weird threat changes Owen’s mind (he feels their connection even if he won’t admit) and he stays to protect Annie. The next morning, a green “C” pill is served for breakfast, and Owen reminds us that they have only been here for two days. Dr. Muramoto only died the day before. Damn.
Annie and Owen make a pact (just like Annie made with Ellie) to protect each other in their reflections. “Do not be alarmed if you feel buzzing or warmth in your head,” Dr. Fujita warns as warm orange and maroon lights flood the testing room. Just like that, Confrontation begins. And suddenly, Annie’s an elf with a bow-and-arrow with Ellie by her side. This is about to get even weirder, isn’t it?
The Biggest Connection: When the Dr. Mantlerays reunite and reveal their unconventional mother-son relationship. This deep and disturbing connection serves as Dr. James Mantleray’s catalyst to finish this study. He likely start using the product himself to free himself from the confines of his therapist mother. He also suffers from paraphilia, something he likely also blames on his mother.
Owen. In. French. Braids.
Annie. In. A. Legolas. Wig.
This is the craziest set of reflections yet, and I’m psyched. The purpose of phase C is for the patients to confront their inner demons, and then move on from, the traumas, blind spots, and other emotional barriers that are acting like obstacles in life. I’d be lying if I didn’t say this isn’t a pretty confusing episode, thanks to Annie as a warrior princess named Annia on a quest with her sister Ellia and Owen as an FBI informant from the “hood.” But in the end, I just have to laugh at the wigs! Alas, these confrontations matter. Owen is confronting the guilt he feels in having to lie and testify on behalf of Jed. Annie is confronting the guilt she has around her sister’s death.
For a show that has little blood or violence, other than the shoot out at the fur store, there is one particularly gory scene between Owen and his gangster father involving a drill and someone’s head. It’s gross! But this is what Owen thinks of his father, and the rest of his brothers. His whole life, they’ve been more than just bullies. They are violent, terrible men, akin to murderers. And he’s their unwilling accomplice, ready to betray them.
Annia and Ellia dine with a royal elf, Lady Nora, who says she can help them find mythical water which will cure a sickness that ails Ellia. The sisters’ fates are intertwined, and a magical mirror can set them on the right path. The Lady Nora wants to see Annia’s reflection (this is all one big reflection!). The reflection is a memory of Annie’s and she recognises it. They now have all the information they need, and Annia starts to show Annie-like qualities. The Lady’s husband (and servant) is none other than Greg F.U.N. Nazlund — that realisation breaks her. Annia is full Annie — she calls Greg an asshole, tells Ellia that she still hates fantasy (Ellia is confused; she is a full figment), and embraces the last few moments she has with her sister, even if it’s all make believe.
They’re both fighting off their demons as they present themselves. For Owen, the demons are his family. For Annie, the demons are invisible assassins in the woods, looking to kill her and sister. She has to protect her sister, and Owen has to protect himself.
The Biggest Connection: When Annia connects with her reflection of Annie in the mirror to start her confrontation process.
Episode 8: “The Lake of the Clouds”
“I have not lost my mind — we are in my mind!” That’s Annie talking.
She’s finally catching on, and is fully awake in her phase C confrontation. Will it still work if Annie is no longer Annia, playing the role of a young woman on a quest with her sick little sister? Can she handle seeing Ellie die while in LARPing costume?
Annie wants out of this fantasy world. The bugs are talking to her, and her sister is preaching about the healing powers of “lake of the clouds.” Annie screams, “WAKE UP,” but instead only Owen, a world and a half away off in a diner with Olivia (yes, the same Olivia except she’s a waitress now) hears an inkling of her cry. Olivia tells Owen about this ex that she had who went crazy on her. He screamed horrible things at her, threw stuff at her, and dumped her purse all over the ground. He really, really freaked her out, and then he left and never apologized. The guy is real-life Owen. This is his other demon — the shame and embarrassment of his first mental break. But this time, Owen is smart, controlled, and tough, not like the man is in the outside world. The conversation with Olivia is going well, really well. But leave it to Owen’s father to ruin it all. He points out that Owen is inside a malfunctioning alternate reality, controlled by his own dark, suicidal thoughts. “You’re failing the big test!” his dad says angrily. He also reveals that one of Owen’s brothers is a rat, which freaks Owen out because he is also a rat. Two rats in one family!
In a cave, Annie and Ellie have finally broken character. Ellie still talks like Ellia but she recalls a heartbreaking story about the emotional abuses their mother inflicted on them, calling them “dirty roaches,” threatening to drown them, and wishing they’d run away. Annie didn’t always protect Ellie like she’s said she did in their pact — once Annie ran away and left Ellie. Instead of hitting her, their mother just told Ellie that she was so disappointed to have such a normal, average, and worthless daughter. This memory of abandoning her sister must be on of Annie’s more buried regrets.
As for Owen, he’s confronting Jed. At last. Or some version of Jed. Jed haunts Owen to no end. We’ve seen Jed pop up as the voice in his head (Voice Jed), and now he’s in the construct phase of the trial as Grimsson, the fifth Milgrim brother who was given away at the four months old for being an unloyal baby. Grimsson reveals that he was not given up for adoption because he was a bad kid, but because he was sent to be raised to become a cop, so part of the Milgrim bloodline could have an “in” on the authorities side. Grimsson professes his admiration for his little brother Owen, and says he’s been watching him grow up his whole life. It’s almost sweet if Grimsson didn’t just murder two people, including Adelaide, his future wife because, “blood trumps cock.” Things get bloody, again, and an FBI informant comes in and kills Grimsson, rescues Owen, and puts Owen and Olivia, his future bride, in witness protection. The two have 7 kids (each named after a continent), until he realises that “nothing really matters.” He wanted a normal life, and he got it. But with it, he’s still not happy.
And then...Owen turns into a hawk. Like a literal hawk. We get some National Geographic shit. As a hawk, he searches the world for her because they made a promise — a pact — to look out for each other. Ellie leads Annie to the cliffs where she died and tells her look at them, Annie can’t.
The Greta’s are working out their feelings, together. GRTA tells Greta that all this hysteria she is feeling, and all these emotions, are exact replicas of her own. This freaks real Greta out. She leaves the reflection and asks James what exactly a McMurphy is. James — Please, tell us, I’m dying to know.
It’s happening: Annie is being approached to make a deal with the devil, or rather the GRTA, to live in this reflection forever. Owen as a hawk tries to stop her, and even Ellie tells her to move on and say goodbye. But instead, Annie accepts and gets into a car with GRTA, who is dressed like someone with annual Burning Man tickets, and disappears.
The Biggest Connection: When the Gretas meet. In a show full of meta moments, this may be the most entertaining mind fuck of them all.
Episode 9: “Utangatta"
And now we’re at a U.N. conference, and Owen’s in his worst wig yet. (Why must all these Hollywood men have cornflake-coloured hair?) Owen is Snorri Agnarrson, a man on trial for murdering Ernie. Ernie was a teeny, tiny blue and orange alien who died by accidental electrocution when Owen spilled his gimlet on the wires of a microphone right as Ernie was reaching for it. But during his explanation is cut off when news of the Earth’s impending doom (a ray of heat light is now aimed at the Earth and it’s “fucked”) is shared.
In the lab, Greta tells James that he needs to shut down the trial immediately because GRTA is unstable. She accuses her son and Dr. Fujita of protecting GRTA as if she were their offspring, instead of the living people in their trial. Even though she is totally right, James hates her too much to listen to her.
“Utangatta.” This Icelandic phrase is what Owen screams before he turns into an eagle to save Annie in episode 8, it’s also the phrase that Annie asks him to define when she takes off his handcuffs while interrogating him, and it is the title of this episode. The word means “off-target,” or “amiss,” but to Owen is represents the fact that his relationships, both old and new, have been false. He’s always felt invisible and isolated. He is the human form of being amiss. This explanation strikes a nosebleed, which means he one step closer to deactivating as Snorri and reactivating the sleeper agent this version of Annie believes him to be. They leave the office, and now the inner demons are everywhere now. Annie is beating the system by saving Owen in his weird Icelandic reflection.
Okay, so: McMurphys are code for lost patients, patients that come out in a vegetative state because their minds are trapped inside of the computer. In the computer, there is even a McMurphy room where the former patients and current players in GRTA’s personal game. “They’re prisoners,” Voice Jed tells us. “All brain dead up in the real world.” Annie sees her bed waiting for her and goes to find Gertie because she doesn’t want to be trapped in here.
In the real world, shit is hitting the fan. As the computer continues to go haywire, the conditions of the patients worsen. Dr. Mantleray is having a mental breakdown and claims to have lost his eyesight because he’s “been blinded by [his] mother’s toxic love.”
Annie finds a crying Gertie, and she tells her that she’s sick of the reliving Ellie’s death. She is ready to move on. But Gertie needs help, she is still mourning Robert! Annie tells her to get over it because everyone deals with loss even computers. Between sobs, Gertie takes Annie to see Ellie one last time.
Snorri has finally become Owen again; Grimsson becomes Voice Jed, the brother he wish he had. This is the person Owen has to leave behind to move forward. Voice Jed reassures Owen that is ready to finally able to fulfill his destiny: to save Annie, to save the world, and to save himself.
Annie apologizes to Ellie: for being drunk at her funeral, for losing Groucho, for that final fight that has haunted her for years. They hug, and Annie finally confronts her biggest fear, which is losing the one person who knows all her stories, and the only person who ever really knew her.
Owen solves a metal Rubik's Cube which, somehow, also saves GRTA as announced on the computer screen for the doctors to see. “Subject 1 Saves the Day” it reads — he really did it. But despite Owen saving some part of GRTA, Dr. Mantleray and Dr. Futija make the decision to pull the cord on her — all of her. They “kill” her, and with her, their life’s work. After testing 882 subjects in 73 trials, it’s finally over, with nothing really to prove.
Annie and Owen meet each other within the reflection as themselves once more before they wake up. Annie tells him that Ellie’s gone. Forever.
The Biggest Connection: When Annie realises that recognising, and moving on from, her obsession with Ellie’s death will only make their connection stronger. Their real memories will last forever. These fake ones won’t.