Beginning with an lofty opening monologue about the origins of the universe, Netflix's ambitious new show Maniac demands we pay attention. Like Westworld or Black Mirror, each scene in Maniac holds clues that are essential for understanding the story’s conclusion. The only problem? There are a lot of details, some more significant than others. For example, the fact that Jed’s pet gerbil and Snoori's alien pal have the same name cleverly shows the incorporation of real-life details into fantasy worlds — though ultimately, it’s not as important to the show as, say, a McMurphy.
What’s a McMurphy, you ask? The first utterance of “McMurphy” comes in episode 6, when Dr. Fujita (Sonoya Mizuno) almost shamefully confesses to Dr. Mantleray (Justin Theroux) that so far, four such tragedies have taken place. Come episode 9, we finally learn what, exactly, a McMurphy entails. "McMurphy" is the codeword for patients who emerge from the Pill C process in a vegetative state, their minds having been captured in the matrix by GRTA the computer. In fact, there’s a whole McMurphy hospital within the simulation where bodies lay vegetative within GRTA, as they do outside her. Beware: When you submit your mind to the whims of a super-computer with an excess of emotion and severe rationality deficiency, you run the risk of a McMurphy.
“McMurphy” is a pretty specific word for a phenomenon that could, perhaps, be more accurately be called, "being captured by the mama computa." Unsurprisingly, the word was chosen very deliberately. McMurphy is a reference to Randle McMurphy, the charming and troubled protagonist of Ken Kesey's novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and the 1975 Jack Nicholson-helmed movie adaptation. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest begins when McMurphy is transferred from prison to an Oregon mental institution for his belligerent and insubordinate behavior while at a work farm. McMurphy, essentially, feigned insanity so he could avoid carrying out his sentence in the penitentiary and retreat to what he presumed were the asylum's more lax conditions.
McMurphy presumed wrong. While at the hospital, McMurphy encounters his mortal foe, Nurse Ratched (played by Louise Fletcher in the movie), the strict and power-hungry yin to McMurphy's anti-establishment yang. “If you have women like that in authority, you have reason to be afraid,” Fletcher told Vanity Fair of her most famous role, for which she won an Academy Award. Need proof of Ratched's inherent awfulness? Ryan Murphy, king of twisted TV, is producing an 18-episode Netflix show based on Ratched's ascent to power, starring Sarah Paulson.
McMurphy and Ratched spend the movie locked in a battle for power, both set on swaying the inmates to follow their lead. Eventually, at the movie's climax, Ratched deals with her McMurphy problem by lobotomizing him, a once common but destructive medical practice in which part of the patient's brain is removed (JFK's sister, Rosemary, was lobotomized). McMurphy is rendered a vegetable, just like the characters who are McMurphy'ed in Maniac. Seeing the once wild man sapped of his vitality, McMurphy's roommate smothers him to death.
Thematically, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest has much in common with Maniac. Both are set in ineffectual, vaguely sinister institutions intended to aid people with mental health issues. Neither institution succeeds in its goal. If anything, the institution puts some of its patients in direct danger of permanent brain damage. As a result, both the movie and TV show are somewhat critical of the mental health care system as it stands. Maniac's triumphant end, for example, arrives when Annie breaks Owen (Jonah Hill) out of a life-zapping private mental health care facility.
Also, the word "maniac" is in Cuckoo's Nest vocabulary, just as "McMurphy" is in Maniac. At one point, when trying to get the inmates on his side, McMurphy shouts, "Isn’t there one of you maniacs that knows what I’m talking about?"
One day in the near future, when the Netflix monolith has touched all corners of entertainment, Maniac and the Ryan Murphy Nurse Ratched show will coexist in a strange dialogue about McMurphys and mental health. For now, you can go on a treasure hunt through Maniac to see what other secrets you can find in the show's small details that take on oversize significance.