Maniac: Saved by an Easy-to-Swallow Capsule

This one comes to us from Ethan T. Perkins. My latest binge-watching series on Netflix […]

This one comes to us from Ethan T. Perkins.

My latest binge-watching series on Netflix was nothing I intended to watch. I had heard a few mentions via Twitter about Netflix’s latest psychological thriller/comedy, but it was not on my list of things I was waiting to start. I saw the trailer completely by mistake. You know what I mean—it’s the trailer that Netflix just starts without asking. and suddenly you are like, “I guess I’m going to see what this is about now.” It was enough to pull me in for a give-it-a-shot episode.

Maniac was created by Patrick Somerville and every episode is directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga. Maniac is set in the present day, but everything is a little bit different. It is a quirky, brightly-colored, and confusing side-universe. It’s not Germany-won-the-war different, but everything is ever so slightly changed. It doesn’t mean it’s better—no flying cars or anything—it just means it’s different.

Maniac is the story of two nobodies, Annie Landsberg (Emma Stone) and Owen Milgrim (Jonah Hill), and their time spent during a mysterious pharmaceutical trial for a new series of pills, know as pills A,B, and C, that promise to diagnose and to cure any and all mental issues one might have. Both Annie and Owen join the trial as a means to an end. They are not planning to be cured through the tests, but rather, the tests can help get them to the next step of their life. Annie has already experimented illegally with Pill A and is jonesing for more. Owen seeks to escape the pressure of being a key witness in a trial spotlighting a member of his highly-influential family.

The pharmaceutical trial focuses on the three pills. Each pill taken drops the patient inside their own mental issues, diagnoses their condition, and works to resolve it, all via wildly vivid dreams. Maniac is not a show with one setting or style, rather, it is a fluid genre-changing series. As much as following Annie and Owen is crucial, the Pills stand out as characters themselves.

Pill A stands for “Agonia,” which is Greek for “struggle.” This pill is intended to show you the origin of your issues. Maybe it was a suicide attempt or another traumatic, life-threatening event. Pill A’s purpose is to place you back into the exact moment your issue started. It’s not fantasy or a made-up story. You are transported to the day the event took place to relive it. You can engage and attempt to change things, but in the end, the most important moments stay the same. Pill A’s dream is unchanging because it is what made you who you are.

Next comes Pill B, which stands for Behavioral. After identifying the source of one’s trauma, an A.I. supercomputer called “G.R.T.A.” whips up a personalized pill to put you back into a different dream and helps you identify all your unique defense mechanisms. The dream state in Pill B is not a real event in your life, but rather, you are placed into a role-playing scenario and forced to play out your character. The intent of Pill B is to show you all the ways you are running from and fighting off the events and emotional baggage of Pill A.

Finally, it is time for Pill C: Confrontation. This pill seeks to move past the identifying stage of one’s personal trauma and defense mechanisms to confront the issue. Not only is the issue confronted, but in the end, you move past the issue by accepting it. Pill C does this in a fantasy dream state. Think: Lord of the Rings meets Kill Bill meets Mission Impossible, and you are starting to see just how crazy Maniac can be. In the end, Pill C reveals that the only hero in the story, the only person that can save the day, is you.

What really struck me about Maniac was its ability to tackle a sensitive and difficult topic while providing humor and unique visuals without sacrificing the serious nature of its core content. It is wildly funny, sometimes inappropriate, and often it makes little sense in the moment (which is a big part of the storytelling). Yet, it grabs you. It compels you to watch these two people take on their own mental and emotional issues, and it never once feels campy, corny, or forced. It’s a series worth watching, and as with most great stories, the gospel can be found in it.

The gospel is our Pills A, B, and C. The gospel asks all of mankind to start with Pill A. Agnoia. Struggle. You are flawed. You are a sinner. You are not a perfect example of all that is righteous. Rather, you are completely broken. Though you may want to hide this, or pretend you’ve got it all together, the glory of God in comparison to who you really are, shines the truth on your life. You are a struggling person, in need of a great God. The gospel Pill A is your traumatic moment, and it starts when you are first conceived.

The gospel Pill B shows you just how smart you can be when it comes to hiding your sin. Even in light of acknowledging the truth of your brokenness, you hide. You lie. You trick everyone around you, including yourself, into thinking you are a true blue American that drives a dodge stratus, attends church, knows just the right Bible verse to post on Facebook to make you look holy, and you even pay your taxes on time. All of this must count for something, right? You are “good” compared to some of the other people in this world. These reactions and thoughts are nothing more than defense mechanisms for Christians. Just like Pill B in Maniac, the gospel Pill B shows you that you are doing nothing more than role-playing. You can lie to the rest of the world, but deep down, Pill B reveals the truth, even the ones you are hiding really well.

The gospel Pill C confronts your illness and asks you to accept it. Unlike Maniac, we can’t do this by looking inward. We are not the hero of our own story. In fact, the more involved we get in saving ourselves, the more we end up back in the Pill B stage. By accepting our illness and our inability to fix ourselves, we become free. Free to be rescued and redeemed. Free to rest and enjoy the goodness of the gospel. We are free to do nothing, to try to be nothing, and to simply enjoy each other with love, kindness, and mercy.

I will not spoil the ending of Maniac, but I will say it hits all the right notes for a world looking to heal itself and not be told how desperate they really are. In their world, Maniac ends perfectly, but in light of the gospel, Maniac ends with one certain truth: without a savior, we are hopeless if left to our own devices, and that’s exactly where our Rescuer meets us.

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One response to “Maniac: Saved by an Easy-to-Swallow Capsule”

  1. Alexander says:

    Beautiful piece!

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