After Annie and Owen enter the Neberdine trial, the show shifts modes, abandoning its oddball but meticulously constructed reality for a more surreal trip into the protagonists’ heads. GRTA, who’s grieving the death of a doctor (Rome Kanda) with whom she’d forged a meaningful romantic relationship, suffers a glitch that fuses the dreamscapes of Annie and Owen together. As they take the final two pills of the trial, which are intended to expose their behavioral traits and induce confrontation and catharsis with their inner demons, they find that their pathways are inextricably linked. One “dream” involves a crime caper on 1980s Long Island; another is set during a séance in 1947, with Annie and Owen playing con artists who are trying to steal the lost chapter of Cervantes’s Don Quixote.
The roots of their real-life traumas frequently permeate their dream worlds, like the woman with whom Owen became unhealthily fixated and the truck driver who killed Annie’s sister. But the common thread throughout the dream scenes is that the pair is stronger as a unit. In the weakest narrative escapade, a bonkers dream about aliens and NATO, Annie and Owen’s “characters” help each other triumph during a climactic gunfight. “Every time I separate them,” Dr. Fujita says at one point, exasperated, “they just find their way back together.”
These fantasy dream sequences often feel like wish fulfillment for Maniac’s creative team—the opportunity to leap through genres and eras and modes without the need for artistic cohesion. But Maniac is also clear about the purpose stories serve. As con artists, Annie and Owen seek out the lost chapter of Don Quixote because legend has it that “anyone who reads it is lost in their fantasies forever. They live in their own dream worlds until they die.” But the two don’t get lost in their dreams—they find catharsis. The drug trial provides immersive narrative frames that mimic different genres of storytelling: crime, fantasy, period drama, even absurdist Scandi-noir. Stories allow Annie and Owen to process their traumas and neuroses, Maniac suggests. Imagine what they can do for the rest of us.
As if to emphasize this point, Maniac is metafictional: It continually reminds you that it’s an invented yarn divorced from the real world (that’s in case the scenes with anthropomorphic purple koala bears playing chess didn’t already do so). In one scene, Owen’s mother (played by Trudie Styler) stands next to Jed as he serenades his fiancée (Jemima Kirke) with “Every Breath You Take,” a song written by Styler’s real-life husband, Sting. In a flashback, Annie’s sister Ellie (Julia Garner) struggles to take a picture of herself with a disposable camera and says, “They should make a stick for something like this.”
In the final two episodes, though, Maniac relaxes into something less hyperstimulating and self-aware, and focuses on its central purpose. The conclusion nods to the voice-over in the very first episode, as James narrated his vision for the Neberdine project over images of how the world began: with connection, convergence, cells coming together. “Camaraderie, communion, family, friendship, love, what have you,” Theroux says. “We’re lost without connection.” It’s a core operating principle that frequently gets lost in the scenes that follow, with their absurd humor, elaborate fantasias, and wackadoo dream sequences. But in its last moments, Maniac reminds viewers of what it’s been trying to say all along.