Netflix’s Maniac is filled with new worlds and strange scenarios, but the one thing that stays consistent is the relationship between the main characters—and it wasn’t what I was expecting.
Set in a future where people are lonely and rent-a-friend services are common, Maniac focuses on a lab experiment that creates personalized simulated experiences, using drugs and a powerful computer named GRTA, to “solve” psychological issues. Patients Owen (Jonah Hill) and Annie (Emma Stone) suffer from different mental illnesses and as part of the experiment, they each enter personalized simulations. But when a glitch occurs in the computer, Owen and Annie’s paths cross over, forcing them to witness each other’s deepest insecurities and most traumatic memories. The Netflix original series had scenes from fantasies and wild metaphors for Owen and Annie’s traumatic pasts, but what shook me wasn’t watching a man get his head drilled in, or the idea that a computer can get diagnosed with depression. It wasn’t even Owen’s cringe-worthy Icelandic accent (that thankfully only lasted one episode). It was the way that the series ended.
Through the lab experiment, Owen and Annie begin to truly understand each other, and naturally, become closer. While this may seem like a set up for a futuristic rom-com, the deep relationship that these these two share is something that I’ve rarely seen in mainstream media. In the final episode (*spoiler alert*), as Owen and Annie drove off into the sunset in a rickety pickup truck, I held my breath. I had seen this trope way too many times before. A guy meets a girl that “just like, gets him.” They run away together, and then cue some sort of hand-holding moment, or maybe even a passionate makeout sesh. But instead, the final scene of Maniac simply fades to black. Kiss free.
Don’t get me wrong, I love a good romantic flick. I promise you, I’m not just bitter. But in rom-coms, I know what I’m signing up for: romance is the premise and the goal of the film. However in Maniac, Annie and Owen barely converse in the outside world. There was no buildup of sexual tension, or subtle flirting to pick up on. Owen was like a lost puppy, barely able to comprehend his own feelings, let alone the feelings of someone else. Annie was his unwilling caretaker, urging him to finish the trial with her, just so she wouldn’t be alone. The pair struggled to accept each other as friends, so the concept of them becoming lovers wouldn’t make sense—and yet, that is the happily-ever after TV shows and movies have taught me to expect.
Maniac could have easily written its characters into a cliché romantic relationship, but I was pleasantly surprised by its ending.
Whether or not straight men and women can be “just friends” has been the source of debate long before Ryan Reynolds and Amy Smart made a movie about it in 2005. However, Hollywood’s resounding message seems to be that there is always a romantic attraction between heterosexual men and women. The whole premise of When Harry Met Sally hinges on disbanding the idea of being friends with the opposite gender. “Men and women can’t be friends because the sex part always gets in the way,” says Harry (Billy Crystal), whose theory ultimately ends up being true since these two get together in the end, seemingly proving that there will always be something primal and sexual between men and women (in the movies, at least). Even Friends wasn’t really about friendship, since everyone—except for Phoebe—became “more than friends” with someone during the show’s 10 seasons.
Even when characters seem to have no chemistry or romantic subplot, Hollywood typically finds a way to make every story a love story. In 2016, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them filled my nerdy heart with mystery, adventure and some good ol’ Harry Potter-magic. But at the end of the film, when Eddie Redmayne *very* awkwardly brushed some hair away from Katherine Waterston’s face and leaned in for a smooch, I shuddered. Was there some flirting that happened in a deleted scene, or did I just miss something? The story had enough actual magic without trying to force some last-minute sparks between the leads, and the half-baked romantic subplot ruined the ending to an otherwise decent movie.
These narratives, with the consistent presence of a love interest, trick us into thinking that every chance encounter is a potential meet cute, and that every adventure is incomplete if you don’t find love along the way. Whereas, in real life, human connection comes in many fulfilling forms, romantic and otherwise. As Maniac shows the “the friend zone” doesn’t need to be a negative place.
Owen and Annie complete each other in a way that isn’t romantic, but is still worthy of our attention. With Owen facing family pressure to give a false testimony defending his brother for crimes Owen knows he committed, and Annie confronting the loss of her sister and reconnecting with her dad, they both have a lot to come back to in the real world. When Owen asks her why she was so insistent on reconnecting and helping him, she has a simple response. “Because I’m your friend. That’s what friends do.” They need each other for support and guidance in the outside world, just like they guided each other through the drug trial.
In an interview with Indiewire, Stone commented on being impressed by her character’s depth, and the story’s unwillingness to reduce her to “The One.” “I’ve never seen a show with 10 full episodes, a whole season, where a female character doesn’t have a love interest,” she said. Instead, Stone was drawn to this character because Annie was her own person with her own story.
Maniac shows that though your romantic partner can be your best friend, your best friend does *not* have to be your romantic partner—and that’s something we don’t see enough.