(minimal plot spoilers)
Now streaming on Hulu, Castle Rock is a re-imagining of characters and settings by Stephen King, with a twist of J.J. Abrams' absurdity and suspense. It’s no secret that Stephen King focuses on religion and spirituality in his various novels, like Revival and The Green Mile, but Castle Rock does something entirely different. There are multiple levels of spiritual ‘containment,’ serving to reveal that religion cannot adequately begin to explain or contain the larger metaphysical realm at play. One of the main characters, a seemingly psychopathic John Doe is found in a cage down in a sealed off area of the prison in the town of Castle Rock. The town itself is not on any map and you can gather that it is a conservative, rural town with a dark history. The levels of ‘containment’ of metaphysical chaos are represented visually by the cage within a sealed bunker within a secured prison within the town. As if a representation of the mind, the society is attempting to seal off the unknown and hide it away underground.
What starts out as a classic horror story begins to be infiltrated by metaphysical phenomena and questions about the nature of reality, parallel timelines and the blurring between good and evil. As the series progresses you begin to question the common sense “universal truths” that outline the nature of reality. Time and space don’t seem to function in a linear way. Boundaries between human experience are blurred. There are moments throughout the series where it’s difficult for the viewer to suspend disbelief and times where the story is overwhelmed by too many plot points, but the ending doesn’t disappoint. Castle Rock successfully leaves you questioning everything you thought you knew about the human experience and the potential of cinema to explore the myriad of unseen phenomenon.
(beware a few plot spoilers ahead)
With unparalleled stylistic flair, Netflix’s miniseries, Maniac, delivers thought-provoking and hilarious commentary to one of cinema's most unexplored territories—mental health. It’s past-due for television to address the stigma surrounding diagnosis, trauma and treatment. Where most shows fear to tread, Maniac turns these topics into an investigation. In an environment with sensory overload galore and 1980’s retro-future technology, characters face non-stop encounters with outlandish, yet eerily believable corporate products and services—such as Ad Buddy, a service that allows consumers to pay for essentials by enduring an in-person advertiser pitching targeted products.
In the midst of cubicle-sized apartments and billboards with hyperrealistic moving screens, two distinct characters with opposite personalities emerge. Owen, portrayed by Jonah Hill, is experiencing potential symptoms of schizophrenia and is seen struggling financially after rejecting his wealthy and dysfunctional family’s insistence to support him. Annie, played by Emma Stone, is in denial about her past traumatic experiences, struggles with addiction and finds herself seeking out a drug manufactured by the pharmaceutical company Neberdine Pharmaceutical and Biotech (NPB). Their journeys begin when they both seek to join NPB’s clinical trials that claim to cure participants of discomfort associated with PTSD and mental illness with a simple drug regiment. What ensues in the following episodes can only be described as bizarre.
As the characters undergo the experimental clinical trial controlled by an advanced A.I. computer, GRTA—the viewer might be compelled to think that there is no narrative thread to the dream-like scenarios that transcend time and genre. However, as the series progresses, each seemingly insignificant detail returns with greater meaning. The patient’s psyches are examined with unparalleled cinematic ingenuity. Meanwhile, the doctors (Dr. Fujita and Dr. Mantleray) who are in charge of the trial begin to lose control of GRTA and their own sense of sanity deteriorates.
By questioning the learned assumption that the doctors are the ones who are “well” and patients are the ones who are “sick,” Maniac provides a genuine look into what can happen in these hierarchical systems of power. Dr. Mantleray and Dr. Fujita are not as mentally or emotionally well as they attempt to appear and they both seem to be drawn to the psycho-social analysis of their patients in order to uncover their own traumas, blindspots and defense mechanisms. Ultimately, human error cannot be evaded and the A.I., GRTA, falls prey to the same limitations of her creators. The questions that emerge are endless and self-reflexive.
What happens when artificial intelligence is given human emotions and desires? What happens when systems of hierarchy break down? What happens when those who claim to have all the answers are exposed as extortionists? Maniac offers one story-arc of a mental health facility at war with itself. It also offers an underlying message—that both doctors and patients are human beings with flaws. No one has all the answers. As the experiment begins to veer further into chaos, Annie and Owen start to question the hope of NPB’s quick miracle “cure” and, instead, investigate the power of taking back their lives and their freedom by confronting their past, their families and by connecting to each other. The takeaway is that mental health is not singularly about the individual psyche, but also about the individual’s connection to other people and the overall cultural health of the environment they live in.