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Awake: Guilty

“I love you, and that’s what I’m going to hold onto until I see you again.”

Three episodes in, Awake has pulled off a delightful episode that combines the emotional weightiness of the pilot and a more effective detective story than we’ve seen with some fascinating, subtle clues about what is—and what is not—happening to Michael Britten.

Creator Kyle Killen’s previous show was Lone Star, a drama Fox canceled quickly after its story of a con-man leading a double life failed to make the ratings grade. While I only watched one episode of that show, I can’t help but see that show as rough draft for Awake. Lone Star’s Bob Allen (played by James Wolk) lived in two realities: one middle-class, one high-falutin. A wife in one, a girlfriend in another. Bob switched between those realities on purpose (they were different lives, but they existed in the same universe—no SF parallelisms here), but wasn’t sociopathic enough to keep them entirely separate.

Part of Lone Star’s ratings problem was the difficulty of sympathizing for the charming Bob, who was intentionally deceiving everyone around him for profit and from habit. No matter how interesting the premise, it was off-putting and gave us very little to root for. This week, Awake raised—intentionally—some of those same sticky moral questions, as Britten forced himself to switch from one reality to another, with consequences for each.

In the green world, after son Rex is kidnapped by a man Britten imprisoned 10 years earlier, and after that man (Cooper) is killed in a police shoot-out, Britten was left with no choice but to force himself to fall asleep, hoping to gain clues from Cooper’s red-world counterpart, who was still alive in prison. Once he successfully does so, Britten returns to the green world and saves his son, rescuing the innocent Cooper from a wrongful prison sentence.

It’s easy to read this, as psychiatrist BD Wong does, as nothing but the subconscious clues that Britten always knew mixed with an intense desire on Britten’s part to escape from the pain of his son’s kidnapping by slipping into a world in which he has begun to process his grief at his son’s death. From the other point of view, we could say that Britten’s dream about rescuing his son from a kidnapping is yet another example of his desire to save the son from death, and to bring him back into his life and his wife’s.

That psychologizing seems too easy, though, in light of the nuances of detection and the clues we’ve gotten about how the worlds operate. In the red world, Britten got the location of Cooper’s shack in the desert. He used that information to rescue Rex in the green world: but that wasn’t information his subconscious had access to, as there appears to be no paper record of Cooper’s ownership of (or affiliation with) that desert shack. That seems to be a fairly clear indication that the red world is the real one, as it provides new information that wasn’t located in Britten’s subconscious.

That guessing game is fun, but I’m not sure it’s the right game. (If it were, we wouldn’t need a series, just a movie.) Both realities seem to exist in timelines dependent from Britten’s experience of them. That is, time passes even when he is “gone.” He missed the fundraiser for Rex in the red world, because he was busy sleeping/rescuing Rex in the green world. Rex nearly died of dehydration because his father spent a fair amount of time in the red world trying to get Cooper to help him and turning in hid old partner. That’s odd, to say the least, and maintaining that sort of synchronized movement across the timelines seems almost too much to expect from every episode. After all, when Britten falls asleep at night in one world, he promptly wakes up in the morning of another.

If time passes in each world even when he is not inhabiting it, though, then Britten will continue to miss many events, as he can’t sleep for 12 hours each day to split his time equally. His need to switch worlds affected Hannah, and must have influenced (however subconsciously) her speech about not realizing that Rex had been so attached to the helpline center. In the green world, Rex said that Hannah was the one that held them together, and talked about the distance he feels between himself and his father. Part of that distance must be caused by Britten’s full, and equal, investment in a world in which Hannah is still alive.

While the questions of what, how, and why are fascinating, the ramifications of this split attention are just as interesting, if not more so. Britten loses and gains from his dual existences, and the blurring of the temporal boundaries will surely become an issue again. The blurring of the emotional boundaries, symbolized most obviously by continuing Rex’s voiceover into the scene of Britten talking with Hannah about how she felt Rex’s presence, might have less mythological importance, but the skillful way that blurring is handled is really what keeps me coming back to the show.

Three out of four shacks.

Josie Kafka is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)


  1. I think you are misreading what's happening, Josie. The time in the worlds is not passing simulateneously, even though the editing techniques sometimes cheat it a bit to make it seem like that is what's happening. It is all occurring sequentially. Michael wakes up in Green World on Date X, experiences the day, then goes to sleep and wakes up on Date X in Red World. Once he goes to sleep at the end of that day, he then wakes up in Date Y in Green World, and so on. (Or perhaps Date X occurs first in Red World.)

    Michael didn't miss the memorial because he was in Green World. He missed it because he was visiting prison in Red World to get clues to help Rex in Green World. And Rex was dehydrated because he was in the desert, and even in Green World, it still took a good day or so for Michael to get to him.

    I've decided to start viewing the show as Red World is real, and Green World is the dream. I think it makes it all much more interesting from a character perspective to evaluate the events in Green World as Michael's subconscious attempts to deal with his guilt and his grief. For example, what if, deep down inside he believes something he did caused the accident, thus resulting in Rex's death. His son then had to pay for the "sins of the father," just as he almost did here. (The conspiracy aspect may support this, if the accident was something caused to keep Michael quiet about something he discovered.) And what if Rex's conversation with Tara was an expression of Michael's own difficulties in dealing with his grief with Hannah? Perhaps he subconsciously wishes that Rex had lived instead of Hannah, and 'Rex' is merely stating Michael's own "shameful" feelings. After all, if Green World is a dream, Michael has created a reality not where everyone lived, but only Rex lived. Even 'Rex's' final message to Michael could be an attempt for Michael to reconcile his feelings about losing Rex or towards Hannah. Looking at things this way makes it all much more fascinating to me than if both are real, neither is real, or Green World is real.

    I wonder if next week's will prove more interesting if we interpret it as Red World is the dream and Green World is real? :)

  2. One thing I am struggling to understand: last week, Tricia (Laura Innes' character: red world) seemed to suggest the whole of Michael's family had been wiped out... not just his son. So why does Michael have a wife in the red world? Are we meant to think that both realities are fake. Of course, if they are, then Tricia's comment may not be real either. Or anything, for that matter.

    I'm not sure I buy the theory that one world has to be a dream. Both green and red world contain scenes where Michael isn't present, yet he seemingly has no knowledge of what transpires in those scenes (green world: Rex and Cole fixing up the motorcycle; red world: Tricia and bench killer bloke being all evil). Surely he can't dream up stuff and then selectively forget it again later?

    Ughhh.... struggling... to...form... coherent... thoughts... and... concentrate... on... anyt... Oh, look, a butterfly!

  3. Just to be clear: I'm not remotely trying to say my "Green/Dream, Red/Real" theory is correct. I could be totally wrong, and thus deriving unintended richness from the show. But for now, looking at things that way makes the show more interesting for me.

    And I thought Laura Innes was just suggesting that the Powers that Be staged an accident that could have conceivably wiped out Michael and his whole family. Maybe that's what was intended, it just happened (in Red World) to only take out Rex. She seemed to think that approach was overkill (sorry for the unintended pun). I didn't walk away from the scene thinking she meant everyone but Michael was dead. But maybe I just wasn't watching that closely.

  4. I have absolutely no idea what's happening, if the action is sequential or parallel, or if either world is real. In fact, I'm thinking the third option may be real -- that Britten is completely deluded and neither the red world or the green world are real.

    At any rate, I love that this episode lived up to the promise of the pilot, and I hope it continues to do so.

  5. Hi Jess, I've re-watched this scene a few times now (and a few more times since reading your comment) and I still come away with the impression that both Rex and Hannah are either dead or, at the very least, missing. (Depending upon how you define "take out").

    Tricia: "You should have listened... instead of taking out his whole family. That was insane."

    And for my own clarification purposes, I wasn't having a go at your theory specifically -- I've just heard several dream theories recently, and am finding them hard to accommodate. There are just too many scenes where we learn information outside of Michael's presence. For example: How would you explain Tricia and Harper's bench conversation? How could he dream it and then not know any of the details?

    Of course, I admit, saying both Rex and Hannah are dead/missing is equally nonsensical. If neither of them exist, then neither does either world; you can't have real people talking to imaginary people. Not unless you're mad. Hey! I've got it: he's mad. Problem solved. Time to explain The River now...

  6. You beat me to it, Billie. Mad/delusional... potato/piƱata/tomato/castrato... let's call the whole thing off.

    P.S. The captcha is getting weirder as time goes on. Sometimes I feel like the board software it trying to communicate with me.

  7. Well, the bench scene is in Red World, which works fine with my theory. As for other scenes outside Michael's presence, I'm choosing to believe the ones in the Green World are manifestations of his subconscious. They are there to reflect/work through his subconscious issues through "psychological avatars" if you will. I haven't re-watched the earlier episodes to see if the non-Michael, Green scenes really work that way (or even all those the most recent episode). But it seemed to me this week, while watching, that you could take them that way. I'm looking forward to seeing if that interpretation holds up while watching next week's. :)

  8. You guys are awesome! The writers appreciate you digging into the show...

  9. Uhm...What Paul Kelly said!
    How can there be scenes, conversations, going on - in both worlds - without Britten present if one or both of the worlds is a dream?

    And on the other hand - if both of the worlds are real, why aren't we seeing MORE scenes without Britten present?

    Another thing that bothers me - in one episode weren't there two murdervictims with the same name that looked completely different?
    And then, in this episode, the guy who was innocent looked exactly the same in both worlds but didn't have kidney-failure in one of them?
    There, of course, has to be a meaning to this all but I'm just afraid that it's going to ward people away.
    I'll keep watching though, Jason Isaac is superb!

  10. I heard the "whole family taken out" comment too.. then i started trying to watch objectively and see how the other folks were interacted with (sixth sense style) but the wife seems able to talk to others as well as the kid has his friends and coach.. so really i am back at square one... love the show, love to try to figure it out.. the acting is great...woohoo

    although.. one small side note.. the mom sort of drives me nuts.. i don't know why but she just does... the actress works for me, its the character i am not really a fan of..

  11. Just saw this episode. Simply stunning. I love love LOVE this show. It's so beautiful and vividly realized with some excellent performances and nuanced storytelling. I really hope it doesn't get cancelled.
    It was a pleasure to read your review :)

  12. Great review, Josie and exceptional comments this week.

    I agree with Billie. I genuinely have no idea which world is real or, indeed, if either is real. I'm beginning to think that, in fact, it is Michael who is not present in reality (dead/coma) and this is all some huge brain manifestation. Whatever it is, it doesn't matter to me because I find the show so compelling.

    I have to give a gold acting star to Dylan Minnette. The scene in the car with Tara was brilliantly acted. I watched it four times, tears flowing, just mesmerised by this sad, young man.

  13. I don't think it's necessarily impossible for characters to have a conversation without Britten knowing. How often have you woken up from a dream where you remembered some things very vividly, but the dream faded so quickly that you know that you forgot some of the details? Then, the next night you fall asleep again and you have that feeling that your dream just continues.

    Maybe both worlds are dreams and Britten eagerly forgets the waking parts of his life where he is alone. Is that too depressing? ;)


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