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Awake: Turtles All the Way Down

“Sometimes it’s miraculous, how you untangle something.”

As the story goes, a famous physicist gave a lecture explaining the structure of the universe. After his talk, a woman came up to him and asked, “How do you account for the fact the world rests on the back of a giant turtle?” “Ah,” he said, “but what does the turtle rest on?” “You can’t fool me,” she responded. “It’s turtles all the way down.”

Your delight in that apocryphal anecdote, which I first came across in Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, likely depends on your patience with recursion in fiction and in life. When recursion blends with meta-narrative, emphasizing the fictional nature of what we are reading or viewing, it drives me completely crazy: I do not want to be reminded that what I am reading is not real, because if I am going to keep reading it, I want to pretend it is real.

“Turtles All The Way Down” did not drive me crazy, because it was perfect.

The hows and whys of Britten’s dual realities are irrelevant, and any explanation of them would be unsatisfying and unwanted. But the possibilities of a life lived that way are infinite, and this episode hinted at a plaintive surrealism that occasionally got lost in the procedural shuffle: this is not a Lost-style mystery to be solved, but a Borgesian meditation on selfhood and its relationship to phenomenology.

Is the second half of this episode a series of dreams-within-dreams? That is the wrong question. It is a series of realities within realities, of lived experiences and the opening up of entire universes within one being. Britten, like Walt Whitman, contains multitudes. But neither Whitman nor Britten is unique in that regard: we all contain the potential for a variety of interpretations of our circumstances, which are necessarily shaped by our interpretation of those circumstances.

In Buffy 4.22, “Restless,” Joss Whedon (according to his episode commentary) focused on spaces that shouldn’t exist, specifically an empty place between or within two red stage curtains. He derived that image from Twin Peaks (more reviews coming soon!), where corridors exist within spaces that do not exist anywhere but the realm of metaphor. In an interview, Kyle Killen said, “[O]bviously, the last scene itself represents this idea that [Britten] believes there can be literal dreams, places between the two worlds.”

Dreams are already liminal places, existing as they do between lived realities and dreamless emptiness. But we could say the same thing about reality: it exists between dreams, and for even the most unimaginative person both reality and dreams are colored by our own subjective experiences of them. Britten has been comfortable with the subjective, ambiguous nature of his dual realities: he cannot tell which is a dream, and has shown no desire to clarify that ambiguity.

Dr. Lee said, “He’s not accepting reality. He’s fleeing it, allowing it to fold in on itself.” That’s a beautiful image, as though reality were a tesseract attempting to exist in three-dimensional space. But it is also an important phrasing: unintentionally, I assume, Dr. Lee makes it seem as though the only reason reality doesn’t fold in on itself all the time is the force of our individual will to live only one life, from start to finish—rather than Britten’s willingness or ability or curse to live it differently.

My original reaction to this episode was one that many other reviewers seem to have had: this is a perfect end to the series, and I am glad that Awake will not have the opportunity to go downhill. But as I’ve turned this episode over in my mind for the past few days, I have come to revise that opinion. This was fekking incredible. Why would I assume Kyle Killen would screw this up? Instead, I will assume there is a dimly-lit reality in which Awake continues, flickering in the background as all wandering humankind finds what it denies it is seeking.

Bits and Bits and Bits:

• Vega in a penguin suit! Rewinding time with his penguin-paw!

• Laura Innes didn’t follow through very well on covering her tracks, did she?

• This is a completely random complaint: the two chords overlaying Britten jumping into his Green-World body sounded so much like the beginning of a Gnarls Barkley song that I was horribly confused for a second.

Four out of four turtles.

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


  1. I have to go with the AV Club reviewer on this one: "I enjoyed watching the first season of Awake, and I'm glad the show was cancelled." After my comments a few episodes ago, it probably comes as no surprise that I found the ultimate end here vaguely unsatisfying. It had some nice synchronicity with the pilot, and it sort of appealed to my love of a tragic ending, but not completely. I wanted more for Michael than broken tragedy.

    The second half of the episode was fascinating, and I love that it continues to leave the Red World v. Green World situation open to interpretation (letting us apply our own subjectivity to it, just as Michael does). But, ultimately, I can't escape the notion that Michael chose to bury himself even deeper in the fantasy because he can't let go of his loved ones or possibly accept responsibility for his role in Rex's and/or Hannah's death. This isn't a happy ending. Not even for Michael. Yes, he has Hannah and Rex and no one died, but he knows it's a fantasy and from the look on his face, even he knows that this resolution is not "perfect."

    I'm glad you enjoyed the finale, Josie, but because I came to care about Michael, I wish we hadn't left him on such a broken, and ultimately tragic note.

  2. I thought it was brilliant, too. If it were a procedural or a mystery, this ending would have infuriated me. Instead, even though we'll never find out exactly what was happening to Michael, I found the way it concluded emotionally satisfying. The prison scene where Michael confronted himself made me gasp out loud (Dan said that he'd seen an ad that spoiled it, but I hadn't) and I gasped again when Cherry Jones (the green world shrink) just... stopped. I knew what Michael was going to find when he left her office, and even if it wasn't "real", I was happy for him.

    Do I wish we had an explanation? Of course. A second season would have been fascinating. But I knew we weren't going to get it, that there was no way we were going to get a pat answer.

    I'm going to watch this series again. It's joining a select group of shows on my shelf that only got a brief first season but still managed to be memorable and special.

    Wonderful review, Josie. I actually hadn't heard what "Turtles all the way down" meant, but it was the perfect title.

  3. I think this was the perfect ending for this particular show. There was a modicum of completion, without actually solving the central mystery. (Thus leaving room for a second season.) I agree with Jess, however. The ending wasn't a particularly happy one. Michael seemed to create a third reality in which to live happily ever after... despite all (or at least half) of his family being dead. In a show where we've never really been sure which reality is real, it feels oddly satisfying to have an unhappy happy ending. Those last 20 minutes had me spellbound. Like Billie, I was gasping all over the place. Maybe one season was enough. But the level of invention on display throughout does makes me wonder what could have been.

  4. I was really creeped out when the female shrink froze!!! that was crazy! I thought it was a pretty good ending...though I would have wished more for Britten as well. Its almost like he got what he wished for with his desire to rewind the clock and arrive back at the beginning of the day of the accident... i wonder how that would have played out for a second season... I just wish we could have resolved things with Rex's preggers girlfriend... which partner was real...etc. gahh.... it was a decent episode but the writers had to know by the end that it was gonna be a one season wonder so I wish we had a few more definitive answers... the whole thing was a bit to "don't stop beliving" Sopranos style for me...

  5. Great review of a superb ending to a very good show. I found it strangely satisfying and dissatisfying at the same time, but I'm also confused.
    Not about the ending, about why you - Jess, Billie, Paul and Jenny - find it so tragic.
    My interpretation is that Michael realized that both worlds were dreams (within dreams) and instead woke up to the real, actual, world.
    And sure, we didn't get to know if it was before or after the accident (if the accident had or ever will happen), or if his boss was crooked and so on - but it didn't really matter. At least not to Michael. All that mattered to him, and all that really should matter to any of us, is being with the ones we love and who love us back.

    So why are you so certain he created yet another reality? Are you assuming he's catatonic in an asylum somewhere? Why?

    Anyway, I think we should all remember - all of us who come here on a regular basis - that most of us are quite high-level TV-viewers (I myself am a level 41 TV-wizard),
    and thus perhaps have a more elevated sense of looking at complex shows.

    For any regular viewer, and to me, this was the only way this show could and should end, and I'm very happy it did. Still, why do I get the feeling that Bobby Ewing just stepped out of the shower?

  6. I think they left a lot of the show open to interpretation, which could include the very end, but given the sequence of events, I find it hard to interpret that final space as anything but a dream. Plus, as Josie noted in the review, Kyle Killen stated in post-show interviews that Michael was creating a third dream space at the end. A "literal" dream between the Red and Green Worlds.

    But perhaps I misunderstood. He's a bit cagey on the whole "what's real and what isn't?" issue.

    Either way, if believing Michael stepped back into reality lets you walk away from the show feeling you got a happy conclusion, then I say go for it!

  7. I watched this ending a bit ago and was so taken aback by it, that I wanted to let it sink it a bit before I committed anything to writing. I re-watched it last night and agree with all of you that it was the perfect ending to this show.

    It truly leaves each viewer with his or her own interpretation of what happened and, while things like this usually make me crazy (and did a bit the first time through), the more I thought about it, the more I came to appreciate what the writers did.

    I thought this show was fantastic, but I am glad that it ended when it did. While a second series may have given us more answers, I kind of like being able to put my own spin on it all.

  8. I loved this show and wish there were more episodes. There were a couple continuity breaks where they had scenes that Britton wasn’t in. If he was dreaming one of the realities, there wouldn’t be scenes that he didn’t know about in that reality. Time travel and dream realities can get confusing for everyone

    Still, it was a fascinating show and very well done.


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