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Awake: “Guilty”

My favorite scene in Awake’s pilot came near the end of the episode. The premise has been established, and Michael has explained to his therapists how he uses a rubber band around his wrist to help him tell his two universes apart: In the world where his wife is alive, he wears a red rubber band, and in the world where his son is alive, the band is green. It’s a clever device, and the show needs more of this sort of thoughtful practicality (what would it really be like to try and live in two worlds at once?) as it goes forward, but what really made it work is when Michael woke up one morning and didn’t have anything on his wrist. He panicked, and the raw immediacy of that panic helped to contextualize Jason Isaacs' performance, as well as provide the show’s elegant premise with its darker edge. Throughout the rest of the episode, Michael was calm and controlled, but in those few minutes when there was a chance he’d lost everything, his terror and grief took over, driving him to cut his hand in a desperate attempt to wake up. The life he lives now is not sustainable. It’s a temporary fix for a permanent grief, and the longer he goes on like this, the greater his fear will be the instant anything goes wrong.

That fear drives Michael through much of “Guilty,” a not-great episode which nonetheless manages to throw in enough smart touches and affecting exchanges to make it worthwhile. The main plot is weak, full of convenient jumps and holes, and the show still isn’t doing as good a job as it needs to in defining its reality, which is going to be an issue down the road. Currently, Awake is a semi-competent procedural with a great hook, and a terrific leading man. It has potential, and that potential hasn’t been squandered yet. But there are problems that need fixing, and this week’s episode, rather than addressing them, goes for distraction with some fairly tepid cop show cliches. A prisoner escapes, a loved one is kidnapped, someone was framed, and there’s a dirty cop who just happens to be Michael’s old partner. None of this is surprising, and what’s worse, none of it shines any light on Michael or his situation. He has connections to the case, but those connections, up to and including the kidnapping of his son, are superficial, created more to justify Michael’s involvement than to provide him or his family with additional depth.

The biggest task facing the series right now isn’t in justifying its premise but rather in solidifying and distinguishing its two environments. Call them Husbandia and Fatherland. In the pilot, these two places had one major, obvious difference: Hannah was alive in the former; Rex was alive in the latter. That’s all the pilot needed, because the purpose of the pilot was to get us to accept the emotional truth and power of that premise. It succeeded in this regard with flying colors, but now, we’re past the pilot, and we need to have more distinctions. In Husbandia, Michael has a partner named Efrem and sees a therapist named Dr. Lee; in Fatherland, Michael has a partner named Freeman and sees a therapist named Dr. Evans. Husband is all warm, golden colors; Fatherville is blue and gray, and you sometimes wonder if they aren’t filming another Underworld sequel on the next street over. It may be too much to ask that these two places be believable and distinct at this early stage, especially considering that we don’t know how the show is going to play this. The pilot had Dr. Evans playing the reading game, but since then, there’s been no effort to disprove one place or the other, and we’ve had scenes without Michael in both universe, so... who knows.

But however this develops, if this is going to work as a series, each world needs to feel important on its own terms, and that hasn’t happened yet. The plotting isn’t helping. A prisoner Michael arrested 10 years ago escapes from jail after a routine dialysis session. Michael calls in his old partner to help with the case, but before they can make much headway, the prisoner, John Cooper, carjacks Rex and Tara, kidnapping Rex and stealing Tara’s phone. Cooper makes contact through Tara sometime later, demanding Michael meet him in private; when Michael goes along with this, John tells him that he was set up. He didn’t kill anyone (he was charged with murdering a drug dealer after his own son overdosed), but he knows who’s responsible, and if Michael wants to see Rex again, he’ll have to help John catch the man—and here’s where John gets shot. John dies before can tell Michael where Rex is trapped, and Michael, realizing that Rex will die of dehydration soon if he doesn’t get answers, decides to make himself fall asleep, so he can wake up in Husbandia and talk to the living, breathing John Cooper, who hopefully only has one place where he likes to store stolen teenagers.

I love the idea of this. Not the corrupt cop (if you didn’t immediately realize that Jim, Michael’s old partner, was responsible for framing John, I look forward to hearing your thoughts on what I assume is the first hour of television you’ve ever seen), but the way Michael is once again using his access to two different realities in order to make things better in both. We’ve seen him do this before, but this is the first time he’s played more directly with the fact that falling asleep is his way to travel back and forth. It would be great to see more examples of this kind of transaction, because the more Michael takes advantage of his situation, the more real it becomes for us. Right now, it’s a poetic, mournful interpretation of the way grief can damage a life, and that’s fine for a start, but if this is going to keep going, it would help to see it become more concrete, something that, even if we don’t understand it (and I’m all for not understanding), we can still grasp the rules and the limitations.

Given Rex’s predicament, Fatherland takes center stage for most of the episode, but it’s still the rhyming of the two realities that helps to create the hour’s most affecting moment. In Husbandia, a youth center where Rex used to volunteer is opening a new section in his name, and Hannah asks Michael to go with her to the memorial service. He agrees, although he’s not really comfortable with it, but then the case comes up, and we see a literal example of what Dr. Lee has warned him might happen if he tries to maintain the two realities; to save Rex, Michael has to go meet with the still living Cooper, but that means missing the service with Hannah, as one reality forces him to sacrifice part of his connection to another. During the service, Hannah gives a speech about her son. For the most part, it’s not a great piece of writing, just a sort of generic, “Rex was a great kid” talk, until we briefly cut away to Rex sitting in the abandoned building where John left him. This is the first evidence we’ve had that both realities can exist simultaneously, but on a dramatic level, the sight of the very much alive Rex, with voice over from Hannah delivering what is effectively his eulogy, helps drive home the fact that if these two worlds do both exist beyond Michael’s presence, there’s the tragedy of two people who can’t ever see each other again. It helps create a sense of these characters apart from Michael, as well as provide some poignancy in a somewhat flat hour.

Still, it’s hard to get over the silliness of that main plot. There’s Cooper’s conveniently inconvenient death; given that he was apparently psychic enough to know exactly when to call Michael from a payphone earlier, you’d have thought he would have seen the bullets coming. There’s the fact that Michael is able to get the exact location of where Cooper stashed Rex from the other universe Cooper, because apparently, Cooper only knows of one possible place where you would ever keep anyone. Admittedly, I don’t object to this so much as I object to the speed with which Michael is able to convince Internal Affairs to wire him up so he can go talk a confession out of Jim. It’s all clumsy and perfunctory, and Jim never gets past the, “Hey, isn’t that the actor who played Ben Savage’s dad on Boy Meets World?” stage of characterization. The policing aspect of the show either needs to get more plausible, or else it needs to embrace the weirdness. Right now, it feels tacked on, and considering that it’s one of the major focal points of the series, that’s not a good sign.

If all of that sounds harsh, well, I enjoy this show. I even enjoyed this episode, for all its absurdities. There’s enough of a core here for me to hope things will improve, and Jason Isaacs makes a strong enough leading man that I don’t mind waiting. It’s possible that the confidence of the pilot has done the first few weeks of the series of a disservice. While some shows come out firing right out of the gate, others take some time to find themselves; with a pilot that strong, it’s difficult not to be disappointed when subsequent episodes fail to live up to that standard. But Awake is in the process of finding out what it needs to be. It could end up terrible, or it could end up cancelled, but I have hopes for something better. The emotions are there, as is the ability to convey those emotions in unexpected ways. Now we just need to get the mechanics in place.

Stray observations:

  • No movement on the conspiracy front this week, which is something of a relief.
  • Speaking of the conspiracy, though, is anyone else suspicious of Tara? I thought she was just a friendly, maybe-slightly-interested-in-Michael tennis coach, but her omnipresence in Rex’s life is weird. Apparently, she has no other kids she works with, and neither father nor son seem to mind her wandering around their house. This could just be bad writing, or she could turn out to be the conspiracy’s representative in Fatherland.
  • Rex’s iPhone video to his dad was, again, a little corny, but it mostly worked. I liked Rex’s comment on how Hannah was the glue that kept their family together, because it makes her absence more specific. That’s another way the show could work to differentiating its realities: the loss of a wife and mother is very different from the loss of son, not so much in the intensity of sorrow as in the way people react.
Filed Under: TV, Awake

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