I can’t imagine how difficult it is to be a parent. The practical aspects are bad enough: finding a suitable romantic partner, the pains and stress of pregnancy and labor, the finances required to provide for a life, planning for nutritional needs and schooling. And this is assuming your son or daughter is comparatively healthy and stable. But hey, life is hard no matter what path you follow, and these are challenges that can be faced, especially since most of them don’t arrive all at once. What really gets to me are all the subtle, unknowable aspects of guiding a small person through birth to adulthood. Like, what if I yell too loudly because I’m in a bad mood, and Zack, Jr., hears me and decides it’s his fault that I’m yelling, so he cuts himself off from the world to risk any more emotional injury, and 20 years later he’s writing copy for Maxim and bragging about how much Axe body spray he gets free from work? Or, to use a more pertinent and less ridiculous episode, what if my wife dies in a car accident, and my son doesn’t, and I don’t know what to do next. There are books about child-raising, and there are therapists who can guide you through your grief, but I’m not comfortable with self-help, and therapy only goes so far. How do I know the right thing to do, the right response that will help my son deal with a loss so great it can’t be faced all at once–—what words to say, what space to provide, that will set him down the path to recovery.
If I’m Michael Britten, I look to my dreams. Well, sort of. We don’t really know which world is real and which is the fantasy; we don’t even know if this is the right question to be asking. One of the smartest creative choices Awake has made so far is the show’s willingness not to dig too deeply into its premise. There are questions here, to be sure, and many of them are questions worth asking (I can even conceive of a situation in which the once-hinted-at conspiracy works; there’s no reference to it again tonight, but it could have thematic relevance down the line), but this early in the run, what matters most is establishing why we should care, and who we’re caring about. Last week, I enjoyed how the show played with the mechanics of living in two distinct worlds, and there’s a bit of that in “Kate Is Enough,” but mechanics alone aren’t what make tonight’s episode so good. Michael is still using information in one world to help him in another, and it’s fascinating to watch, but it’s also emotionally satisfying, because this isn’t some abstract problem he’s resolving. He’s using whatever he’s experiencing to learn how to connect with his son, and that’s wonderful to watch.
As genre protagonists go, Michael is of the stoic variety. At first glance, he appears calm, patient, and mildly befuddled by life, like someone’s just told a joke he doesn’t quite get. It’s easy to overlook the effectiveness of Jason Isaacs' performance, because he isn’t doing a lot of obvious heavy-lifting. Why should he? Hannah and Rex are the ones who are suffering; they’re the ones who lost someone. For Michael, life is pretty much the same as it’s always been. Things are just a little more complicated.
Except that isn’t true, and the more you watch Isaacs, and get to know Michael, the more you realize he knows it. Awake benefits from not poking its premise too hard, and this single-mindedness stems directly from the show’s leading man. He’s a sleepwalker, moving from scene to scene with his eyes half-open, because his only objective is to sustain this new reality for as long as he can. Other genre shows introduce a strange premise and then provide a hero whose central goal is to solve the mystery; here, we have someone who would sacrifice all he has just to make sure that mystery stays in place. Usually, that’s the antagonist’s job, which sets up the potential for an interesting dynamic down the line, but for right now, it’s enough that Michael’s objective is to make whatever is happening to him work for as long as he possibly can, and to do that, he needs to balance the demands of two worlds, maintain his composure, and do his job in both, while at the same time avoiding any substantial divergence or change. And once again, I am impressed by the perfection of this as a metaphor for grief: a hero who spends his every waking minute trying to stand still.
Standing still doesn’t mean he can ignore his family, though, and “Kate Is Enough” does a fine job of using the show’s premise as a means towards catharsis, if not for Michael, then at least for his son. Rex gets into a fight with Cole (last seen in “The Little Guy”) after Cole borrows his racket without permission and breaks it. When there are consequences to the fight, Rex reacts in the perfectly teenage fashion of predicting each consequence to avoid having to actually process the incident. He throws off his father and Tara’s questions; he tells them, basically, “Yeah, I’m a jerk, whatever, screw off.” He shuts down any attempt at communication and shuts Michael out, which leaves Michael no clear way forward. Michael doesn’t even know if he should do anything. Maybe Rex just needs his space? Maybe this is what happens to kids when they lose someone close to them. They get pissy for a while, and then they get over it.
The two therapists can offer some advice, but their primary focus is understandably on dealing with Michael’s (to them) rather massive psychological dysfunction. So, in the same way that Michael has used the contrasts between Wife World and Son World to help him solve (or uncover) cases, he can do the same thing to try and understand the best way to approach his son.
We get two complete cases this week, both with their own distinct and fairly satisfying resolutions: In Wife World, Michael and Detective Vega investigate an apparent suicide-by-drowning by an employee of an up-and-coming tech company, while in Son World, Michael and Detective Harris look into the murder of a professional partier. In terms of the sustainability of this series as a whole, this is a good example of how the show’s premise can revitalize, or at least throw into a new light, somewhat cliched procedural elements. On their own, both of these mysteries are routine and not particularly thrilling. But compressed and combined, we throw out the dead weight and get something unique, a sort of “good parts only” version. The focus here isn’t on getting worked up about why Annie took a dive (she discovered the company was cheating its investors, and the guys in charge decided to get rid of her), or what happened to poor Charlie (beaten to death for the contents of his safe). Instead, we can enjoy the puzzle of of what went down while at the same time looking to see rhyming elements between the two worlds. Kyle Killen, who wrote this episode (along with every other episode of the show so far apart from last week’s), doesn’t make the mistake of having these cases be too similar, but there are moments of intersection. Like a can of men’s shaving cream (put your trust in Even Shave!) that leads to a crucial clue.
Or the titular Kate. In Wife World, Michael meets her as one of the guests at the yacht party where poor Annie died. Here, Kate is a successful investment banker; over in Son World, she’s a junkie addict going by the name “Amber.” In Wife World, a stain on Kate’s dress is the evidence Michael needs to catch Annie’s killers, while in Son World, Kate is actually directly involved in the crime. She’d had a relationship with Chris, she needed drug money, and her friend Liam promised her there wouldn’t be any violence. In both worlds, Kate used to babysit Rex when he was younger, and in both worlds, Kate’s sister died when she was a kid. The first connection raises a concern–—what does this have to do with Rex? And the second connection answers it–—two versions of the same person show how grief in childhood can affect the direction of someone’s life, especially when it comes to how a parent handles that grief. This should be overly pat, because it reduces Michael’s dilemma to the simplest terms. The successful, happy Kate had a mother who refused to give up on her, who kept getting involved with her life. The drug-addict, wrecked Kate had a mom who tried to help her daughter at first, but when teen Kate responded with disinterest and anger, eventually gave up.
It’s an obvious lesson: Space is all well and good, but Rex needs a strong, caring influence in his life, and as difficult as it may get, Michael has to always be there for his son. But it works because we watch Michael come to this conclusion on his own terms. The therapists help him, but he makes the decision to speak with Kate after both cases are resolved, and in a terrific scene, he gets the story from both of them, edited together so that it becomes like one continuous monologue of a person imagining two possible fates. At some point, the show will most likely come to some sort of conclusion about what’s “real” and what isn’t, but for right now, we’re in a nebulous place where nothing is exactly real, but everything matters anyway. Because of this, the episode at times is less like a cop drama, and more like watching a man’s internal struggles played out in real time. We don’t know if either Kate is real, and we don’t know if it’s just a coincidence that Michael just happened to run into them now; it could be, like both therapists suggest, this is all symbolism, just his mind’s way of getting him information via the only way he can process it. Because this is a grey area, because we’re as much in the dark about what it means as Michael is, we’re allowed to draw out our own answers. We find ourselves walking the same tightrope as Michael and the show’s writers, uncertain of what comes next, just hoping to maintain the height as long as possible. It probably can't last. But who knows?
- This show does everything it can to be audience accessible, and while I can understand that, it can push a little too hard at times. There are a few too many flashback shots to remind us of obvious connections, and I winced when Harris asked Michael if he thought it was ironic that he was a great detective, but still couldn’t get answers out of his son. We get it, thanks.
- Brianna Brown does a nice job distinguishing between the two versions of her character. I especially liked her panicky hunt for a discharge slip when she was trying to prove her alibi; it's a small detail, but it struck me as well-observed, and well acted.
- I don’t think it’s ever explained why the Son World Kate is going under the name “Amber.” Maybe a dream clue?
- This episode was aired out of production order–—NBC moved it up in the schedule. (They even had to send out new screeners.) Not sure what this means for next week’s episode, but hopefully, this strong of an hour will help increase buzz around the show.
- I was surprised no one thought to ask Rex if the racket Cole broke had any special significance to him; Killen must have wanted to save the reveal (it’s Rex’s mom’s racket, which he’s never used) for the end, but it’s the first question Michael or Tara should have asked.