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Awake: “Oregon”

For anyone who wondered if the episode swap last week damaged Awake’s continuity, “Oregon” (which would’ve aired fourth in the original schedule) should clarify those concerns. Rex’s near-death experience isn’t mentioned, and while he’s only in a handful of scenes, he doesn’t look all that worse for wear; he’s healthy enough to go jogging with his dad by the end of the hour, at least. Michael references the case that got Rex kidnapped, but it’s only in passing, and we’re not given any sense of how much time has passed between then and now. 

While I realize this is a problem for some people—and I can understand why it would be—this doesn’t bother me. Awake isn’t a typical show. It’s not perfect, and the main flaws in “Oregon” are ones which have been dogging the series from the start—but I don’t think a lack of heavy serialization is one of those flaws. So far, the moments I’ve enjoyed the most have worked because of a free-floating impressionistic approach, scenes of emotional connection and growth which don’t necessarily need specific details to build over multiple episodes. This week’s episode succeeds when it deals with the challenges relationships face in the wake of tragedy. We know the tragedy, and we’ve got enough of a sense of the two people involved that the scenes of Michael trying to understand Hannah’s urge to move have weight to them. These are universal concerns. Even though most of us haven’t suffered the loss of a child, we’ve all either been in (or been close to) relationships which have collapsed. We can understand the look on Michael’s face, and empathize.

It’s more difficult to empathize with the other half of “Oregon,” Michael’s hunt for the Gemini killer, which takes place in Son World. This is where I start to question the lack of details, because once again, we have a case of the week with a rote procedural story. This one works better than the son-napping in “Guilty,” because it’s more cliché than under-cooked, but it’s still eye-roll-inducing. While out jogging one morning, Michael stumbles across a corpse in the hills. The victim has knife wounds that match the M.O. of a murderer known as “Gemini,” only Gemini has supposedly been dead for years. The cops call in an FBI agent who’s such an expert on the case that she’s currently writing a book on the subject. She believes the new murder is the work of a copycat, while Michael (for reasons which are never explicitly given) is convinced that the real Gemini isn’t dead, and has in fact gone back to his wild, murdering ways. Inevitable tensions arise, Michael goes off on his own, using clues from Wife World to track a suspect, and the agent starts to suspect that Michael himself may be responsible for the murder. This is a scenario that has played out in dozens of cop shows and movies before, and the split between this plot and the plot focused on Michael’s struggles to deal with Hannah’s desire to move is so stark that at times it’s as if the show suffers from the same metaphsyical dilemma as its protagonist: In one world, it’s a thoughtful, moving drama about loss and acceptance; in the other, it’s cops and robbers as written by someone who has apparently never met either.

Sometimes, the shallowness of the latter plays into the dream-like atmosphere the series is working to cultivate. In last week’s episode, neither of the murders Michael and his respective partners worked to solve were Homicide-level characters studies, but the episode worked because both cases were grounded by the presence of the character who featured in both, and the way that character reflected Michael’s current situation. That’s a difficult balance to pull off, though, and “Oregon” doesn’t manage quite pull it off. Part of the problem is that there’s only one case. Because there were two mysteries in “Kate Is Enough,” the show never had to completely focus on either, and we could accept them as a kind of background noise, necessary to bring the two Kates into Michael’s life, but not mattering much beyond that. Here, the Gemini hunt gets more screentime than Michael and Hannah’s marital drama, which means we get ample opportunity to recognize how blandly functional he is as a villain, right down to the Zodiac-inspired nickname. 

If this is intentional, if we’re supposed to recognize the cliché, the episode doesn’t do enough to make that self-awareness work. There are connections, of course. The FBI agent could serve as a kind of stand-in for Michael’s fears about losing Hannah; she’s coming off a bitter divorce, and she’s also harsh, brittle, and relentless in poking holes in anything Michael says. But Awake is, in its worst moments, too committed to making the reality of the show tangible to make it simultaneously effective as a surreal expression of internal strife. Compare this to, say, Twin Peaks, especially in the first season. Nearly everything that happened on that show was ridiculous, but the ridiculousness was incorporated into the texture and world of the show. It was part of why it made for such compelling drama; it got past your assumptions in such a naked, uncompromising way that implausibility and familiarity weren’t issues. Awake doesn’t need to be Twin Peaks, but it does need to play more to its strengths, and present itself in such a way as to force us to judge it on its own terms. Right now, it wants to straddle the line between eerie, distinctive psychological mystery and more commercially accessible drama, and I’m not sure those two can exist together in this context. It’s completely understandable to want to be unique and commercial, and it’s arguably the main problem facing the show right now.

On that note: Once again, “Oregon” has Michael using connections between his two worlds to solve a case, but what started as a clever way to connect the cop-drama half of the show to the relationship-drama half is already starting to show signs of getting old. In Wife World, Michael finds out that Hannah got an estimate for moving to Oregon from a company called Mountain Top Movers. In Son World, while hunting for the Gemini, he sees a sign for Mountain Top which leads him to the Gemini’s lair inside an abandoned building. Later, a painting outside a non-existent pawnshop helps him realize the Gemini’s next target is the FBI agent. In both instances, these connections struck me as forced, a sort of contractual obligation the episode needed to fulfill in order to make sure we remember the two universes are connected.

And yet, I can’t completely dismiss these connections. The Gemini’s attempts to temporarily frame Michael ring initially false, but they lead to a conclusion which, while forced, shows signs of the series trying to find its long-term direction. It comes back to Hannah’s desire to move. When Michael finally talks to her about it, he realizes how much his wife needs a fresh start, and how little he can afford to ignore her. Heading to Portland, with a new job for her and a change of scenery for them both, seems like a good idea. And yet, as both therapists point out, this would make his current dual-life existence difficult, if not impossible, to maintain. If one of his realities is a dream, he won’t be able to keep up that dream when his waking life is in a different city; and even if both realities are “real” in some sense separate from him, this move threatens the tenuous balance he’s established to hold onto his sanity. At the end of the episode, the Gemini, having broken into Michael’s therapist’s office and stolen his file, calls our hero and threatens him. The speech doesn’t do much to distinguish the bad guy from a long line of “We’re not so different, you and I” psychotics, but it does clarify his value to the show. Hannah’s move threatens Michael’s realities, and so, in Son World, there’s a killer who offers a similar sort of threat, turning a symbolic danger into a literal one. It doesn’t quite fit yet, but it’s another step towards changing the show from a brilliant concept to a working series. We’ll see if it pays off. Hopefully, if Awake lasts long enough (given the ratings, that’s a big “if”), it’ll be able to find some way to reconcile its two sides. Until then, there’s going to be some fumbling.

Stray observations:

  • Laura Innes returns! And I think this is the first time we’ve seen her in Son World, right? Which might mean… something. She gets involved with hunt for Gemini, but there’s no sinister looks or comments about “projects,” unless I missed something.
Filed Under: TV, Twin Peaks, Awake

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