Jason Isaacs is usually the bad guy. His best known role to date is as Lucius Malfoy, the representative symbol of decadent evil from the Harry Potter films; he was also the cruelest of cruel men in The Patriot (he burned a whole town alive in a church!), and Captain Hook in Peter Pan. Isaacs has a knack for conveying calculation, arrogance, and cruelty, but I think his real gift can be seen in Peter Pan, where he plays both the ultimate villain and Mr. Darling, the distant but loving father waiting for his children to come home. He made a great Hook, but his Mr. Darling was a revelation—while the character only appears briefly in the film, it shows the other side of the coin Isaacs has been using most of his professional career. He makes a good villain because he seems like a dad. Maybe not your dad, or mine, but a father nonetheless, with the air of authority and responsibility that all fathers have in our dreams. When he’s murdering the innocent and siding with a monster with no nose to protect his privilege, it’s unnerving because he seems so confident in his behavior, so assured that he knows what’s best. It’s hard not to feel a little guilty for disobeying someone like that. But on the flip side, when he’s kind and thoughtful and caring, it’s like getting a hug that you had to earn. That means something more. You want him to be kind, because you know he is capable of so much worse.
Whatever reservations I have about Awake’s overall direction (and despite this episode’s general excellence, those reservations remain), I’ve never doubted Jason Isaacs’ performance. It’s one of the show’s great strengths, and the work he does here is remarkable for its restraint. Michael Britten isn’t a villain; at worst, he’s an antihero trying to force the world to fit into the way he sees it. He’s detached, but where that detachment has come across as icy contempt in many of Isaacs’ other roles, here, it’s indicative of how far he’s pushed himself from any true sense of reality. Any intense display of emotion from him, be it joy or grief or regret, represents a loss of control, and when those moments are so few and far between, they take on greater import. When he loses his grip, it’s devastating, and the scene between him and Hannah in “Say Hello To My Little Friend” when Michael finally accepts the possibility that not only is his son dead, he himself is responsible for the accident, works very, very well. So well, in fact, that I found myself almost wishing this was the end of it. It’s hard to imagine a conclusion to his arc which would be any more powerful or satisfying. And yet, the show must go on, as it were. The episode does a fine job of holding its cards close to the vest until the very end, so that even though it’s obvious at some point Michael will have to find some way back to Son World, it’s not so obvious as to be insulting. And hell, the writers even play fair when it comes to finding a reason for Michael’s dilemma. But however well-handled this is, it’s hard to go from “I killed my son” to “There’s a criminal conspiracy that’s working from within the police department that’s trying to kill me, and in trying, caused a car accident that’s forced me into two parallel realities” without getting whiplash.
Enough of that for the moment, though: This was, for the most part, a great hour of television, and a fine uptick from the last couple weeks of Awake. Emma and her baby are still around, but instead of feeling like a distraction, her involvement in the story leads to another powerful scene, as Michael tries to convince her father that he should do anything possible to avoid losing touch with his daughter. This episode raises the stakes for Michael, changing what he’s come to accept as his routine for the first time since the start of the series: while bungee jumping at a fair with Rex and Emma in Son World, Michael has a fainting spell, and comes to in Wife World. At first, he just goes about his routine, but when he goes to bed in Wife World that night, the next morning, he hasn’t transitioned back to the side of his life where Rex lives. The same thing happens the next night, and the next. It’s a terrific way to shake up our protagonist’s life, and force him out of the comfort zone he’s carefully crafted over the last six months, as well as shake off the show itself from its procedural rut. Michael does work a case in Wife World—a killer named Petrowski who’s unbalanced mental state serves mostly to mirror Michael’s worries about his own sanity—but his focus is mostly on figuring out what went wrong, and trying to fix it. But because his condition requires him to ask as few questions as possible, he doesn’t have any framework of assumption to investigate, nor is there anyone who can give him advice on where to go next. The people in his life he turns to for guidance—Dr. Lee, Hannah—both want more than anything for Michael to accept that this version of reality is the only reality.
That leaves the Short Guy, a.k.a. Ed Hawkins (played by Kevin Weisman of Alias fame). Michael first bumps into Hawkins at the fair, but when our hero finds himself stuck in Wife World, he starts hallucinating the Short Guy almost constantly. Because the Short Guy (as he repeatedly explained to Michael) is just an extension of Michael’s imagination, he can’t provide him with any information Michael doesn’t already have. But he has to be there for some reason, and it takes Michael most of the episode to figure it out. Weisman has fun with his role as a figment of someone else’s fevered sub-conscious, and it’s great to see Awake once again embracing the potential strangeness of its premise. The Short Guy is never overtly threatening, but there’s something eerie in the way he just hangs out smirking in every scene, even standing watch in Michael’s bedroom for seemingly a whole night. Even better is how thoroughly this unnerves Michael. He’s already half out of his mind with the fear that his son really is lost forever, and now he has this hallucination following him around, sneezing and making wise-cracks and distracting him when he needs to be winning over his dead son’s girlfriend’s father. This is the most consistently unhinged we’ve seen Michael all season, and it feels like a pay-off in some respect, like we were building to this sadness and devastation for a while now.
And then we find out that the reason Michael keeps seeing the Short Guy is that he’s Bird’s new partner, Ed, and Ed was one of the first people on the scene of the Britten family car catastrophe. Worse, Michael remembers that Ed himself is the one responsible for the accident, which means there might be some kind of conspiracy that wanted him dead. Big plot stuff to be sure, and it makes sense, at least in terms of the setup; if Michael’s going to have as big an upset to his new life as he gets this week, the payoff for the upset needs to be substantial. But it just doesn’t seem to fit everything else. When Awake started, it was a show about grief, and how awful it can be to lose the people you love, and how you’d be willing to do anything if you could find some way to negate that loss, whatever the cost. The cause of the car accident didn’t really matter (although the suspicion that Michael was responsible was important); what mattered was what it did to this man’s life. Now we’re dabbling in crooked cops and God only knows what else, and I’m not sure what the point is. Either a bunch of bad guys want to kill Michael because he knows too much, or else this is another one of Michael’s defense systems designed to keep the fantasy alive; I’m not sure how the latter makes any sense, and if it’s the former, I’m not sure why I should care. For now, though, this all added up to maybe five minutes in an otherwise satisfying hour of TV. The first season will be over soon; I’m sure everything will be sorted out by then, right?
- We got to see both therapists this week! Seems like it’s been ages. They look well.
- The occasional flashbacks to the crash were well-handled; I liked Michael’s pained reaction to Hannah and Rex’s terrible impersonation of Queen.
- Gah, almost forgot—is Weisman the pay-off for all the “little guy” talk in “The Little Guy”?