I like Emma. Daniela Bobadilla is good in the role, low-key and pleasant, and she sells an appealing awkward-high-school cute that makes her a plausible love interest for Rex. As written, the character isn’t incredibly well-developed, but until the last couple weeks of the show, she filled the part she was called to play well enough. So when I say I don’t think her pregnancy is a good plot twist, it’s not because I think she isn’t carrying it (ha) well, or that the show is dealing with the issue in a crass or blatantly exploitative way. There are small moments throughout “Slack Water,” both with Emma and with the main case of the week, that demonstrate once again that the writers on Awake are smart folks who look for interesting ways to make their stories stand out. But moments on their own aren’t enough when they don’t build up to anything, and while this week’s episode wasn’t quite as tedious as last week’s, it was still a mostly dull affair, dragged down by a murder mystery that ran from point A to point D in an almost perfectly straight line. And then there was the drama over Emma and her baby. This was handled with great tact for the most part, and the actors carried it as well as they could, but it's not fitting in.
I figure the writers are going somewhere with this. The show has earned a certain amount of benefit of the doubt, so let’s not get worked up about how conveniently all of this plays into Michael’s need to stay in the same place in both worlds. That’s almost certainly intentional, and we’ll have to see if it works when the pay-off arrives. But in and of itself, this is a complex, emotionally fraught situation, and I’m not convinced Awake has enough of an established world to handle it. This is enough of a hook that it could serve perfectly well as the premise of its own series, and while I like the idea of cramming a bunch of ideas together when it serves a thematic effect, here, the whole concept just sort of sits on everyone’s heads, so underdeveloped that no one seems to know what to do with it. The script works to play up the ambiguity of Emma’s motives, and force Hannah to question what exactly she wants out of her relationship with the girl, but while these are both potentially rewarding narrative threads, they don’t feel in any way connected to Michael’s dilemma, which is presumably what the show is actually about. He cautions Hannah against reading too much into Emma’s expression during the semi-disastrous meeting with her parents (he’s wrong), and then he’s comforting when Hannah’s worried, and then he’s generically-helpful-dad when Emma shows up at their door. If the intention is to demonstrate his passivity in the face of these events, and if that passivity is going to lead us to some new crisis, that’s cool, but that doesn’t make for particularly good drama right now. Hannah offers to adopt her dead son’s baby, and Michael just shrugs and goes along with it. That’s kind of weird, isn’t it?
I understand how this could be intentional, that Michael’s lack of response is indicative of his desperation to try and sustain two perfect worlds, but it’s just dull TV watching. If we’re building to something, there’s no sense of rising action, no sense that the stakes are changing and that Michael’s sanity might be in danger. There are just scenes of a family drama that look like they were ported in from an episode of Parenthood. In a frustrating, sad way, these scenes serve in their way to expose how tenuous and ill-suited to long-form storytelling the premise of this show really is. We’ve had some fascinating and powerful episodes in the time since the pilot, but the longer this goes on, and the more the series is unable to find a way to expand beyond that first episode in a way that comes across as an intrusion of authorial intent, the more I wonder if that pilot really was the beginning and the end. We really learned everything important there was to know about Michael back then, and now, when the show moves to develop its ensemble, it’s well-done (because these are good writers), but forced. I keep thinking, this is what it looks like when talented people try and prolong a story that already reached its natural conclusion. You defend the ideas, but you can’t really defend how they hold together, because they don’t. There’s no place for this to go now, I think, and I hope I’m wrong.
Apart from Emma’s pregnancy, “Slack Water” features a bland, utterly impersonal murder mystery set in Son World, one which basically wraps up ten minutes early and then has to play for time. In one of the loopier dream-rhymes we’ve seen so far, Michael recognizes a house from Wife World (the lair of the villainous Sampson Trujillo) as appearing on the artwork of a video game found in a dead guy’s apartment. Which is funny, but meaningless, just like the regular case. There’s some significance in the idea of a landlord trying to force his tenants out by killing stragglers, given that that’s sort of what’s happening with the Big Conspiracy back in Wife World: Captain Laura Innes assures Crew Cut Man that Michael will be out of town soon, and CCM tells her if Michael isn’t gone in three days, there will be gunfire. (The reason CCM is so worked up? He has a heroin shipment rotting in a warehouse. Let’s save that for Stray observations.) So, eviction and so on, but there’s no excitement to making this connection, just as there’s no excitement to the case itself. It’s easy to put up with procedural cliches when Awake uses them in the service of a greater purpose, but this reeked of killing time. Which, to be honest, is another bad sign that a show has nothing much left worth saying.
Yes, this is harsh, and I hope I’m proven wrong. At the very least, I believe Awake to be capable of some truly batshit strangeness, whether or not the premise is already exhausted, and I do love me some strangeness. But while “Slack Water” was well-acted, and had some well-observed exchanges, it came off as flat in the worst possible way, exposing not just the flaws in its own script, but the potentially insurmountable difficulties which face this series in the weeks ahead. We’re getting close to the season finale. Fingers crossed I have more reasons for optimism in the weeks ahead.
- I suppose it’s my own damn fault, but... heroin? All this time, I thought the Captain and Tennille were part of some weird experiment that had somehow landed Michael in his reality-straddling position. Instead, he’s dealing drugs, and I guess Michael knows something about those drugs, so.... I dunno. Actually, I have some suspicions, but if you don’t want to hear speculation based off the “Next On” montage, I’ll save them for another dot.
- Like this one: so all this conspiracy talk was really leading us to an explanation to the car accident that killed Hannah and/or Rex? At least, that’s what I’m gathering here. I’m hoping the bad guys have something else up their sleeve, something that includes both heroin and weird science magic tricks, because giving a reason for the car crash was low on my list of urgent narrative priorities. In fact, changing it from “an accident that Michael’s own behavior might have caused, thus forcing him, in his guilt, to create twin worlds” to “drug lords tried to kill him because he knows too much” is even worse than bringing in some bullshit X-Files mythology.
- Oh, and I guess next week, Michael’s going to face a crisis when he stops waking up in Son World. That could be very cool.
- Speaking of The X-Files, here's another reason to like Emma: the girl knows the value of a Mulder and Scully marathon.