“As long as I don’t let go, everything’s fine.”
This line comes from a mental patient trying to explain the concept of a “dead man’s switch,” but it works equally well as a summary of Michael’s situation. He told us his goal in the pilot: whether or not it’s healthy, or even possible, he wants to sustain both realities. Like any devoted husband and father, he’ll do whatever it takes to keep his wife and son alive. In his particular case, that means living two lives, without questioning whether one has precedence over the other. It’s a terrific conceit, but this is an on-going story, not a one-off. That means the show needs to find ways to poke him, to shake up his worlds and put his sanity into question. He’s seen his son kidnapped, and he’s met a serial killer who could represent various dangers to his own precariously balanced existence. This week, he meets a paranoid schizophrenic, Gabriel, who’s convinced someone he loves is alive, even though everyone else assures him she’s dead. Awake has done its best to provide both the advantages and disadvantages of Michael’s condition, and while the examples we’ve seen haven’t all worked, it’s impressive how well the show has managed to maintain the dreamy uncertainty of its pilot. We’ve had various contradictory clues as to what all of this means, but no hard data, and while that lack of commitment would normally be seen as a flaw, here, it’s fascinating. But it’s dangerous. Sooner or later, someone’s going to let go.
“That’s Not My Penguin” doesn’t show any signs of imminent immolation, thankfully, and while the episode allowed itself plenty of opportunities to misstep, it held together till the end. The first possible danger Gabriel, the poor bastard that gets all of this moving. We meet him in the cold open; he’s a patient at a mental hospital, and Dr. Lee gives his backstory to a group of medical students. Lee explains that Gabriel is disturbed, and convinced in an elaborate conspiracy which drives him to commit violent acts, and this sounded like the jumping off point for us to return to the once mentioned, but then put to the side, question of who’s doing what to Michael. Conspiracy stories often use a more damaged victim to provide their heroes with clues as to what the bad guys are up to, and I wondered if Gabriel (who, going by the previews, was going to feature prominently in the episode) might not have some craaaaazy secrets to impart to Michael.
Instead of delving into mythology, though, Lee asks his students about diagnosing schizophrenia; when one of the students answers, we cut to a montage of Michael trying to go about his daily routine, using ritual to hold his mind together, and not doing such a great job of it. It’s a smart conceit, as it brings us back around to a question which has been largely pushed into the background over the past few episodes. We’ve had other people doubting Michael, and he’s had moments of stress with his therapists and his family, but here we see clear evidence of just how much he’s struggling to maintain the two lives, on a purely practical level. This isn’t about not dealing with trauma, or growing apart from his son or wife. This is about not remembering who ordered what at the coffee shop, or handing in a phone bill in place of a permission slip. In a way that doesn’t become obvious until the end, this episode takes those initial slip-ups, and uses them to force Michael to question whether or not he can make this work; whether or not it’s worth losing his mind for something that might not even be real.
Most of the plot of the first half of the hour focuses on the hostage situation at the mental hospital, where Gabriel has taken control of the facility with a home-made explosive, and is demanding to see his sister before he’ll let anyone go. Michael gets involved in a fairly believable way, and soon he finds himself inside the hospital, trying to talk Gabriel down before everyone dies. It’s worth noting that while the hostage situation plot is as hoary as any other cop procedural plot the show has trotted out, what makes it work is that it’s just specific enough to be interesting. This series doesn’t need to break out strict realism. It’s edge comes from the way our knowledge of Michael’s life informs the way we view his cases. Like the way Gabriel’s story of his sister, Christy, and the way he desperately clings to her memory, even though she’s gone. This isn’t that much different from what Michael does, at least from the perspectives of his therapists. Yes, he hasn’t been institutionalized, but he’s just started on his “delusion.” It’s entirely possible that next year could find him in the same place as poor Gabe, threatening to blow up buildings unless someone does the impossible.
The other half of the episode, after Gabriel first knocks Michael out, then injects him with ketamine, is more low-key. It works, and it’s fun to see the show once again playing with the nature of Michael’s dual-life. In Wife World, he’s trapped in a life-or-death struggle with a dangerous lunatic, but when he wakes up in Son World, everything’s fine. It’s not a bad way of expressing why depressives embrace sleep; while most of us can’t quite fabricate at Michael’s level, there’s still that sense of escape, of being able to put the difficult, grey misery behind you and start over fresh. Plus, a penguin shows up, a hallucination caused by the ketamine injection in Wife World. I’m not sure exactly how to balance the idea that events in one world can directly effect events in another (although I’m assuming this means if Michael dies in one place, he dies in both), but the image of a penguin following Michael around wherever he went was hilarious and spooky, the sort of gratifyingly bizarre touch the show could use from time to time. It paid off well in the end, with Michael going through a baby book called That’s Not My Penguin which he and his wife used to read to Rex, but it worked even without the pay-off. I’m a sucker for a good penguin gag, I guess.
What didn’t work? Well, I hesitate to call this a major issue, but it was interesting how little concerned the episode was in maintaining the hostage negotiation tension once the action switched over to Son World. I realized that’s part of the point—ketamine influence or no, Michael’s out of danger while he’s hanging with Rex and his new girlfriend—but it seemed like a missed opportunity that everything got so relaxed once the immediate threat was put on hold. All Michael really does for most of the second half of “That’s Not My Penguin” is find another way to reconnect with his son, and for the first time, not ever scene between Michael and Rex really landed. They have an argument later in the episode that sounds like a regurgitation of conversations they’ve had in the past, and while it’s not a gaping flaw, it does suggest that the writers need to find more issues to deal with than just, “Michael has a hard time bonding with his son.” On the plus side, it was good to see Rex and Emma hanging out. If this show is going to last, it needs to start developing characters outside of Michael, regardless of the problems that might cause for the premise, and getting a sense of Rex beyond his grief is a start. Plus, Emma is fun, and refreshingly non-generic.
Eventually, Michael has to go back to Wife World and Gabriel and the bomb, and once there, he has to make a choice. He can either confront Gabriel with the knowledge that his sister is dead, or he can come up with a soothing lie that allows the poor bastard to cling to his fantasy. Dr. Lee is hanging out for the scene, primarily to clarify the choice Michael has to make, and I’m not sure what to think of the revelation in the last scene that Michael had hallucinated Lee along with the penguin. It’s clever, but it’s comes perilously close to being clever just for the sake of cleverness, and distracting from the real import of the scene. What matters here is that Michael is being forced to decide if harsh reality is better than a comforting lie, and he choses the lie. While it seems obvious in retrospect, this surprised me. Lying to Gabriel felt like the “wrong” choice, but I love how it reaffirms Michael’s commitment to his precarious existence without giving us any easy answers as to what he really should have done. Honesty is generally the best policy on network TV drama, and there’s a certain self-serving quality to what Michael does here that makes you wonder who’s peace of mind he was trying to protect. But at the same time, the lie ended the hostage situation without any deaths, and might even have given Gabriel something like happiness for the first time in years. Why is reality so important, when all it seems to do is ruin people’s lives?
I’d say the answer goes back to the beginning of the episode. Wanting something to be real doesn’t make it easier to pretend, and the harder Michael has to work to keep this up, the better the odds that he’s going to lose his grip.
- Bird, Michael’s Son World partner, is so much fun. "Never should've got out of bed this morning." "You know I had the same feeling, but that's 'cause I was very comfortable."
- Sorry the review is later then usual. I was fortunate enough to have screeners for the first five episodes, and this was the first one I had to watch live. Same thing might happen next week as well.