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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Awake: “Ricky’s Tacos”

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We haven’t seen much of Laura Innes on this show so far; we’ve gotten a few scattered scenes here and there, mostly serving to establish her as Michael’s boss in both realities, and to hint she has a deeper connection to our hero via some unexplained conspiracy. There’s more conspiracy talk in “Ricky’s Tacos” than we’ve seen since the second episode, but what impressed me about Harper’s presence in this episode was a scene between the chief and a little girl. The little girl, Ally, has been molested by her father (Christopher Cousins, a.k.a. Ted from Breaking Bad), and Harper needs to get her to open up about presumably the worst moment in her life so far. It’s a scene you’ve most likely seen before, if you’ve ever watched a cop drama, but it’s handled well, as Harper and Michael first work to establish Harper’s status as the boss (thus reassuring the girl that Harper can protect her from any man), and then Harper slowly, patiently encourages little Ally to save herself. For the first time, the chief is more of a person than a vague archetype, and it helps ground her few strained conversations with Carl. We still don’t know what’s going on between those two, and there’s still no greater picture of Michael’s situation, but if we’re going to accept some sort of ongoing mythology hints, this is probably the best way to do it. Maybe next week, Carl can teach a neighborhood kid to fly a kite or something.

At this point, I’m neutral on the conspiracy. It’s not hard to understand why it’s being integrated into the show—it’s a blatantly commercial hook designed to reassure people who don’t like their surrealist procedurals to be, well, surreal—and while that integration isn’t going very well, it’s not bad enough to ruin the rest of the show. Right now, it’s like there’s two different series working at once: We’ve got a strange, delicate, eerie meditation on grief and recovery as seen through the prism of the standard cop drama on one hand, and we’ve got a whispered conversations, “He’s getting too close!” style thriller on the other. So far, the latter is barely present, and thus easy to shrug off. And who knows, it could all turn out to be some kind of marvelous feint. I see no reason not to be patient, especially if it means getting delightfully odd moments like the Ricky’s Tacos drive-through that apparently knows all of Michael’s secrets.

The majority of “Ricky’s Tacos,” then, has us back at what’s turned into the most common episode structure for Awake: Michael follows two cases, one in each world, and those cases have certain resonances between them. The word of the week this time around is “pentimento”; Dr. Lee mentions it to Michael during a session. It means when an art historian discovers evidence of a painting underneath the painting we can see, the implication being that the artist tried drawing one image, and then decided to replace it with something else. This concept recurs throughout the episode. The most obvious example is the one that helps Michael crack the case in Wife World: The brother of a long-buried murder victim has a tiger tattooed on his shoulder, and Michael realizes the design is covering up the image of a devil. More importantly, though, is the fact that this man, Pablo, is responsible for the corpse. He killed his brother Jose by accident, and then took his place, trying to write over the sins of his past by creating a new life for himself.

Then there’s poor Sabrina, a 17-year-old college student who kills herself after having sex with Fat Neil from Community. (Charley Koontz can’t catch a break, I guess.) Sabrina had been raped and impregnated by her father, and in a desperate attempt to write over what had been done to her, she slept with Tim (Koontz), presumably to pretend he’s responsible for the baby. But even that’s not enough to deal with the shame, so she kills herself. It’s an ugly, sad story, and it seems like something Law & Order: SVU has done half a dozen times before. But then, that’s how Awake works. It doesn’t innovate when it comes to the cop drama. It just uses old ideas in slightly new ways. Pablo’s story works because his victim’s body is discovered buried in concrete at a construction site; Banks, the medical examiner, exults over the effort and care it took to get the corpse out of the concrete without damaging it so much as to make identification possible. It’s an old crime suddenly coming to life, and that makes sense in Michael’s world. He’s in the act of burying his past every day, but it’s going to come back to haunt him, no matter how hard he tries to make this new life (lives) work.

Sabrina’s story is darker, but it also has undercurrents of a need to escape an impossible present by rewriting history. None of this is overstated, and I could see making a reasonable case that I’m reaching for connections where none exist. (I’d disagree, but I can still see making that case.) That’s all to the good; this is a show that works best when it allows us to fill in the blanks, and use our knowledge of what Michael’s going through to add depth to what goes on around him. Last week’s episode worked so well because it managed to pay off those depths while forcing Michael to make strong choices to keep his realities alive. This week doesn’t have the same impact, as it lacks the clever plotting and emotional connection; also, we don’t see much of Hannah or Rex (poor Rex is relegated to a wordless cameo at the end), and while I understand not wanting to get into the wife/son drama every episode, those two relationships are the strongest the show has so far, and it robs the hour of the deep feeling Awake has in its best moments. But “Ricky’s Tacos” is fun anyway, or at least as fun as an hour about rape and murder can be.

Stray observations:

  • It’s a little silly how obvious the bad guys in both cases are. Maybe I’ve just watched too many of these shows, but I had Mr. Ferris and “Jose” pegged from their first scenes.
  • Banks is becoming my favorite secondary character on the show. I love how annoyed he is at Michael for not appreciating the work it took him to exhume the corpse out of the concrete.
  • The hunt for the diaries, which leads to the discovery of the scratched floor, was a smart fake-out.