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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Awake: “Two Birds”

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Well, the other shoe finally dropped. As expected, Awake will be a one-season wonder, joining the ranks of other promising short-order dramas—I’d say it falls somewhere between Terriers and The Chicago Code in terms of quality at the moment. Now that its fate is sealed, Awake only has one hoop left to jump through: creating a satisfying ending, if not some kind of meager explanation, to satisfy a story about a detective split between two realities. After some midseason wandering, the show finally hunkered down to deliver on that mystery. Last week made significant progress, and tonight’s penultimate episode is really just a continuation of that, the second in a final series of three heavily serialized episodes on a bullet train to some kind of conclusion.

The opening scene is another masterstroke, the kind of fever pitch Awake reaches when it tunes in to Britten’s internal struggles so precisely that the show imbues cutting between two therapy sessions where every character is sitting down with high drama and tension resting on a razor’s edge. Some of the match cuts that switched between filters to show Britten sitting in both worlds were amazing, as he raced through the same argument, increasingly frustrated that he wasn’t getting through to either therapist. This is one of the few times that Dr. Evans and Dr. Lee agree on something, that perhaps Britten is so bereaved to finally reach the “truth” that he invents a huge conspiracy behind the car crash, even if the show lets the audience in on the truth before Britten begins to uncover it through force.

Last week, Detective Britten reached the precipice of acceptance, breaking down in tears for the first time and exclaiming in exasperated sobs that his negligence killed his son Rex. While that was a powerfully emotional conclusion to reach, it wasn’t based on all the information Britten could remember about the crash. Once he has more details—albeit inexplicable details gleaned from a side view mirror with a terrible angle or seeing another driver’s face in the dark, as his Green reality therapist notes—he sees no other path. He’s got one goal, and that makes him just enough of a danger for Evans to tip Bird off that something isn’t quite right, while slyly not giving away any confidential details.

This week, Britten isn’t accepting or emotionally burdened with trying to get back to the other side of his life, he’s simply the most desperate he’s ever been, so wildly transfixed on the conspiracy plot that he sends Rex to live with his aunt and asks his wife to stay away from the house. Somehow he never reveals anything that’s going on to either of them, but that desperation leads to some catastrophic violence. In the Green reality, Britten confronts Hawkins at his home, kills him in a struggle just before Bird shows up. They’re at a standoff, with Britten claiming Hawkins had incriminating evidence that could trace the heroin and prove Britten’s family was attacked. He has to handcuff Bird to prevent him from doing anything about Hawkins’ body, and while in the car, Bird manages to knock Britten out. This sends him back to the Red reality, where he has to coerce Bird as his former partner to steal the file from Hawkins’ computer in a tense file-copying scene ripped straight out of Iron Man. Britten gets the file decrypted, revealing a lease agreement on a storage unit. When he goes to meet up with Bird, he finds that Hawkins has already murdered his former partner, planning to frame the suspended and mentally unstable Britten for the crime. This all plays out in a lot of complicated cross-cutting and world jumping, but Awake does manage to juggle the flow of information well, moving forward even as it jumps sideways back and forth between the realities.

That password crack comes in handy once Britten escapes from Hawkins and wakes up in the back of his car in the Green reality, since he’s able to give Bird the password to reveal the information on Hawkins’ computer. Then they promptly march the information to their corrupt captain despite Britten’s suspension, landing Britten in a holding cell for the night while Bird gets the task of investigating the storage unit. This would all be fine if it weren’t for the fact that Britten has been shot, and is bleeding out behind a dumpster in an alley in the other reality. That has to solve itself pretty quickly to get any traction in the finale.

The storage unit data is out there in both realities, but Hawkins is dead in one, Bird in the other. As for Vega, while he was questioning Britten’s sanity for harping on about the Little Man, he stands up for Britten here, since he knows the likelihood that he would kill his partner is precisely zero. The captain gets snippy, and perhaps Vega has some slight suspicions about the situation, since he remains loyal to his partner and doesn’t betray any of the strange things Britten has done during their cases.


If Awake falters, it’s when it cuts away from Britten to show Captain Harper, Carl, and Detective Hawkins scheming together. The show has plainly given away the conspiracy within both realities, and the fairly lame excuse that everything is covering up a heroin smuggling racket, in order to preserve the greater mystery of how and why the metaphysical quandary emerged in the first place. While this is a completely entertaining and engrossing episode, it’s just a slight tick down from last week’s “Say Hello To My Little Friend,” which was the best episode since Awake’s pilot, and the most surreal since the hallucinations of “That’s Not My Penguin.”

From the beginning Awake has been about Jason Isaacs coping with death, ignoring it, brushing up towards acceptance, but mostly stoically and staunchly refusing to accept one world as true. The crooked cops, drug running, and cover-ups are all distractions from the main emotional and metaphysical question at the heart of the show. Part of me is disappointed that the police corruption is on such a small scale in comparison to the science-fiction scenario Britten is living out, and that none of the three co-conspirators seems to acknowledge any inkling that they understand the grand scheme of split realites either. Presumably, that’s what next week’s finale will confront. With any luck, Awake can stick that landing. When the pilot premiered I thought the show sounded like a great idea for a movie, but one that would peter out over the course of a lengthier narrative. Now, one thirteen-episode season, it feels like a pretty good length to close things out on a decent note.


Stray observations:

  • Thanks to Zack for letting me sub in while he’s away this week. He’ll be back for the series finale, when I’ll be mourning the loss of another strong drama that just never found enough viewers to invest in a compelling ongoing story that actually requires invested thought.
  • I said it when the pilot debuted, but I’ve been dumbfounded by how well Wilmer Valderrama has done with this role. It’s not enough to erase Fez or anything, but it’s the first step in the right direction he’s ever had.
  • Okay, the preview for next week’s finale has some seriously mind-bending shit. I’m hopeful that this will resolve itself in a way that sticks the landing and preserves Awake as a memorable one-season wonder, but right now this could go either way.