I have a feeling that tonight’s episode of Awake, the thought provoking series about a man living two lives, is going to be rather polarizing. I quite liked it, not only because it wasn’t afraid to ask questions, but because it illustrates that the show is cognizant of the discussions that we, as viewers, are having about the nature of Michael’s (Jason Isaacs) double life.
Let’s bitch it out…
Amidst all of the discussions about whether one life is real and the other a dream, there have been a few other theories about what has happened to Michael since the accident. There are two theories floating around: one is that everything is a dream/he’s in a coma (ala Life on Mars). The other is the situation that plays out tonight in ‘That’s Not My Penguin’, which is that Michael is actually schizophrenic (Side Note: This harks back to one of the most interesting or one of the worst episodes of Buffy, when Buffy is in a mental institution and informed that she only thinks that she’s a vampire slayer. Ultimately, like Michael, she chooses “the delusion”).
I think that people would rather debate whether the red (his wife is alive) or the green life (his son is alive) are real because the coma & schizophrenic theories are more upsetting. It’s challenging enough to witness Michael try to keep his relationship with his wife and son alive as they grapple with the loss of the missing family member, so to consider that neither of them survived and he’s imaging them (either through drugs or delusion) is mondo depressing.
It’s refreshing then, that the show isn’t willing to simply let us off the hook. The schizophrenia/mental illness angle remains on the table, even after it’s clear that the person to whom we’re meant to associate Michael with – Gabriel Wyath III (Billy Lush) – has, in fact, been imaging his dead sister. It’s a sad realization, but Michael ultimately sticks to the ideals that he established in the pilot that he isn’t interested in making ‘progress’ as it’s defined by his two shrinks. This decision causes him to lie to Gabriel because, as he elaborates to Dr. Evans (Cherry Jones): “What’s great about seeing reality as it is?”
The fact that he’s been seeing a penguin* throughout the episode is easy enough to explain thanks to the ketamine that he’s been stabbed with. The twist that he actually envisioned Dr. Lee (B.D Wong) when he wasn’t physically present inside the hospital is more disarming. The suggestion that he recreated Dr. Lee, complete with mannerisms and advice, suggests that his mind is capable of creating functional shrinks, and either of them (or both) could be figments of his imagination, although with all the other elements of his daily routine.
*Is the choice of the penguin to represent his hallucination a reference to Fight Club, where the flightless bird is the spirit guide of the schizophrenic protagonist? It’s very wink wink, nudge nudge of showrunner Kyle Killen (who also co-wrote this episode) if that’s the intention.
Looking past all the existential questions posed by the episode, ‘That’s Not My Penguin’ is also just a very entertaining episode of television. It fulfills its mandatory procedural/cop drama tropes (hostage situation defused by heroic cop) and, for those of us less interested in these NCIS-lite moments, a few nice beats with wife Hannah (Laura Allen) and, more significantly, son Rex (Dylan Minnette). I liked the brief sexy scene Michael shares with Hannah when he tries to convince her to come back to bed (I still don’t understand the comments that they don’t complement each other). Although Hannah didn’t get to do much more than react to his role in the hostage drama, even the breakdown on the phone with Vega and her brief reunion with Michael are satisfying.
Better still are the scenes in which Michael questions Rex about a missing ring that may be part of the Green hospital case. I liked that the ring was a red herring, and conversationally it leads into the reveal that Michael has been so out of touch with Rex that he’s failed to notice that the boy has been seeing Emma (Daniela Bobadilla). As a love interest Emma is fresh and fun – a lively contrast to the more somber father-son relationship embodied by Michael and Rex. Although the nature of this relationship does raise some questions (once again, the skewering of the episode order makes Rex’s assertion that he and Emma have been dating a few months difficult to believe. She wouldn’t have been around in the aftermath of his kidnapping back in 1×03 ‘Guilty’? Or are we meant to assume that months have passed since then?) Either way, I enjoyed Emma and hope she sticks around for a bit, if only so that she can continue to make fun of Rex and hug Michael.
- Whether you liked the schizophrenia plotline or not, the opening montage in which Dr. Lee and his students describe the conditions of Gabe’s condition intercut with scenes of Michael struggling to balance his two worlds was exceptionally well done. Great editing and an engaging way to introduce a boatload of exposition and the themes of the episode in just a minute or two. The fact that this looked effortless means that it was not.
- The resolution of how Michael figured out Gabe’s sister called him Trip (a convoluted mess that includes the Trip 07 bit on the back of the photo and the three at the end of Gabe’s name on his medical records) is another logic gap for the show. If Awake wants to continue introducing these “cases of the week”, even if they speak directly to Michael’s state of mind or address his dual lives, the writers need to tidy up these procedural elements more realistically. I’m fine with the ring not amounting to anything (because it reiterates that not everything is a clue or important), but I shouldn’t induce migraines trying to understand the details of the weekly caper.
- No more mention of moving to Oregon, which is another suggestion that there’s less order to these episodes than mythology-centric viewers may care for (also, no mention of vast government conspiracies, either). It’s clear that the show isn’t overly interested in developing a sustained game plan, or at least not in these first early to mid-season episodes.
- Anyone else think that it’s significant that if Michael is drugged in one life, the residual effects (in this case the anesthetics that Gabe sticks him with) carry over to his other life? File this away for later as I think it may come back. Also…after the credits, Michael is clearly tired as he stifles a yawn. Is this our first sign that never actually getting to sleep is beginning to take a mental toll on him?
What did you think, Awake-rs? Did you like the suggestions that Dr. Evans and Lee make about the case (i.e.: that it is Michael’s attempt to insert a schizophrenic character/element as a representation of his own need to work out which delusion is real)? Did you find it interesting that this week Dr. Lee is more supportive, while Dr. Evans is the aggressor (since she felt that he wasted the opportunity to come clean to Gabe in favour of supporting his delusion)? And are you happy that the show has addressed the question of whether Michael is schizophrenic and left it open as an option, or do you wish that this card had not been played?
Awake airs Thursdays at 10pm EST on NBC