It's only three weeks in, and already Awake is proving to be one of our favorite television shows of recent years. Last night's episode was so skillful and graceful, it took what could have been a dull melodrama and turned it into a brilliant bit of character development.
If you're not watching Awake, you're missing out. And if you're a Nielsen household and you're not watching Awake, you're helping to make television crappy. (The good news? Last night's episode had a sizeable uptick in the ratings, so this show may actually have a fighting chance.)
So first of all, it's clear that either both of these worlds that Detective Michael Britten is living in are "real," to some extent — or neither one of them is. To its credit, the show has already thrown off the narrative shackles of trying to show everything from Britten's perspective, to show that it could all be just in his mind. Both worlds are being given a lot of weight — and the way we cut back and forth between the two worlds certainly makes them feel like two equally valid places. And finally, the extent to which events in one world affect events in the other world means that they actually depend on each other.
So yeah — chances are neither world is entirely real. Or else, they really are two different timelines that Michael Britten is visiting every time he falls asleep. (Of course, the show teases us with the "one reality is just a dream" scenario by having Hannah Britten tell her husband he was "tossing and turning" the night before, when he was dealing with his son's kidnapping in the other reality.)
"Guilty" marks the first time that Michael Britten makes a concerted attempt to fall asleep in one world, so he can wake up in the other one and find out some information he needs. And the fact that it works — and in fact, he gets information he could not possibly have known without the visit to Cooper in prison — means that there's more going on here than just a psychotic episode.
The actual plot of "Guilty" is pretty easy to summarize: Michael's son Rex gets kidnapped by Cooper, a man whom Michael helped put behind bars. Meanwhile, in the other reality, Hannah is going to a memorial for Rex at the youth crisis center where Rex volunteered when he was alive. And when Cooper is killed in the reality where Rex is kidnapped, then Michael has to go convince the Cooper who's still alive, in the other reality, to help him find his son. In the end, Michael realizes that Cooper was framed, and that he helped put an innocent man in prison for a decade.
What's harder to sum up is all of the tons of little character details and emotional moments in this episode — a lot of it could so easily have been schlocky or exploitative, and it might even sound that way when you describe it to someone. But instead, deft performances and really clever editing all around make it some of the most powerful television I've seen in ages. I've seen people saying that the supporting cast, especially Laura Allen (Hannah) and Dylan Minnette (Rex) are the show's weak link — but they sure didn't seem that way in last night's episode.
In particular, the moment where Rex tells his tennis instructor Tara that he is having a hard time communicating with his dad because he wishes his mom had survived instead of him is just so intense, and amazing. Especially since it highlights the unfairness of Michael's weird situation — he gets to have both of them alive, but they don't get to have each other. The way Rex says he chooses his mother — as if he gets any choice — is really fascinating and heartbreaking. And then in the end, when we hear what the apparently-dying Rex recorded as his "last" message to his father — about not blaming him, and the fact that Hannah held them together — it's another powerful moment.
And meanwhile, Hannah's speech about Rex to the youth crisis center is also really nice — about how he just wanted to fulfill his school's community service requirement, and then over time he really got into helping people and she heard him helping convince a girl not to hurt herself.
A big part of what works really well in this episode is the clever cutting back and forth between the show's three main characters, including the way we see Rex tied up in the shack when Hannah is giving her speech about him. And also the way we cut from Michael leaving a weak apology on Hannah's voicemail to Hannah at the youth crisis center, basking in the love for her son from everybody there. There's a lot of really clever technique in this episode. I also like the way the "duelling shrinks" concept isn't overused — we don't see much of them until the end of the episode.
And meanwhile, the "case of the week," in addition to being directly tied in to Michael's personal issues, is also a chance to see Michael confronting his own identity as a good cop. For most of the episode, he clings to the idea that Cooper is guilty, and even when he goes to see Cooper in prison, he's just trying to trick him. He has zero interest in hearing Cooper's theories about who might have framed him, and he plays a shitty hand of poker. It's only when Michael is cornered that he decides to take Cooper at his word — and it turns out to be true.
The scene where Michael confronts his ex-partner Jim and accuses him of framing Cooper — and Jim turns it around and accuses Michael of being crazy, with Vega and all the cops listening in outside — is a nail-biter. I was kind of freaking out when Michael starts to walk away from Jim, and it looks like his bluff has been called. For some reason, this piece of suspense worked better for me than standard TV suspense — maybe because I was emotionally invested in the characters, or maybe because it's pretty clear that everybody on this show is eventually going to decide Michael really is crazy. It's just a matter of time.
So yeah, I have pretty much no complaints about this episode — if I have to come up with one, it's that we've now had two episodes in a row about Rex, and nothing about Hannah. Let's hope the balance gets redressed soon. Other than that, though, this show is kicking some serious tail — and you owe it to yourself to watch.