Awake really is the best show you're not watching

Every once in a while, one TV show comes along that does it all: explore characters at a deep level, delve into major philosophical issues in a fresh, meaningful way, and keep you white-knuckled with suspense. Awake is one such show, and if you're not watching it, you're missing something extraordinary. The last two episodes, in particular, have taken this dream cop show to a whole new level.

Spoilers ahead...

One thing kept popping into my mind, watching the past couple of episodes of Awake: This show is like the original Life on Mars in all the best ways. It's capturing the same spark of reality-warping cleverness that made Life on Mars such compulsive viewing, and it's using the problem-solving elements of cop shows to solve internal, psychological problems in a way that reminds me of Mars at its best. Awake is the heir to Mars in a way that the American remake could never hope to be.

It's worth restating the premise of Awake, for anyone who hasn't been watching it. Michael Britten is a cop who gets into a car accident, in which either his wife or his son dies. Whenever Britten goes to sleep in a world where his wife died, he wakes up immediately in a world where his son died. And vice versa. He shuttles back and forth between the two worlds. Most shows would play this premise in terms of Britten trying actively to figure out which world is the real one — but instead, at least thus far, Britten has been fighting against that reality check with all his willpower.

This is the story of a brilliant detective who passionately fights to avoid facing reality.

The one weakness that Awake has shown, in a couple of episodes thus far, has been a tendency to try and show two complete police investigations happening in one episode, with one investigation in each separate reality. And the two investigations, ideally, are supposed to connect with each other via a sort of random dream logic that makes Britten look both psychic and a bit flaky. Unfortunately, the show hasn't been able to pull off two cases in one episode in a satisfying manner thus far.

The good news is, most of the episodes haven't tried to juggle two fully-fledged cases at all, and they've been the richer for it. The past two episodes, in particular, had just one case, and they managed to build on each other and on the show's roots. In both episodes, Britten was dealing with a madman, whose madness is explicitly juxtaposed with Britten's own unraveling mental state.

In last week's episode, a longtime serial killer comes to L.A., and Britten nearly catches him because he notices something that reminds him of his other dreamworld. And because Britten can't explain how he caught up with the serial killer, he's immediately suspected of being an accomplice or copycat — something which only gets worse when the serial killer calls an FBI agent from Britten's own home phone. Britten eventually clears his name, but the serial killer gets away — and it's a set up for an utterly chilling scene in which the serial killer reveals he knows about Britten's two conflicting realities, and he believes they're kindred spirits: people who see the world "sideways." (In other words, either crazy people or visionaries, depending on how you see it.)

And after last week's episode explicitly raised the question of Britten's sanity, this week's installment runs with it. And it's brutal. Britten's shrink in the Red World, the world where his wife is alive instead of his son, is caring for a schizophrenic genius. And we see Dr. Lee enumerate all of the signs of schizophrenia, the refusal to face reality and the unraveling of the psyche — while we also watch all of those things happening to Britten in real time. It's not a question of whether Britten is losing his grip, but rather of how long he can hold on to the ledge.

After that same schizophrenic patient takes a bunch of people hostage and threatens to blow up the mental hospital, Britten is sent in to negotiate with him. And over time, it becomes clear that Gabe Wyeth III really is nuts. He believes his dead sister is alive, being held prisoner underground by the evil Dr. Wild — but she's actually at the Wild Cemetery, six feet under. Britten's shrinks in both worlds point out to him, in different ways, that this is a metaphor for Britten's own refusal to confront the reality that one of his worlds (at least one) is just a lucid dream. Britten is dealing with someone who's got the same problem as he has, only more advanced. All Britten has to do is help Gabe to have a breakthrough and accept his sister's death, and he'll have symbolically vanquished his own inner schizophrenic. He'll be that much closer to a breakthrough of his own.

Instead, Britten deploys all of his superhuman skill at denial and self-delusion on Gabe's behalf, helping him to become better at tricking himself. He offers Gabe a happier version of his fantasy that his sister is alive, one in which she's free instead of trapped. And this allows Britten to resolve the hostage crisis without conceding that reality is better than fantasy. Towards the end of the episode, Britten comes the closest he's gotten to enunciating a personal philosophy: Reality sucks. Why would you want to face reality? What's the point? If a hallucination is more pleasant or comforting, why not go with that?

Awake isn't just asking the age-old question, "What is reality?" Or probing the notion that reality is what everybody agrees on, rather than something objective and external. Those are great questions to ask, but Awake goes a step further and asks whether one person, through sheer force of will, can't reshape reality to his own liking. For Michael Britten, living in two discrete versions of the world is simply an organizational problem. As long as he can keep his wife and son's coffee orders separate and keep track of the little details, he's golden.

But of course, he can't. This episode shows him unraveling more than ever. He accidentally addresses Vega as his partner, in the world where Vega is just a beat cop. He gets the phone bill disconnected and loses track of stuff.

And then there's the lingering unease from that conversation at the end of the previous episode — because Britten is basically doing what the serial killer told him to do. He's clinging to his delusion rather than waking up, because he feels on some level that his dual worlds is a kind of gift. A superpower, almost. It allows him to find stuff that nobody else can, and it also prevents him from having to swallow his grief over the death of either his wife or his son.

Even if Britten could manage to keep both worlds absolutely straight in his head — and get enough sleep to function, in both worlds — he can't keep doing this much longer.

In Red World, his wife Hannah is pushing him to move to Oregon, so they can start over and have a life away from their son Rex's shadow. (There's a super-moving scene where Hannah talks about how she sees some of Rex every time she looks at Michael, and she doesn't want to run away from that — she just wants them to have a life again.) Juggling the two worlds will get exponentially harder once he's waking up in two different cities, and it's possible that one or the other will just dissolve like the dream it is.

In Green World, Britten is once again failing as a dad. He screws up turning in a permission slip for Rex to go on a field trip, so Rex has to go to study hall for a whole day. Rex has a girlfriend with hippie parents, who's sleeping over in Rex's room, and Britten doesn't even notice until he steals evidence from a case to give to her as a present. It's more of a problem for Britten to be flaky in Green World, because there he's a father, and he has responsibility for someone else. He can't just be a little bit checked out, when he's dealing with his son.

Oh, and Britten starts hallucinating a penguin in both worlds, either because Gabe injected him with ketamine or because he's losing his shit more and more. He also hallucinates that Dr. Lee gets to come inside the mental institution where he's locked up with the hostages, and he imagines several detailed conversations with Dr. Lee — who later mentions that he was outside in a secure location, the whole time.

So I'm really dying to see what happens next. How much longer can Britten maintain his determination to avoid breaking one of his worlds? Will he eventually concede that one world must, indeed, be a dream, and start actively trying to figure out which it is? How would you even go about proving that, short of acting like a crazy person? I don't even know what to hope for: that Britten remains stubbornly attached to his two worlds, like Number 6 defying the Village's attempts to break him, or that he finally decides to face reality. Whatever place that turns out to be.

I do know one thing, though — if you're not watching this show, you're missing quite possibly the coolest thing on network TV right now.