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Saturday, May 26, 2012

Goodnight, Awake

Warning: Spoilers for the series finale of Awake follow. 

Alongside Person of Interest, Awake was one of my favourite shows of the year. Unlike Person of Interest, Awake suffered low ratings and its first season is also its last.

Presenting an interesting twist on the police procedural, Awake featured Detective Michael Britten's  struggle to reconcile two worlds: one in which his wife survived a terrible car accident but their son did not, another in which his son survived but his wife did not. Whenever Britten falls asleep, he switches from one world to the next, and clues discovered in one world often help him solve crimes in the other. Each world seems perfectly real to Britten; he can't tell which is reality, and which the dream.

The show was at its best when Britten was forced to consider the possibility that he might very well be experiencing profound mental illness; certainly his therapists - one in each reality - struggle to convince him to accept that his wife/his son are gone, and that he needs to move on. But when you can't tell the difference between the waking world and the dream world, how can you possibly make that choice?

I empathize with Britten because my dreams have always been similarly vivid, often fooling me into thinking I have an array of other lives. But there comes a time when you must face reality and awaken - or so convention would say. Up until the final minutes of the episode, Awake seems ready to bow to convention and say definitively which of Britten's two worlds was real, and which a dream. But the series coda - which clearly sets up a new premise for the aborted season two - makes him question reality all over again. After the series' first dream sequence that actually seems dreamlike, Britten seems to awaken, only to find both wife and son alive and well and acting as if nothing had ever happened.

Some will read the finale as a copout - Britten seems to get everything he wants, the entire season was a dream and so on. I think the creators were more subtle than that; hints dropped in the final minutes suggest some more complex resolution. But even if this was an eleventh-hour tacked-on happy ending, it feels more to me like the one that resolved Grant Morrison's groundbreaking run on the Animal Man comic back in the late 80s: after being put through hell, the titular hero gets his happy ending via writer's fiat, and it doesn't seem like a cheat. It seems like mercy. Compassion.

Happy endings are hard to come by for real people. Maybe we need them once in a while for our imaginary heroes. Maybe that's the stuff that dreams are made of: hope for better, happier worlds than this. 

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