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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Awake: “Nightswimming”

Illustration for article titled Awake: “Nightswimming”
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What I love most about this show, what elevates even weaker episodes and keeps me from getting too concerned about any conspiracy or mythology or teased out exposition, is the way it continues to connect routine procedural storylines and find new ways to give them deeper meaning. For all the concerns about Awake’s premise—that’s it’s unsustainable over the course of a series, that it’s too difficult to pull off consistently—it has, so far, worked. Not every hour has been perfect, and it seems inevitable that at some point, the writers will run out of moving ways to make cop stories about junkies and murderous businessmen and criminal informants resonate in MIchael’s relationship with his son and wife. But as of tonight’s episode, they’ve never dropped the ball for very long. Television has seen what seems like hundreds of series about police officers trying to balance work and family, and any number of those shows have worked to make connections between incidents on the job, and problems which come up at home. But for some reason, Awake makes it seem like an original and powerful dramatic choice. It’s the show’s dream-like premise; we’re led to take connection and coincidence, not as writerly contrivance, but as proof of some deeper purpose.

Without that purpose, the apparent main storyline of “Nightswimming” wouldn’t really work. After a charming cold open that has Michael naked on a college diving board, we meet Marcus, an accountant for a bad guy named Maxim Basayev. Basayev has, apparently, decided to let Marcus go, with a car bomb which doesn’t work exactly as intended. That sends Marcus to the police, and Michael convinces him testify against Basayev, which means going into Witness Protection. The problem is that Marcus is married, and his wife, Alina, has no idea what he does for a living.

The details of what Marcus does, and who’s chasing him, don’t really matter here, and as such, we don’t spend a lot of time getting into the details. Michael gives a brief run-down of Basayev’s activities, and we see a pair of Russian thugs beating up Alina’s escort/friend Greg, but this isn’t a story about how Marcus tries to change his life, or just why his boss decides to kill him. It’s not Marcus’s story at all, and even Alina only barely figures into the proceedings. She’s upset when she finds out her husband’s been lying to her, and she and Michael have a nice scene on the beach where Alina and Marcus used to spend time as a young married couple, but her and her husband are primarily a means to an end. That’s what makes this story matter, even when it’s not all that compelling in and of itself. There are some nice touches here; while Greg isn’t the most relevant character in the world, the reveal that he’s saving up his money to be a dog trainer was odd enough to be interesting, and I continue to enjoy the way the show puts a bit of extra effort to give its semi-generic plot premises some character. It’s hard to pinpoint, but as archetypal and Marcus and Alina are, they don’t come across as entirely stock types. Alina especially. You’d never mistake Awake for The Wire, but it’s not lazy, either. Or maybe it’s just that Jason Isaacs is so good he makes anyone else next to him that much better.

The real reason for Marcus and Alina and their troubles is that the move to Oregon in Wife World is still going ahead, and Hannah’s starting to clean away the pieces of their old lives. Specifically, she’s packed up some boxes of clothes and random junk to give away to Goodwill, and Michael isn’t a fan. Like Alina and her fear of losing the past, Michael doesn’t want to let go, no matter how much he might claim otherwise. The scenes between Michael and Hannah are the heart of the episode. We don’t see either therapist this week, and Michael for once picking up on the connections between one world and the other without needing anyone to point them out. It’s lovely stuff, delicately handled, a sort of small difference of opinion between a couple that could potentially lead to more trouble down the road if it goes unchecked. We’ve seen Michael and Hannah fight before, first over Michael’s attempts to share his experiences with Rex with her, and then over his reluctant to leave town, and this isn’t really a fight. It’s just a conversation. What’s great is how reasonable Michael sounds when he asks Hannah to give him a few days to go through the Goodwill boxes. He always sounds reasonable; it’s just that every so often, you realize that sanity is a mask he wears so often he doesn’t know it’s there.

Rex sits this episode out completely, which is too bad; as one of the few likable teenage boys on television, he deserves more screentime. It’s strange, actually, considering that the big case this week, Marcus and Alina, takes place entirely in Son World. A potential hazard for a show like this is short-changing one reality in favor of another, as the longer we hang out with Hannah, the easier it is for us to be disappointed when we have to spend time with Rex. Of course, this could be intentional. The show has done a fine job at largely standalone episodes, and even serialization rears its ugly-but-fascinating head, each hour still feels like it’s own separate story. But I don’t know if all of this is building towards anything. I assume it must be, given the hints of conspiracy and the ever intensifying threat of Oregon, but there’s little feel of rising intensity or greater danger. I’m not sure if that sort of feeling would even fit the show. I still remember and love the scene from the pilot where Michael loses his rubber band and freaks out, and I would not object to more where that came from; if Awake wants to keep going, it’ll need to shake things up a bit. (Which is just what they did with “Not My Penguin,” come to think.) But for right now, I’m enjoying the consistently elegiac tone. It’s peaceful and hopeful and sad all at once, and I find myself hoping Michael can sustain this just a little longer, whatever the cost.

Stray observations:

  • The C.I. story was fun; Jake reminded me of Al Pacino’s aging mobster in Donnie Brasco.
  • I’m not usually a fan of in media res cold opens, but this one was sweet, and had an especially good pay-off at the end, when we find out that Hannah was skinny-dipping with Michael at their old college hang-out. Their relationship seemed the most damaged at the start of the series (all those episodes ago), and it’s satisfying to see them together again. I wonder if that’s why Rex has been fading into the background; the closer Michael is to his wife, the less he needs his son. Whatever the reason, if there is a “fake” and “real” world (and I kind of hope there isn’t, however difficult that would be to pull off), it’s looking more and more like Wife World is taking the lead.