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Awake: “Turtles All The Way Down”

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I enjoyed watching the first season of Awake, and I’m glad the show was cancelled.


This is an odd feeling. And it’s not really useful to any of you out there on the other side of the computer screen, but I mention it because it’s the best way I can describe my reaction to “Turtles All The Way Down,” my reaction to this entire season of television. There were some great episodes in there, a terrific lead performance from Jason Isaacs, and some empathetic, soulful observations about the nature of loss and the way we try to come back from it. At the same time, there was also a more than fair amount of predictable cop drama plotting, and two realities which never cohered enough to be anything more than props. As Todd suggested in his review of the first episode, the question from the start was, is this sustainable as a series? And after spending a few months trying to pretend otherwise, I have to come down on the “no” side. This doesn’t mean the season we got wasn’t worth having, or that there’s any real cause for alarm that the show managed to last as long as it did. If anything, it’s a near perfect example of what happens when talented writers and actors get involved with a project that can’t quite hold together. If I ever teach a creative writing class, I might assign the series, to show how even the best, smartest effort can’t generate blood from a stone. Everything we needed to know, we learned back in March, and when a story is naturally finished, efforts to continue it will nearly always look strained or inconsistent, with flares of brilliance popping up in otherwise empty skies.

It’s telling that so much of the past two episodes has been devoted to Michael’s efforts to track down the men and woman responsible for the deaths of his wife in one world, and son in the other. None of this should matter, really. Uncovering the conspiracy (which, initial spookiness aside, is about as humdrum as conspiracies get) isn’t going to change the past, and it’s not what drew people into the show in the first place. There’s no mention of an assassin in the pilot; the most ambiguous exchange about the accident seemed, at the time, to be suggesting that Michael might have been partially responsible for what happened, a powerful, elegant way of adding further necessity to his bulwark of belief. So now Michael’s running around the city, getting shot and losing friends, and the drama to it never gets beyond the surface concerns. Will he escape? Will he catch the bad guys? Neither of these questions matter to the emotional impact of the show; neither of them even belong in the world(s) created in that pilot. The chase is exciting, although it’s frustrating to watch the iterations of the same basic plot play out over and over again between last week and this, and Isaacs is convincingly terrifying when he finally realizes who really betrayed him. But these are events that fail to illuminate his relationship with his son and his wife, and, even worse, tell us absolutely nothing about his character. This is a man who, we’ve been led to believe, was so maddened by the death of a loved one that he created an alternate reality to compensate for the loss. But here, he’s reduced to just another action hero hellbent on getting revenge for what was taken from him. For too much of “Turtles,” he’s running or limping for place to place as other people—people we barely know—take care of things.

Ah, I can hear you thinking, but what of the second half, Handlen? What about when the chicken heart really begins to grow? Well, it’s certainly a fun change of pace when Michael sits down for a brief interview with himself in prison (although it would have been more fun if the promo hadn’t spoiled the reveal), and the final scenes of the episode are the sort of gratifyingly creepy weirdness I’ve praised the show for in the past. There are enough suggestions and hints for fans to speculate on just what those final moments meant—is Michael really united with his family? Was this all just some dream? Or has he finally suffered the psychotic break Dr. Lee kept warning him about? My money’s on that last one; Lee mentions it earlier in the episode, and it’s the only interpretation that comes even close to making sense. I’d bet Kyle Killen had some kind of plan if the show had been lucky enough to get renewed, but it’s an okay ending as is, especially since it leaves some wiggle room for the audience to come to its own conclusions.

But “okay” doesn’t mean all the nuttiness manages to snap the rest of the season into focus. Just the opposite, really. The two Brittens, Vega in a penguin suit, Michael going through all kinds of doors—these all appeal to me more than generic procedural plotting, but they aren’t really significantly better than all those sequences of Michael chasing down leads. They’re more surprising, but that surprise only goes so far, and while I’m glad the show embraced some final insanity before the end, it’s more the illusion of depth than actual depth. These symbols don’t resonate beyond the initial shock, and to make this sort of surrealism work, it needs to go further, play stranger, and have just enough internal logic that we believe it’s not just a matter of narrative convenience. Awake nearly manages that last part, but it’s still far too easy to see this all as a matter of expertly constructed padding. The first part of the finale tried to generate suspense, and didn’t do much beyond the basic curiosity of “I wonder what comes next.” The second part tried to delve more deeply into the psychological horror of Michael’s condition, but failed to give as a single idea more powerful than the premise introduced in the pilot.


Like I said, I enjoyed watching this episode, and at a certain point, it’s hard to ask for more from an hour of television. But like I also said, I’m glad the series got cancelled. There were damn talented people working behind and front of the camera on this series, and I look forward to their next projects. But this one was over before it got started. Not because of bad ratings, or a lack of initiative, but because stories, like lives, end when they end. Sometimes, the only thing you can do is appreciate the time you had, and learn to let go.

Stray observations:

  • “A place where no one will complain about the noise” is both a sexy pick-up line, and, in the right context, very, very threatening.
  • Speaking of, it’s great to learn that Chief Harper and Kessel were hooking up, and just as great to see her brutally murder him in the name of expedience. Doesn’t really tell us anything more about Harper, but it did serve to make her briefly more interesting.
  • All right, the boring stuff is done with. Now for fun: pitch a second season. Go big, or go home. (Freddy Kruger tie-ins will be scored accordingly.)
  • EDITED TO ADD: Forgot to mention last night, but it was a nice touch that Michael wasn't wearing either rubber band in the final scene. The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that that was a happy/sad ending. Even the title of the episode bodes ill. It reminds me a bit of [THEMATIC SPOILER] the ending of the UK Life On Mars, a show it often feels like Awake was trying to emulate. I wonder if the series might have been stronger in the long run if it had been able to follow the British model; fewer episodes might have felt more like a fever dream.

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