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The Absolute Final Wake for 'Awake'
May 25, 2012  | By Eric Gould  | 8 comments

TVWW readers have shared with us their disappointment over the cancellation of NBC's
Awake. Contributor Eric Gould has been monitoring the series' ending, and previously reported on the show's cancellation and penultimate epsiode. We invite you to leave your own thoughts and interpretations about the series finale in the comments section below.

The success of last night's Awake series finale depended on how you feel about endings: Do you prefer stories that spell it all out and close the book, or ones that finish with ambiguity and leave the door open just a little?

Spoiler alert: If you haven't seen the series finale of Awake, stop here — we're going into the nitty-gritty details of last night's season and series finale episode.

For a series that thrived on the ambiguity of Detective Michael Britten's (Jason Isaacs) predicament — was he really in two worlds, between them, or was there something else going on? — one could say it ended a little too neatly. Or did it?

Some viewers will walk away believing that Britten was simply asleep the entire time. But there were also subtle dialogue hints that may have disproved that reality had the show continued for another season. It depends on the ending you wanted to take away, and unexpectedly gave the show's small but enthusiastic audience a few different ways to interpret the series.
To recap the premise: After an auto accident in which he was driving his wife and son, Britten awoke to find his wife Hanna (Laura Allen) had survived and his son had been killed. Awaking the next morning, the reverse is true — his son Rex (Dylan Minnette) is alive, and his wife is dead. Each day after, his "reality" alternated, and color-tinted screens were used to indicate which world Britten was inhabiting at any given time. Throughout the season, Britten was working out this confounding dilemma with two different therapists — one in each reality. Both argued that Britten had created the opposite world in order to cope with the death of a loved one.

Low ratings plagued the show, and two weeks ago, NBC cancelled it. Producer Kyle Killen said in a pre-finale interview with Entertainment Weekly that the show's ending had been completed well in advance of the show's cancellation and had not been re-edited for last night's broadcast.

It seems as though in the green world, where his son is alive, Britten had solved the conspiracy enacted by his own superiors that had caused the auto accident, and with that revelation the red world began to dissolve for him.

In the episode, entitled "Turtles All the Way Down" (perhaps meaning shells within shells) there's a key moment when Britten discusses the aftermath with his green-time therapist Dr. Evans (Cherry Jones). During that pivotal visit, Britten questions whether both worlds might be a dream within another dream. The door to the office then opens, and leads into his bedroom. Britten then enters into a color-corrected world, not red-tinged, or green. From there he walks into the kitche where both his wife and son remark about how long he had been sleeping.

For those (like me) who were convinced Britten was perhaps suspended between life and death as a result of the accident, or maybe in a coma, the idea that he had merely been asleep in his home the entire time felt a little too easy. Or worse, it seemed like a quick way out of what had been a very compelling script idea. It had the feel of the much-debated St. Elsewhere finale, which ended with a scene that implied that the series' entire six-year run was nothing but an autistic child's fantasy.

It wasn't a literary masterstroke, but perhaps it was the best possible outcome — one that perhaps didn't give all the answers, but gave some closure to a show that took creative risks. Awake was at its best a metaphor for our own waking daydreams and inner dialogue, for those moments when we ponder lives un-lived.

Perhaps Britten's multiple worlds should be assumed to continue, since that's how we go on ourselves. What are scripted shows, anyway, but a world created in someone's else's imagination? In that sense, we're simply going along for the ride, anyway, so why should Britten's inner escape be a letdown?

It's also another example (Rubicon comes to mind) of a show that set a novel-like tone and world of quietude, both of which are antithetical to most scripted dramas that move quickly to keep the momentum high, and presumably, maintain viewers interest. That's obviously a consideration when discussing both Rubicon and now, Awake, neither of which reached a second season.

Another consideration is that perhaps both shows were perfect for one season — becoming maxi-series of sorts. Awake's idea of a man with two equally real waking lives, and the mystery behind it, perhaps could not have held interest for multiple seasons. It did not have the ensemble scenario of a enigmatic journey like Lost where the story could branch off into many storylines.

You could argue that we should be very satisfied with Awake's single-subject, one-season mystery. AMC's The Killing has gone off the rails in its second season, with viewers deserting the show thanks, in part, to the major red herring introduced to sustain the Rosie Larson murder mystery. The Killing is obviously not an idea worthy of multiple seasons. Would Detective Britten's dilemma have gone stale in season two, too?

Awake was a bold journey into an unusual place. The world that Killen created was unique, and that cannot be said of many shows.

But now it's time to put Awake to bed.

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I'm very disappointed, as this is one of the 3 shows that I follow with any regularity. Fabulously acted, very well produced and filmed.
Jun 19, 2012   |  Reply
My sense of the “three” worlds is that the red world only appeared to have collapsed in on itself because Britten had gone to a deeper level of dreaming that began shortly after he attacked Captain Harper. In that dream state, he accesses clues from the subconscious that had been working in the green world while asleep there, and appears to wake up to uncover Harper’s role in the conspiracy. However, because the passage into that world was itself a dream, his next awakening is perpendicular to it, leading into a “third” world. Therefore, it seems his next awakening would unfortunately be in the prison cell precisely where he had been sitting on the floor.

I would have liked to see Awake have at least one more season to explore the intriguing and emotionally rich themes it introduced.  In every respect (plot, characters, cinematography, music, etc.) it felt more like an extended feature film than a TV series!
Jun 6, 2012   |  Reply
Jeff B.
The Awake finale felt like the writers borrowed heavily from Inception, without the same payoff. It had potential, but I think that another season would have been too long.

Life on Mars was a great one-season show. I would like to see more network shows that wrap up a story in one to two seasons max.

Yet I really disagree with you takes on Rubicon and The Killing. Rubicon was fascinating and it had barely scratched the surface of the conspiracy when it was cancelled. I still think AMC chickened out by not giving it a second season.

And as for The Killing, I don't know what show you have been watching, but this season has been leaps and bounds better than season one. The acting, the twists, and the character development have kept me on the edge of my seat every weekend. And even if the Rosie Larson case is conclusively solved, I would love to see what happens next in the lives of Linden and Holder as they deal with the aftershocks of the Larson case.
May 29, 2012   |  Reply
Jeff: I can tell you more than one of us here at TVWW bailed on The Killing after Season Two, Ep-1. But -- you're not the only one to lobby hard for the show this year. So. We're going to go back and watch the show from the beginning this year, based on yours and others comments! Thanks for making the case -- the Rosie Larson case, that is. --EG
May 29, 2012
"Turtles all the way down" refers to the image that the world rests on the back of an elephant that is standing on the back of a turtle. So, what is the turtle standing on? It's turtles all the way down. :}
May 27, 2012   |  Reply
Joel: Excellent find on the title for the series finale! There's an article here that attributes the reference to an anecdote that Steven Hawking wrote about another scientist...http://wordplay.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/10/10/numberplay-turtles-all-the-way-down/

And also, along with it, a picture of what the reference might look like. Your mention is yet another reason why the ideas behind the show were so challenging. And so rewarding. Thanks for adding to the tribute. --EG
May 27, 2012
Hey, thanks, Joel. I thought that was a good line, but I didn't know why.
May 27, 2012
This was a good show that for reasons beyond my understanding didn't catch on with the John Q.
May 26, 2012   |  Reply
Greg Kibitz
As always NBC dumps yet another very good something. Again, something just too good for broadcast, going by the wayside. Just like Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip or Southland. Hopefully TNT, FX or someone of their ilk will realize its value, buy the rights to it and re-new it with a new life where it belongs, just as happened with Southland (one of the best and most authenitc cop shows ever, period!).

That said, really dying to know what was really up on Awake. Post accident Coma is my guess, with endless possibilities therein. So lots of dreams inside dreams, lots of layers, lots of schisms, lots of turtles and shells. We were just beginning to scratch the surface, as his free ranging consciousness tried to makes sense of the very little data it actually has. But just as with Life on Mars, we would only find out in the final episode, find out that it was all just something else, something else that makes sense, and Awake's "last episode" was not that episode.
May 26, 2012   |  Reply
Greg: For every mention on TVWW that "Lost" unfairly treated followers, there's an equal amount claiming undying love for the show. It's still that controversial. Same deal on this years "The Killing." Strong feelings on both sides. But it's great to compare notes, so keep yours coming...
May 27, 2012
Greg Kibitz
EG - Just wanted to let you know I wrote two other comments (begging to differ greatly) on what you said about LOST (ultimately a very huge disappointment after 5 wasted years) and The Killing (still love it, it and just keeps getting better & better). However, each of they're prolix three paragraph structures exceeded the 1000 character limit. Really liked what I wrote. Did not want to cut them down willy nilly. I wish your comment box had a character counter.

Agreed, Awake was a very "trippy" for a network show. Makes me want to go back and watch Jacob's Ladder yet again! (1st watched as teen when it came out, & was, @ the time, in state of "altered consciousness."). Complex shows like Awake are far better for premium or basic cable, audience growth can be allowed to be more gradual. No relying on just ratings and ad sales.
May 27, 2012
Greg: When writing about "Awake" we've all mentioned "Rubicon" and "Southland". I love your additions of "Studio 60" and "Life on Mars" as contenders for shows equal in quality -- and your contention that Britten's last awakening was not the final one. As Dr. Evans said, "turtles all the way down." That the series was excavating multiple levels of consciousness was pretty trippy stuff for a network show, and I still applaud the attempt. I am still, however, grieving the loss. -EG
May 27, 2012
Bill M
I thoroughly enjoyed and fully engaged in the Awake series, and am disappointed in its cancellation. And you just had to mention Rubicon, which was the absolute best series ever produced for television! Obviously, mindless television rules ...
May 26, 2012   |  Reply
I loved this show. And I loved the third "reality" ending. Interesting, well-written concepts, great acting - a good reason to look forward to Thursday night television. Would "Awake" have survived multiple seasons? Probably not. But I certainly would have enjoyed a second season to savor the characters.
May 25, 2012   |  Reply
Donna: Agreed. The show might have run out of places to go even before a second season completed. I want to believe that Killen and the writing team had that covered, though, since he was quoted in EW that NBC insisted on knowing (and presumably approved of) the Season One finale before they green lit the show. Perhaps a second season had been similarly mapped out. As you say, the characters were well drawn, and Jason Isaacs was incomparable. Killen said the focus should now be on lobbying for him to get the Best Actor Emmy. I completely agree.
May 27, 2012
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