Michael Britten is one exhausted cop, apparently.
"What, exactly, is so great about seeing reality the way it is?"
A high-concept show like Awake really needs to do two things: establish rules of the universe in which it takes place, and then follow them. When a narrative approaches those rules with uncertainty, the whole thing falls apart. There are times when Awake feels liks it's slipping down this bad path. What we know going into "That's Not My Penguin" is that Michael Britten shunts into an alternate reality when he falls asleep; that he lives two parallel lives spun out of one tragic event. What we're only seeing now is the suggestion that Britten is sleep-deprived. He's exhausted and he has trouble keeping things straight. He gets his realities mixed up, and he's getting increasingly frustrated and irritable.
That's the setup for tonight's episode, anyway. We see Britten's issues in montage, while Dr. Lee (who finally gets to get out of his office chair and walk around outside for the first time in the series) presents Gabriel, another patient of his, to a group of students. Gabriel, a schizophrenic, is suffering from the delusion that his dead sister is actually alive, and being held captive by some mad scientist in a secret underground bunker. The similarity to Britten's possible insanity is staggeringly obvious, but it also raises the question of exactly from whose point of view the story of Awake is being told. This has come up before, but these scenes (which take place in both realities) without Britten disjoint the narrative somewhat. They provide nice character moments – the scene between Rex and his new girlfriend, for example – but how do they fit into the big picture? If anything, they give credence to the idea that Britten really is moving between two realities rather than dreaming. That's all well and good, but such a personal story having point of view shifts is somewhat problematic.
The character interactions are solid enough to compensate, though. Dr. Evans makes a connection between Britten's hallucinating a case involving a schizophrenic and what she thinks is his underlying desire to do away with his delusion. Dr. Lee, meanwhile gets to actually see Britten in his element when Gabriel holes up in his mental hospital with a bomb. Britten has to negotiate with the hostage (the cop show cliché for this episode) but gets knocked out and injected with ketamine. He wakes up in the Rex Reality where nobody's threatening to blow anything up, but he's still having trouble relating to his son. This leads us to one of the interesting notes Awake hits: the notion that the two realities don't work the same way. In the Hannah Reality, Britten and his wife are able to progress in their healing, and even have something of a pretty happy marriage (probably why it gets cast with the warmer color temperature). In the Rex Reality, without Hannah there to act as a conduit between the two males in the house, Britten and Rex just can't seem to get on the same page. Britten reaches out to Rex more forcefully than he ever has before, and it seems to pay off when Rex ends up introducing him to his new girlfriend Emma (whose parents practice "progressive parenting," wherein she's allowed to have sex with her boyfriend, provided she's honest about it, but isn't allowed to eat processed sugar). In watching Britten's interaction with Emma, he's able to see him as a person, mirroring Dr. Lee's experience with seeing Britten as a cop in the other reality.
Britten is also hallucinating in the Rex Reality, a result of the ketamine he's been injected with by Gabriel in the Hannah Reality. He's keeps seeing an odd peguin everywhere he goes now, a story element that was as creepy as it was hilarious. If Awake is going to deal in issues of the mind and sanity, this type of weirdness will certainly be welcome. It was jarring to see stone-faced Britten look at an otherworldly penguin while talking to Dr. Evans, but for some reason, it just worked so well. Still, there was a dark undercurrent to the wackiness. After Britten decides to tell Gabriel the comforting lie that his sister escaped her captors and ran to somewhere very far away (rather than the harsh truth that she is dead), thus ending the hostage crisis without anyone getting killed, Dr. Evans starts to wonder if his insistence on sustaining his dual life is going to take a toll on his psyche, and if he will be locked up in a mental ward ranting about how his dead family members are actually alive. On the other side, Britten realizes that Dr. Lee was never inside the mental ward with him, giving him advice on how to deal with Gabriel. He hallucinated that.
Britten was helped along with a hallucinogenic drug this time out, but "That's Not My Penguin" shows the possibility that living in two realities, real or not, is probably going to break his mind. We see the way it's taking it's toll on him at the top of the episode in montage, and we're left wondering if we're seeing a man go slowly insane. What makes this show so fascinating is the fact that just as it looks like it's going to take a narrative misstep, (potential rule-breaking, in tonight's case), it goes the other way and does something really compelling, and a joy to watch.
Written or Contributed by: Royal Nonesuch