Which Reality is Real

A while back I wrote about Inception, a film that featured Leonardo DiCaprio as a thief who specialized in stealing secrets directly from someone’s mind using shared dreaming technology. It still remains one of my favourite movies of all time. But one thing I only briefly mentioned was the idea proposed in the film that it’s easy to lose your sense of reality in the dream world.

It’s an interesting and scary idea. What if you’re dreaming and don’t know it? What if I’m dreaming and don’t know it? Am I really typing away on a keyboard communicating with the world or am I sleeping, in my bed, maybe hooked up to some machine that stimulates a part of my brain, generating hyper-realistic dreams? Well, if that’s true, you’d think I’d dream up a better house.

How do we know we’re awake? I hear one way to tell is to try to keep an eye on space, because dreaming bypasses spacial awareness. But that might not be 100% reliable. I’ve also noticed that, whenever I dream, the colour schemes are simple and bright. An entire room of bright red, or bright blue, which is something you never really see in real life. But that might not be the same for everyone.

So I guess the real answer is: we don’t. We don’t know if we’re awake or asleep. But let’s try to make the best of what we have regardless, because the idea that we live in a simulation is highly unlikely, and honestly, not worth losing sleep over.

Oh, wait… I just made a joke and didn’t notice.

Anyway, nonetheless, some people have lost sleep over it, and Higgs bless ’em, because as a result, we’ve gotten some great works of fiction out of it. There was The Invisables, The Matrix, Vanilla Sky, The Truman Show (in a way), and Total Recall. Even an episode of Stargate SG-1, and two episodes of Doctor Who have dealt with this theme. Is the world we live in real?

The most interesting one is the Doctor Who episode where Amy, Rory, and Eleven are all trapped in the TARDIS, as it hurtles toward a ‘cold star’, while falling asleep at random intervals, dreaming they are back on earth, being chased by aliens…or they are back on earth, being chased by aliens, while falling asleep at random intervals, dreaming they are trapped in the TARDIS, as it hurtles toward a ‘cold star’.

The question they have to answer is simple: Which dream is just a dream, and which one is reality? It forms the basis for the entire episode, as the Doctor argues for the TARDIS reality, and Rory argues for the Leadworth reality, and Amy has to make the tie-breaking decision. Great episode. But what if this same idea wasn’t restricted to a single, 45 minute episode of Doctor Who? What if someone managed to create an entire series based around this simple idea: the idea of not being able to tell the difference between a dream, and reality. Well…someone has.

Awake is a show about Michael Britten, played by Lucius Malfoy from the Harry Potter films. He’s a Homicide Detective with the LAPD who was just involved in a terrible car accident, claiming the life of his wife… or his son. You see, he doesn’t know what happened, because every time he falls asleep, it changes. Flipping back and forth, between a world where his son, Rex, is alive, and a world where his wife, Hannah, is alive, and he has no idea which one is real.

I know what you’re thinking: Both worlds are real and something is causing him to transcend universes so he starts flipping between the world where his son died, and the world where his wife died.

Well, that’s possible. According to one view of quantum mechanics, every single possible event actually takes place, in a different universe. Every coin flip, every dice roll, every decision made by a human, splits the universe so that every single possible outcome actually happens, and we just follow one of those universes, selected either at random, or by some condition, like whichever universe gives us the longest life. Which is a nice thought.

But I think it’s safe to say this is not the world of Awake. If it was, in episodes that introduced characters that appear in both worlds, we would see them both have the same, or similar life histories. At least up to the point of the accident. But that’s not the case.

In one episode we see a Doctor Bernard Mackenzie. Successful fertility doctor, who was recently murdered. But in the other reality, we see Bernard Mackenzie, random homeless guy who was recently murdered.

It’d be hard to believe that one’s life can go in such vastly different directions in the mere weeks that had passed.

Then there was the character of Kate. In one world she’s a highly successful investment banker; in the other, a strung-out junkie. She was once Rex’s babysitter. Last Michael heard of her, he found out her sister had died, then he meets her as witness/suspect in a murder case. At the end of the episode, we find that the crucial moment when everything changed for her, was the death of her sister. Things started falling apart for her. Her mother tried to pull her out of it, but the big difference was in one world, her mother was just a little more persistent. This happened years before the accident.

So what’s going on here? Well, he’s dreaming. One of these worlds is, in actuality, a creation of his mind.

I mentioned earlier that there are actually a few ways to find out if you’re dreaming. But it appears that for Michael, these techniques don’t work. Otherwise he would have noticed the flaws by now.

You see, this forms the basis of the show. As I said earlier, he can’t tell the difference between reality and the dream, but it’s more than that. They both feel completely real to him. So he acts as if they’re both completely real. And because of this, part of the series involves Britten trying to balance life in each world. Not an easy task. Sometimes it’s hard to keep track of basic facts. Like forgetting that his partner is one world, is actually still a beat cop in the other.

To help him cope with the situation, in each world he sees a psychiatrist. Both of them are trying to help him get a grip on reality… Their reality. We have BD Wong playing the arrogant, hard-headed, and confrontational Doctor Lee, trying to convince Michael his son died, by yelling at him. Then we have President Allison Taylor from 24 playing the kind, calm, nurturing Doctor Evans, trying to remind Michael his wife died, through reason.

It’s an interesting contrast, and both appear to be completely legitimate techniques. Which actually helps solidify the dilemma. Both worlds appear completely plausible. Neither defy logic, reason or probability in any way. For instance, we have Kate, who I mentioned earlier. Both paths she took in life seem completely plausible, and Michael even uses her story to help him with his son, who hasn’t been completely forthcoming since the death of his mother.

Which brings us to the coolest part of the show. Michael’s uncanny ability to use clues from one reality to solve murders in the other. In most episodes we see Michael work two cases at once. One in each reality. And crucial clues in one world often reflect crucial clues in the other. For instance, in the premiere episode, we see a serial killer targeting cabbies in one world, and a double murder and pedophile kidnapping in the other world. The first cabbie murder occurred in front of a building whose address is 611 Waverly. Meanwhile the kidnapping case eventually leads Michael to the Waverly parking lot, by the docks, spot 611. Of course Michael doesn’t notice the address of the first cabbie killing until after he found the parking space in the other world. Begging the question, did he notice the parking spot first, and synthesize the address in the other reality, or did he create spot 611 after realizing the building’s relevance to the dead cabbie case? Because he obviously saw the address, he just didn’t consciously recognized it.

And that’s the clue! You see, he focuses on the commonalities between the cases, which end up highlighting the crucial clues needed to break the case. He notices the parking spot was actually housing a trailer, which leads him to look for suspects with trailers; and the building’s windows only face one direction, which puts a major flaw in the testimony of one witness.

Of course, it’s more than just subtle clues. In one episode, Rex gets kidnapped by John Cooper. A recently escaped convict that Michael once put away for murder. Michael and Cooper quietly meet in an abandoned warehouse, where he says he was framed and needs Michael’s help to prove it. Once that’s done, he’ll get his son back.

But the man is shot, dead, once the police bust in on the scene.

But Cooper’s not dead in the other world. Michael takes some sleeping pills and uses his first opportunity to ask Cooper about any place in the desert he might know of. (The fact that it’s in the desert is their only clue). But Cooper insists that he gets released first, he obviously doesn’t know or understand how or why it’s so urgent, and Michael can’t really explain without looking crazy.

So once Michael finds out his old partner stole some money, killed a drug dealer, and framed Cooper for the killing, since that same dealer killed Cooper’s son. He has him arrested, and Cooper released.

He gets the information, goes to sleep, and saves his son. But the question is, did Michael get some subtle hint in one world, that his mind wouldn’t let him unlock until he admitted that his partner conducted the frame-job all those years back; or did he dream that Rex got kidnapped so he’d have motivation to finally admit what really happened during the Cooper case, and right all the wrongs he made?

Which one is real? I doubt even the writers knew, and I kinda like that.

The show doesn’t go too crazy with over analysis and such. The reality switching is just there. Just part of the setting. During the shrink scenes, we do have the doctors try to analyse the situation and rationalize how it may prove that their world is real. But it doesn’t dominate the show, any more than, let’s say magic does in My Little Pony.

(Speaking of which, I’m currently writing a crossover fanfic between these shows where Spike is Michael Britten. Read it!)

It operates as a tool for Michael, but he doesn’t bother going into detailed analysis, since he really doesn’t have to. Considering he doesn’t really want to know what’s real.

It’s explained pretty succinctly in the pilot episode. Michael doesn’t want to stick to one reality, because if he does, he’ll lose someone. True, they were never really there to begin with, but for him, just seeing them is enough, even if it’s not real.

One of the most perplexing episodes in the series was “That’s Not My Penguin,” where we see a patient in a psychiatric hospital hold the entire building hostage with improvised explosives. Britten goes in to talk to the nut, who ends up dosing him with the hallucinogenic anesthetic: ketamine. The odd thing is, when he wakes in the other world, the hallucinogenic aspects of the ketamine seem to have a major effect. He starts seeing a random penguin for no obvious reason. Could the ketamine simply be affecting his dreams, or could aspects of his dream be bleeding into reality?

But the most interesting thing is this. You see the nut holding hostages lost his sister a few years back. He created this delusion. Not a dream, like Britten, but just a crazy conspiracy theory. He thinks his sister is alive and was kidnapped by a man named Doctor Wild. His demands are simple: he wants them to bring his sister to him. Okay, that’s actually not simple. But the episode ends with Britten talking the man down, not by eliminating his delusion, as the doctors suggested, but by altering it in such a way that he thinks his sister is alright. That she escaped.

I find this perplexing, but maybe I just don’t have the mind to understand it. I’m one of those guys who prefers reality over fantasy. Not to sound condescending or anything, I just do. It’s actually why I’m an atheist. But some people prefer blissful fantasy… I guess. I’ll just never understand them.

Of course, other than the presence of someone would be otherwise dead, how do we tell the difference between the two worlds? Well, this is one of the oddest things about the show. For Michael, it’s easy. He has a rubber band around his wrist, which at first glance I thought was a silicone awareness bracelet. It’s green in the world with Rex, and red in the world with Hannah. It’s an easy way to differentiate. You forget what world you’re in? Look at your wrist For the audience however, we are treated to highly contrasting camera filters. The world is full of warm colours, oranges and reds, in the red bracelet world; and cool colours, blues and greens, in the green bracelet world. Honestly, this, I find a bit condescending. Do you not think you could be a bit more subtle in this?

The reason this bothers me is because it can be pretty distracting when you’re watching a scene at night, and everything is orange and red. Then we have a scene in the middle of the day, and everything is blue and green. It feels a bit surreal, incongruous. Maybe that’s the point. But I get the feeling that the original vision involved much more subtle indicators, but the executives at NBC insisted something a little more obvious for the very crucial oblivious moron demographic. That’s like 20% of the market right there.

Throughout the series, the two realities show us very different worlds. For starters, as I hinted at earlier, Michael’s partner. In the green world, he’s still with his old partner, Bird. But in the red world, Bird is transferred to another station. He reveals the likely reason for his transfer in the first episode: He didn’t tell the higher-ups what they wanted to hear when they asked about Michael. So, Britten is given a new partner, the recently promoted Detective Vega, played by Fez from That 70’s Show. Which is quite ominous when you think about it. Not the fact that it’s Fez, but the fact that he’s given a new partner.

I figured early on that the fact that Bird was still his partner in the green world meant the man was working as a spy, and might have been involved in the overarching plot.

Later in the series, we have the episode “Game Day,” where there’s a big football game between the Los Angeles Bulldogs (wearing green) and the Seattle Jets (wearing red). In the red world, LA wins, and in the green world, Seattle wins. Though who gives a crap right? But it gives him a quick insight. Considering how close the game was. (In both worlds it was determined by a final field goal that went two different ways.) He notices how much people invest in something so trivial.

Took him that long to realize it?

Then, later in that same episode, we find out in the green world that Rex’s girlfriend, Emma, was pregnant, but had a miscarriage. Michael goes to the same girl in the red world, where Rex died, and finds out she’s pregnant, and didn’t have a miscarriage. Which ends up starting a major plot thread in subsequent episodes, as Michael and Hannah deal with the fact that they’re now grandparents.

But one thing remains constant in both worlds. What caused the car accident that killed a member of Michael’s family.

By the way, spoilers.

Throughout the series we get scenes of Michael’s captain, played by Doctor Weaver from ER, talking to a man named Karl about the accident. Eventually they reveal that they have a shitload of heroin that they smuggled out of evidence. But somehow, Britten was stopping them from getting it out on the streets. So they staged the accident in an attempt to have him killed. It was a partial success.

The overarching conspiracy is a bit unnecessary, but I’m not exactly complaining. I actually kinda like those plotlines. But it’s never really explained as to why they needed to kill Britten and his family. One of the bad guys, played by Quentin Tarantino look-alike, Kevin Weisman, does say that while Britten was investigating ‘the Westfield case,’ he was getting too close to uncovering the stolen heroin. But one would think that they could just find a way to hide it better, rather than kill his entire family. Or just kill him! Why drag his family into it!? He’s a cop! There are a million plausible ways a cop can die on the job. One would think it’d be easy to cover up. In fact, in the final episode, they try to do just that!

Actually, I should probably mention that all the bad guys involved in the conspiracy are dirty cops.

Michael comes to the realization that there was something more to the accident when he ends up trapped in the red reality, possibly dying or in a coma in the green reality, since he was bungee jumping when he last left that world.

It’s worth noting that Michael isn’t happy about this.

While trapped he starts to randomly hallucinate ersatz-Tarantino. The episode ends with a flashback of the accident itself, where we clearly see the guy try to run him off the road. Then he wakes up in the green world, on the ground. This of course happens after he finally starts to mourn for his son.

The following two episodes deal with Britten unravelling the conspiracy, and it ends with two very different outcomes.

In the green world he manages to quickly and quietly take down the conspirators with the help of his partner, Bird. He starts by confronting the pseudo-assassin, and in the process, kills him. But that event, combined with some evidence found on the man’s laptop (with a password Britten gained in the other world), takes down the entire operation.

In the red world, things don’t turn out so well. Bird ends up dead, his partner betrays him, the heroin that started the whole thing ends up missing (he used it as evidence in the other world), and after a chase across the city, he ends up in prison for the murder of his former partner, and labelled a delusional psychopath by Dr. Lee.

So how could things progress so differently? In the green world, as I said, Britten was more subtle. He confronted Quentin in the man’s home, and after a few choice threats, the guy confessed to the whole thing. He even gave up the evidence. Then there’s a scuffle, and he gets shot. A few hours later his partner takes him in for the cop’s murder, and finds the heroin, and everything is revealed. The whole thing is over very, very quickly, before the conspirators can really do anything about it.

In contrast, Michael inadvertently grabs their attention in the red world, and they make their move against him; Framing him for his former partner’s murder.

This might have something to do with the fact that they also might have been keeping a closer eye on him in the red world too.

Actually, that’s another thing. Before the final two episodes, the only hints we get of this conspiracy all come from the red world. We see Weaver and Karl discuss what was really happening, away from Michael (obviously). But this raised the question, (at least for me). Was this only happening in the red world? That would have been interesting. And meanwhile, in the green world, it really was just an accident, or maybe someone else caused it!

A big massive conspiracy is uncovered in one world, while we see the other world has nothing of the sort. It would have certainly increased the contrast between the worlds. Or maybe another conspiracy would have been uncovered.

I find it especially confusing, given that up to that point, the two worlds were markedly different. He worked different cases, different people were around, and I already mentioned Kate and that Doctor. So why the same conspiracy? They could have at least changed the driving force or their overall strategy.

Ah well.

I’m still confused as to how not-Tarantino’s computer password crossed over.

But you know, about the conspiracy. The final episode. It opens in the green world. Michael’s in jail, but is released when his partner finds the heroin in a storage locker leased by Quentin and his captain, Karl. But there is one other conspirator, played by Weaver. We see her call Karl, and they meet at a sleazy motel, which is booked under the name Ed Munte. Odd. Anyway, Karl goes there anticipating sex. Instead… he gets a bullet to the head. See Weaver expected Karl to give her name once he was caught, and she couldn’t let that happen. But Michael doesn’t know about her involvement, so he goes to sleep content.

In the red world, Michael is bleeding profusely from a gunshot wound, and is on the run from the police. He goes to Doctor Lee, who patches him up. They then go to the storage locker that was filled with heroin in the green world. To find it empty. In a panic, Michael locks Lee in the locker and runs off to see his partner, Wilmer Valder… hummer… Fez. The man trusts him at first, but eventually gives Britten up once Lee convinces him that Britten is actually very sick, and very crazy.

Britten is caught and thrown in prison. Weaver visits and tries to tell him they’ll get him the best treatment possible, all the while Michael is trying to convince her that he was set up. But then, he realizes, she was involved. It becomes especially obvious once he sees her phone ring with the name Ed Munte.

Of course he tries to kill her at this point (Natch!), but the prison guards tase his ass.

I love how tase is a verb now.

That night, as he’s sitting on the floor of his cell, things get weird. He is told he has a visitor, so he goes to the prison’s visitor’s lounge. You know, with the glass and redundant phones.

Turns out, his visitor is himself from the green world. Britten tells Britten they need to take down Weaver. Then Britten leaves, leaving Britten alone.

A door opens, and Britten (wait… I guess the colours are unnecessary at this point) leaves the room. He walks down the hallway, followed by Dr. Lee and Dr. Evans who start discussing the situation. Lee is upset, as he normally is; and Evans is excited, as she normally is. But they start arguing like petulant children.

I don’t think I mentioned this earlier, but Lee’s a bit of a dick.

He walks through the door, and finds himself in the sleazy hotel room with Fez dressed in a penguin suit. They watch Weaver handcuffing Karl to the bed, before dressing in plastic and shooting him in the head, making it look like suicide. But the most interesting thing is this: In the process, one of her heels broke off, giving her footsteps an uneven sound. It’s how he knew of her involvement, he probably saw the heel on the scene.

He then says goodbye to his wife and returns to the green world, which he finally accepts as reality.

At the station, he finds phone records which proves Weaver’s involvement, and she’s quickly arrested.

Michael sees Doctor Evans, who’s excited that he finally found reality, after all, in those final moments, the red world felt very dream-like.

But… suddenly Michael’s a bit skeptical. The dream feels real regardless, what if the moment thing’s got weird, it was just a dream. A normal dream. He’s still not sure of reality.

Then, a door opens in the middle of Evans’ office. He hesitantly walks through it, and finds himself in his home, with no rubber band around his wrist, and his wife and son alive and well.

We’ll call this the white world, because they took off the camera filters.

At this point the series ends, just as they introduce a brand new, and very interesting mechanic: A world Michael knows is a dream, which holds his wife and son together. We only saw the white reality for two minutes. Would have been nice to see a bit more of this.

Best guess: this world would have simply been Britten’s life before the accident. After all, they do mention time travel right before we first see it.

So, yes, Awake was a fantastic show, and since it was cancelled with only a half season under its belt, I’m frigging pissed. It had so much potential. The reality jumping could have been taken in so many directions, it’s hard to know where to begin. Even some of the earlier plots could be retooled and reworked a dozen times. And I would have loved to see what they would have done with the white reality. Possibly holding major clues to the cases and hints to any overarching plots we would have gotten.

But let’s not forget the red reality. Michael was still in jail. So what now!? Did he ever get out? He might still be able to get some help from Detective Fez. Who knows what that guy would find if he digged hard enough. He still looked a bit skeptical when he turned Michael in, so maybe it’s possible that he could have found some convincing evidence to take them down. He also would have been a bit more successful, since I doubt the conspirators would even see him as a threat, until it’s too late.

Would have been nice to get a proper ending at least.

But why was it cancelled? Because of low ratings. And why did such a good show get such low ratings? Well, why do good shows ever get low ratings? Because the dumbass audiences are too fucking stupid to sit down and watch something with a bit of intelligence. Same thing happened to Stargate Universe, and once again, I’m forced to blame you for not watching it. You bastard! How could you do this to me!?

The show still hasn’t been released on DVD which I think is a fucking crime. So this is one of the few shows where I would highly recommend piracy. They don’t want to take my money? Fuck ’em.

You know I would have loved to see the series get some type of continuation, in any form. Some have suggested a novel, but the show was quite visual, so I would love to see an Awake comic book… Hell, it worked for Jericho.

So, to summarize: great show, give it a watch, and demand it’s return… somehow.

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