The Real Secret Behind Awake's Compelling Drama

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Awake is winding down in the next couple of weeks, and then we'll never see it again. But we'll be talking about it for years, because of the way it's managed to blend genres. In particular, as the season's gone on, the full weight of this show's portrayal of mental illness has begun to sink in. This is a show that's managed to come up with a new blend of genres, based on the notion of a detective who's mentally ill but still good at his job. And it's about a mentallly ill character who actively fights against getting better.

The story of a detective who keeps waking up in two different worlds after a terrible car accident — one in which his wife is dead, and one in which his son is dead — Awake has been battering the walls of reality and serving up compelling family drama alongside the cop show staples. It's a fascinating heir to Life on Mars' legacy, and in many ways it's something we've never seen in the United States.

And even though the "police procedural" elements of Awake were getting boring at times — especially in the episodes which tried to include two different cases for Michael Britten in the two universes — you have to admire the way in which this show has renewed and reinvented genres. There have been a million attempts in the past decade to expand the boundaries of the "police procedural" genre, because it's the only thing people seem to want to watch. And Awake is perhaps the most interesting, provocative "procedural-plus" shows that's come along, since it includes the "psychological thriller" genre and the "paranoid reality warping" genre.


And after watching the last couple episodes, we're really struck by how this show is reinventing the classic notion of the great detective who's struggling with mental illness. From Monk to Dirk Gently, some of the most fascinating fictional detectives have been not just eccentric but actually mentally ill.

In last week's episode, Britten actually starts hallucinating — and he knows it's a hallucination. He starts seeing Alias' Kevin Weisman everywhere, and becomes obsessed with figuring out who the man is, to the point where he nearly ruins an investigation into a deranged serial killer. It's all because he's stopped waking up in the world where his son Rex is alive — he's trapped in just one world, where his wife is alive and his son is dead. He starts to accept the notion that his son might actually be dead, and he comes totally unglued, because he's been refusing to let the grief in all this time.


It all culminates in an intensely moving scene where Britten totally breaks down and starts to accept that his son really is gone. And he feels responsible for Rex's death, and guilt is part of why he's been clinging to the idea that he could really live in both worlds. The most intense thing? For a while, it really looks as though this is going to stick, and Michael is going to stop living in two different worlds, which would have been a really gutsy way for this show to go.

In any case, the notion of a show about a detective who's mentally ill — and who knows it — is really fascinating and pretty-groundbreaking, in spite of the aforementioned examples of this trope.


Detective fiction is based on the notion that there is an objective reality and perceptions are basically accurate. That which can be observed is real, and you can trust your observations completely because they are factual and concrete. A really great detective is one who observes things that nobody else notices.

Fiction about mental illness, meanwhile, is based on the idea that reality is fragile and highly subjective at best, and you can never really know what's real. Only by embracing a breakdown of the boundary between real and the unreal can you come close to knowing reality. This is obviously a huge theme in gonzo/paranoid fiction of the 1960s and 1970s, from Doris Lessing to Philip K. Dick, and countless others. The person who's considered "crazy" but is the only one who can see the truth is a genre staple.


But Awake combines these two genres in a really interesting way — by flirting with the notion that someone who's slightly out of touch with consensus reality can see things the rest of us miss, and thus become a better detective. Britten claims that maybe his condition gives him an advantage in his work. And he keeps trying to prove that, by picking up on weird "clues" in one universe that he can apply to a case in the other universe, with mixed results.

Of course, the "advantage" that Britten derives from seeing things differently only works as long as he's mostly able to see what everybody else sees — but the moment he starts hallucinating Kevin Weisman everywhere, he's toast. And indeed, he starts running into traffic, causing accidents, disrupting his partner Vega and generally becoming a deranged menace.


The other clever twist in Awake is that Michael Britten actively does not want to get well. Even when he starts hallucinating, and he knows he's hallucinating, he still sees it as something that he can manage, because's that desperate to keep both his wife and his son in his life. And we, the audience, have been hooked into rooting for him to stay out of touch with reality, because we see that he's walking over the abyss.

So it looks as though the "evil conspiracy behind Michael's car accident" thing will crank into high gear in the final two episodes — but the real suspense of this show is how Michael is going to handle is increasing disconnection from reality, and how he'll deal with his catharsis, when it happens. This is a show where catharsis is the real McGuffin — and that's why we're going to be talking about it for years after it goes away.