Friday, May 25, 2012

Awake Season Finale Spoilers

Yesterday I watched the final episode of Awake, the NBC drama about a police detective who loses either his wife or his son in a road accident, depending on which version of reality he happens to be occupying that day. Although Doctor Lee describes the reality he isn't present in as an "alternate reality" (with the stress on the first syllable), such a thing isn't impossible from a grammatical standpoint as has previously been pointed out, and people really need to stop saying that. "Alternate" is primarily a verb, and can only be used as an adjective with a plural form of a noun (e.g. "alternate layers"). I suspect he meant to describe it as a "parallel universe" or possibly an "alternative reality", but given his specialist field appeared to be confrontation therapy—dealing with emotional issues by preaching logical analysis at the choir—and not Basic English Grammar, then I will have to excuse this behaviour, even if I can't forgive it. Ever.

So on with the analysis. A couple of episodes in, I began to think about how from a storytelling standpoint the story could possibly be resolved satisfactorily. If it turned out that one reality was real and one was a delusion, then that would mean that half of the show never happened and was thus inconsequential. Thanks for wasting our time! Likewise, it would be more than just a little unfair on whichever character happened to have been dead the whole time to the unfair advantage of the other, as both were equally important to the lead. The only way it could reasonably go is to have both his wife AND son killed in the accident, and have a fractured psyche deal with the loss by only allowing one to be dead at any given moment. So that way, both realities are real but are interpreted by his two divergent psychoses—everything that happened really happened, in a manner of speaking, with a few details (such as his wife and son being around) fudged here and there to accommodate the increasingly large blind spots he was necessarily having to develop.

So I was very pleased at the end of the final episode to discover that this was indeed what had happened. Or at the very least, there was no indication that this isn't what happened. And that's the problem really—it was left ambiguous to the point that suggesting every single moment of every single episode never happened at all was actually a valid interpretation. Here on the other hand is my interpretation.

The final scene where he's reunited with his wife and son under the same roof IS all in his head—he's finally gone off the deep end. This can only work if he has nothing to connect him to the real world, so logically both of them must be dead. Now if we think back to the first episode, he stated quite clearly that he had no problem at all living with a psychosis if it meant he got to keep his family, and he had no intention of ever making "progress". So in that sense, that the delusions converged into a single—even more (as in, completely) removed from reality—delusion with both his wife and his son alive, is a happy ending from his perspective. He probably knows it's not real, and is happy with that too. In fact, let's take that further—it's just after the therapist tells him it's turtles all the way down that it freeze frames and the door opens. It's almost as if she'd unwittingly told him what he needed to hear to make it all better, and he wittingly created the new reality for himself in response to that.

Some other theories out there: It was all a dream—absolute cop-out, and following the series was a waste of time. Purgatory (he died in the accident)—absolute cop-out, and following the series was a waste of time.

My interpretation is better.

There is however one change I would have made to the ending to remove the ambiguity —I would have tagged on a final scene after the end credits where he's sitting in the prison cell from the red reality (minus the colour cast) but with the cuts and bruises on his face from the green reality, wearing a wristband of ambiguous colour, catatonically staring into space. Maybe a prison officer could escort in some nice people in white coats, saying "he's just been sitting like this for days, won't eat anything, won't respond at all...". Cuts to black. Sound at all familiar? Fans of Terry Gilliam will recognise this as the final scene of Brazil. It worked there, and it would have worked here too. This scene is vital because it tells us three important things:
  1. Everything that happened so far was real, insofar as it had been filtered through a psychosis—it isn't the consequence-free luxury of all having been in his head; the stuff actually happened, just not quite how he saw it happen.
  2. The two realities resulted from a fragmented psyche. They were two parallel interpretations of the same reality.
  3. As of now, he's gone into full psychosis and is totally removed from the real world.
But that's just me. I think intentionally ambiguous endings (where the writer has not decided either way) tend to be weak if not done well. A "what happens next?" "they're doomed either way" scenario like you find at the end of The Italian Job or Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels is fine. We don't need to know, and it's amusing to see that after all their antics, they've finally manoeuvred themselves into a corner. Inception takes a different approach. The deliberate choice to cut the film 2 or 3 frames early was to blur the difference between everything happening the way we expected or everything not having happened the way we expected. Given the nature of the film (that the vast majority of it hadn't happened at all anyway), this was appropriate and didn't ruin the experience. Awake though… did any of it even happen? It's kind of important to know that sort of stuff.