Awake Q&A: Creator Kyle Killen Explains the Finale and More

By Tim Surette

May 25, 2012

Last night's Awake series finale, "Turtles All the Way Down," may have left a few questions on viewers' minds, but it also provided the type of emotional resolve that's so rare in television today. It was a mind-blower and a heart-tugger, and while it was never meant to be the series-ender, it functioned very well as one (here's my review of the episode).

This morning, however, a ton of questions about the finale still occupied my mind, so I asked the one man who could answer them: Awake series creator Kyle Killen. I decided NOT to read other interviews he did to keep this as pure as possible, and I feel like the length of following Q&A; is justified because Killen shared so much insight into what happened and what could have been. And yes, he did tell me which world he thought was real and which wasn't, but it's not for the reasons you might think.

"Turtles All the Way Down" felt like both a series and a season finale. How did not knowing if Awake would get a second season shape your approach to the episode?

Kyle Killen: It only shaped how we approached it in that we didn't approach it as a series finale. It was built very specifically to set up some things that we wanted to explore in Season 2, and we needed certain characters in certain positions to make that happen. As much as it did work—we felt, luckily—as a nice place to leave the series, for us we were right in the middle of the story. We never approached it in the writing, conception, or any other stage as the end of the show.

If you'd had a second season, would Season 1 have ended the exact same way?

Yes, absolutely. The final scenes were something that we'd been talking about before we even shot the pilot. When you get in and talk about what the show and what it is—where it's headed, how it functions on a weekly basis, and here's what would develop out of a second season—and that last scene was something we had specifically in mind. How exactly we got there and through the course of the season did things change from what we imagined that we would explore? Absolutely. But ultimately, we ended up where we set out for in the beginning.

There are a lot of theories out there today. But what's the Kyle Killen explanation for the ending?

I'll say this. I'll give you my explanation, meaning what we intended or what we would have done with it going forward. I've also read a number of people's really ingenious takes on what it all added up to. I'm open to those interpretations, and while we had a sense of what we were setting out to do in Season 2, I'd like to think that the month of preparation you spend as writers in the room before you actually really dig into the first episode of Season 2, we might have explored some of those possibilities and adjusted what we were doing.

The one thing I will say the finale absolutely positively is not—like not even open to interpretation—just is not, is any form of, "It was all a dream. Britten woke up, there was no accident, his wife and his son were fine. Nothing that you experienced throughout the season ever happened." That's just absolutely, fundamentally, factually incorrect. It's disappointing to see people react negatively to that interpretation when I feel like we really tried to safeguard [against it]. Even in the way that last scene was shot, we made sure there was no place where it seemed like Britten could be waking up from a dream. It had to be a fracturing of the Green World, even getting into that space. "It was all a dream" is the only one I reject out of hand.

All that said, for us it was all about creating a third space. You have the Green and Red realities, and the reason they were so competitive is that they both always seemed completely real, they both obeyed all the rules. What we began to be hungry for was the opportunity to bend the rules. We did a little bit of that in the eleventh episode, "Say Hello To My Little Friend" sort of played with that, with hallucinations. So did "That's Not My Penguin." We started to realize there was no reason that even though one was a dream that seemed real, that there wasn't room for this third space, that we couldn't have dreams that felt like dreams. While the finale ends with a very nice grace note of his psyche ultimately delivering what he's always desperately wanted, going forward when faced with the seeming reality that the Red World wasn't real and that he'd given it up in order to deliver the answers he needed to catch Harper in the Green World, he came up with the idea that all the crazy stuff that happened in the Red World had been a dream, and once he realizes that he could dream between dreams, that's exactly what happens. The Green World freezes and goes almost into a dream. But I don't think he would have that level of control going forward. We always looked at that dream state as being more like the Black Lodge in Twin Peaks. A place where very strange things that were beyond his subconscious control would be able to happen. We hadn't definitively worked out how we would use the dream space and how often we would use it as a place we went between the realities. But to us, it really opened up the world of the show in terms of what sort of things we'd be able to play with in terms of his continuing downward spiral and psychological fracture, really following that to the Nth degree. The dream space was going to give us a chance to push that and have that begin to really bleed over to the Red and Greens.

Wow, that's cool. [Head explodes.] So the dream space was still Michael's subconscious and not Michael consciously controlling it, right?

I think it's his subconscious. He didn't make a decision after the accident to replace one or the other. All these things are defense mechanisms or coping mechanisms. They happen on an unconscious level, it simply can't bear the weight of the grief. Therefore it comes up with crazy and sort of ingenious ways to avoid it, which is to convince himself that it just didn't happen. Once he realized there was a measure of accidentally having revealed something dream-like, his brain almost in that instant seized on that fact that if there could be dream-like things, what would be my ultimate dream? And that's what he got. I think that in a Season 2, that wouldn't be sustainable. That beautiful world where everything was together wouldn't be something that he would be able to control. There wouldn't have been a third narrative that we followed the way we did the other two. There wouldn't have been a third that we visited as if it were a reality where he hadn't lost his wife and son. It would have definitively remained a dream space.

How was Michael able to see the events in the hotel room with Harper that helped him put her away? Or is that something we would have gotten the answer to in Season 2?

Britten observed the hotel room just after the shooting and could have unconsciously noted Harper's heel piece on the floor. His dream where Vega led him through it was just his mind working out what he'd already unconsciously taken in.

You've said in some interviews before that one world was clearly real and one definitely wasn't–

No, actually I think I've said the opposite. I've had a couple of interviews today where they said, "It definitively says the Red World is a dream. He's in the Red World when he begins to experience definitely dream-like imagery and occurrences. Then he wakes up in the Green World and solves his problems." So green is real and red is not, which is totally a valid interpretation. If you flip that on its head... look at his situation in the Red World. The woman who destroyed his family has seemingly gotten away with it, he's in prison, his behavior seems to have indicted him, there doesn't seem to be any way out, his own wife is convinced that he's lost his mind. If ever there were a place where a person's mind might fracture to protect itself and might imagine a world in which he does get the bad guy and he is reunited with his son and he is promoted and a hero, it might be the mind of a man who is desperate and stuck in prison. So I think there's an equal argument that the Red one is real as well.

But did you in your mind have an idea of which was real and which was not?

I do, but the show was going to be about a man living in two diverging worlds. A lot of the second season would have been spent exploring this idea that he gets romantically involved with the Tara character [Rex's tennis coach], who ultimately we weren't able to get to or use in the shortened 13-episode first season. But he begins a relationship in the Green World but still has his wife in the other world. Those were the things we were interested in, a man trying to do two things simultaneously, treating them both as if they were real but having them both be directly contradictory. You either still married or you're not. We needed to preserve the element that they were both equally valid as the real world for a lot of those stories to remain interesting.

But did you know specifically know which one was real and which wasn't?

Yeah, I always felt that it seemed more likely that the world in which his son died was the real world. To me the loss of a child is so abnormal and out of balance with nature that it's the sort of thing that might cause, especially in a parent's mind, to fracture in desperation to undo that. But again, the flip side of the argument is losing a wife who maybe there was something unsaid or unsolved between the two fo them that you couldn't let her go in that condition. That's another thing we would have explored in Season 2.

Awake was also unique in its ability to juggle being several different shows in one. Did you ever think you were trying to do too much, or was this always your vision of the show?

I think it started to come into focus over the course of the season. For me, I think it was at its least successful when it was most like other police procedurals. I'm not sure what the point of the specificness of [Britten's] situation is if ultimately all it becomes is a magic trick that helps him solve crimes. I think it was at its most successful when there was some procedural element that he used his gifts in some way, but it continued to reflect back on his personal situation and his ongoing psychological breakdown. So to me episodes like the penguin episode ("That's Not My Penguin") and the episode where he hallucinated the character from the other world ("Say Hello To My Little Friend"), and even the last two episodes, those were closer to the model that we would have tried to pursue with the show going forward. Probably one case instead of two cases, and focusing a lot more on his ongoing personal narrative and mental disintegration as opposed to spending 35 out of 40 minutes on solving a couple cases. There are plenty of shows on TV that do that, and do it better since they're specifically focused on it. I think we would have focused on doing the things that only we could do.

How did the procedural element come into the genesis of Awake? Was it something that, I don't know, may have been used to sell the show because it's considered more audience friendly?

Yeah, my show just before this Lone Star was completely serialized. There was no case of the week element. On network in particular we discovered that's fairly difficult to get an audience to consume a network drama the same way they consume a cable drama. You know a show like Revenge is evidence that it still can be done, I haven't seen it but I understand that it's a pretty tightly serialized ongoing narrative, so it can still happen. Just the idea of offering–especially with a concept that's as mind-bending as Awake–a place for people to jump in, even if they came in late, where they would see an element that's provided them with completeness and satisfaction in every episode, it was absolutely a reaction to intense serialization being a part of the reason that Lone Star was canceled. We wanted to find another way for people to hook into this show even if they came late.

What's next for you?

I'm right back to work. Working on new shows to take out and pitch and write, and someday they too can be canceled.

You always have such a great sense of humor about the situation.

It's an honor. It's like winning the lottery to have a show canceled. I couldn't be happier to get to do this for a living, and to try these things. Some of them work and some of them don't, but if you hear me complain, someone should take away my WGA card. The job's too fun and I'm too lucky to have it.

Do you now feel more pressure to give cable a shot?

I don’t know about pressure, but I do feel like if I were to approach a network again I would really look hard at whether it was a network drama idea rather than trying to sneak a cable idea onto network. I think at the beginning we might have convinced ourselves we were going to stick to more of a network rule book and that it might be able to be a really front-and-center a procedural, but once we got into it, the other elements were what made the show really special, it didn't seem to justify spending all the time on cases of the week. Like we said, there's just too many shows that do that and do it better. So it started twisting itself into more of a cable-like show. Maybe if it started on cable I wouldn't have gone down those other roads to begin with. So I think I'm going to measure the concepts and see which puzzle they fit into in the future.

To see more of Kyle Killen's work, try to find the also-excellent (but short-lived) Lone Star or watch the movie The Beaver, the script of which landed on the coveted Blacklist.

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  • tamaracassill Sep 22, 2015

    this interview makes me so sad because of 2 reasons:
    1) man season 2 would have been awesome and I hate people for wanting to watch stuff like Two and a half man - no real story to follow etc. which is fine but so many good shows get cancelled cause people are to .. i dont know... lazy to watch a whole show - thats why we need more netflix and stuff. This ,,turn the tv on every wednesday at 9:30" is just not brining it anymore. I want season 2!! this show was sooooo good
    2) I really like all the characters and after reading this interview I kind of think that the green world was fake - which makes me so sad. I always thought yeah he is a hero and stuff.. but yeah probably not..
    and Im also so sad that the poor man just wont except the truth and now builds another world.. poor michael

  • doctorwho747 Jul 22, 2012

    Yeah for everyone who thinks "It was all just a dream" So how many of you or people in general wake from a dream fully clothed by walking through a doorway from a doctor's office, or anyplace for that matter, into you're home?

  • HawkBlaylock Jun 15, 2012

    If they were going to end it like they did, they should have had Britten wake up from a coma (after the car accident) to the realization that he figured out how and why the accident happened.

  • edit30fps Jun 07, 2012

    The first mistake of a writer is assuming an audience is going to "get it." I wrote elsewhere on this site that to me it WAS all just a dream and that we were cheated. How are we suppose to know it was intended to be a "3rd dreamworld." The average viewer is only going to believe what they see on the screen. You are asking too much of an audience to correctly "figure out" where you are going with a story with an ending like what was shown. Had you been able to shoot a 2nd season, sure we would have caught on but now being cancelled it does scream out "IT ALL WAS JUST A DREAM!" No accident, no nothing.

  • Akyriel Jun 07, 2012

    There's also the reveal of Britten having a mental collapse. Who knew that might be a premise, or part of it? Most everyone thought he was dreaming or in a coma, not that he was losing his mind. Also, the actor always played it straight with what was happening to him being fairly normal in both worlds until the penguin appeared. You sort of have to clue people in on shows like this so we can follow how a character deals with it all. Who says we the viewer can't know his situation when the character does not, if written well, to see him on his journey, even if a mentally disturbed one?

    Finally, how many people know what "Turtles all the way down" means? The writers assume the general population knows these things or stuff about dream theories and proceeds from there without explanation. You have to explain it or reference what is meant by that. It does not make people stupid for not knowing, just ignorant by choice or circumstance. For most "Turtles..." is not an everyday expression we are generally aware of. This was an example of a show being too smart for its own good, as I mentioned here on this site once before. What good is it if you do not teach others in the process to convey a more cohesive story that can better be enjoyed?

  • tamaracassill Sep 22, 2015

    I think it was pretty clear that it wasnt a dream or a coma.
    In the last few scenes the doc even tells him that he shouldnt go and dream about another world.
    They also told him several times that he is making that up to handle the trauma... they weren't joking u know ;)
    I think she had a good and planned story from the beginning to the end. And after a while it was clear, at least for me, that this is a show about a traumatic accident and about grief, not about a super cop with magic tricks to solve crimes..

  • Akyriel Jun 06, 2012

    The answer to the procedural question was kind of stupid. This show was not a procedural to begin with. You can't expect the average viewer to come in thinking they are going to get a done-and-done stand-alone crime story and not go "wtf?" seeing two different stories involving his personal life and why one or more things are happening in one while something else (almost) entirely is going on the other. He expects people to not be confused by his primary, ongoing premise simply because they get a murder mystery solved each episode?

    I take from this that they never had a final destination for this series? As he said, it was one or the other reality with a third now being brought in, but that was a season finale, not the end result. When creating this show, was it always an episode by episode (season by season) story being made up as they went along to explore their concept or did they ever have that true finale in mind/conceived? If so, what was Britten's ultimate situation? Could the answer it in a movie if fate allowed? If, under the circumstances of cancellation, you wanted to leave it open to interpretation, fine, but do let folks know positively if there was an absolute goal they were driving towards or not.

  • slh53041 Jun 05, 2012

    So sad and frustrating. Another show that makes you THINK is canceled.

  • Lady_Lancaster Jun 02, 2012

    Excellent interview. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Thanks for posting it for us.

  • JanetCastle Jun 01, 2012

    I stopped watching network shows a number of years ago because all they had to offer was the same old mundane shows year after year. I'm not sure why people want to watch CSI rehashed to different cities or the military, etc. guess most viewers are just to lazy to grasp new ideas. I read about Awake and decided to give it a try because it sounded like something different for a change. I loved the show , but guess it was just too different for the network viewing public. Needless to say I won't be watching network shows again. I'm sticking to my HBO and my Showtime for any TV viewing. Sure would love to see one of the cable channels ask you to do more Awake because it was a terrific show and I will really miss it. I don't even bother to turn on the TV on Thur. nights now.

  • tamaracassill Sep 22, 2015

    Janet oh sooo true. And Im so sick of those awesome shows getting cancelled! all the time.. I stop watching them whats the point? stupid
    There have to be enough people who like to think while watching tv??

  • doctorwho747 Jun 02, 2012

    I hadn't seen any advertisements for the show and one night im online and see the first episode somewhere and had no inkling of what it was about. The synopsis was so vague and made it sound dumb, but I watched it anyway. And after finishing my exact thoughts were "Wow that was awesome, it was one of the most creative and original tv show pilots I have ever seen. But there are two words about the show 1.serialized and 2. complex and it's gonna get canceled." and sure enough the ratings dropped tremendously in ep 2 because it pains me to say this, people out there who thought "What? so the ending is this is gonna keep happening and they didn't say why, CSI and Law and Order has endings why is this show making me think, this show sucks and i'm gonna write bad reviews and bring the rating scores down so it won't continue Ooh American Idol is on!" Effing reality tv and tv show episodes that are stand alone stories seem to be what people watch more and more. Somebody actually wrote a review that went like "I've watched four episodes of this crap show and they haven't told us why this is happening, no answers WTF this clearly shows the creator has no idea where he wants the show to head. I mean why are people watching this garbage when they could be watching real drama, and heroes and Villains on American Idol and Survivor" The idiot then went on to give examples of what he thought in a show is"Who is gonna win?, who doesn't like each other? what's going to happen at the end" My response to him was. "I don't give a f**k who likes eachother, who is cool or not. Oh and at the end somebody wins, Oh no did I just write a spoiler? lol

  • lorenz12 Jun 01, 2012

    tv series are the best i've seen in decades and "awake" was my favorite. writing was incredible. great characters and the sense of loss by the main character was palpable. music fit it perfectly. thot it was a winner. plot was like a high wire act the writers had to be careful to maintain the believability and push it forward to it's impending "solution". surely this show will return. so much better than its rivals.

  • doctorwho747 Jun 01, 2012

    Just wondering what you guys think of my interpretation , it kind of varies in one of two ways in a small reason, ill explain I'm writing this as my ending to the season/series

    Ok Neither realities are real, either

    1. Michael is dead, Hannah and Rex alive

    2. Michael, Hannah and Rex are dead

    Events that happened before the accident were all real. Michael was first partnered with Bird, knew Harper for a long time, became partners with Vega Bird partnered with Hawkins. Michael was investigating the conspiracy with the help of Bird NOT Vega He was getting real close and the crash happened and he died. If this was number 2 Hannah and Rex both "moved on" to heaven or wherever you choose to believe is the "Better Place" But Michael being Michael had too much unsolved business and therefore went to purgatory, hence the beginning of the series with no memory of what happened. Therefore he was unknowingly being tested by forces trying to sway him to their side. The manifestations of Hannah and Rex were there to remind him of what he needed to do in order to get what hewanted the most, both of them back, along with other things like in "Ricky's Taco's" being told where that warehouse was. As well as all the other seemingly supernatural things that happened. Then there was the opposing forces like the Capt trying to deter him, assigning Vega to be his babysitter, even the cases he worked on to try to seem business as usual but those coincidences that popped up like I mentioned the Taco vendor etc. Most importantly the shrinks who tried to convince Michael that whichever one he was talking to was reality, That one of his family was dead and he was going crazy because he couldn't accept it. However it took all that time because he could only remember things he knew in life, much like the "Hawkins" in Michael's head who also only knew what Michael knew. It was that fake Hawkins that finally allowed Michael to be able to see through the BS and remember. In the red world he just went rogue damning the consequences which took him to the "other" place where he met himself and that meeting gave him the power to access the truth and gave him power, and destroyed the red world. and in the "other" place the shrinks which I consider the villains tried together to get Michael to think he is crazy, not whenhe yelled Shut Up! they disappeared. Armed with this power he accesed the truth "Vega in the penguin costume showing Harper kill" and armed with that knowledge took down Harper, with the green world crumbling Dr Evans made one attempt but Michael shut her and it down and passed the "test" and was able to "move on" Now here is the little reason Hannah and Rex might be alive, cuz when Michael "moved on" those two just acted like a normal day, I would think if they were dead also they would know what Michael knows and it would have been more of a welcoming reunion.

    Ok sorry for writing so much, people please tell me what you think

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