Ever since Awake started, one of the main drives for protagonist Michael Britten has been to hold on to two realities to keep his family together the only way he knew how. And over the course of the series' first 10 episodes, we've seen one reality occasionally threatened, and the result isn't good for Michael. As he said in the pilot, he doesn't want to figure out which reality is real and which isn't. He's quite content hedging his bets and accepting his new reality (err, realities) as long as he gets to see his wife and his son, one at a time, every other day. Or is it the same day? Or is it at the same time but with a split consciousness? Or is it just randomly through the cloth of space and time? However it happens, it's better than it would be if either Rex or Hannah was lost forever. He's dealing with it.
There's an old saying in scriptwriting: put your protagonist through as much hell as you can for the best results. Awake tortured Michael Britten to tears in tonight's episode "Say Hello to My Little Friend," which hit viewers in their core thanks to a mesmerizing performance from star Jason Isaacs.
There was a moment tonight that transcended the divide between fictional character and audience, between passive viewer and television show, between fabrication and reality. There was Michael, slouched on the floor with the realization that he'd never see Rex again. He blamed himself. It was the complete breakdown of a grown man who had just lost his only child. It was an odd, delayed display of grief to the outside world, but it was sudden and real for Michael. It was a moment where we just wanted to jump through the screen and give him a giant hug.
This is the power of Awake and what it has been building up to. When we first saw Michael in tonight's episode, he was talking to Dr. Lee and he was angry, he was frustrated, and we felt it. He couldn't wake up from Hannah's reality and enter Rex's reality, and that to him was the worst possible thing. Later, he was confused and panicked as his world began to fall apart. And we felt it right along with him. "Say Hello to My Little Friend" pushed and pulled at us in a way that never felt gimmicky or predictable, and that's probably the best compliment I can give a show. Anytime we're glued to the screen, unsure of how we'll feel or what will happen in the next five minutes, the people behind the show are making art. It's a marvel that Awake has been able to pull off being such a high-concept show, a family drama, and both of those at the same without the tired pretenses of other primetime shows.
But "Say Hello to My Little Friend" was as much a workout for the brain as it was for the heart. Tired of conjuring fake penguins, Michael was repeatedly visited by a hallucination we'd later come to know as Ed Hawkins. Ed's presence in Michael's head was just as much a mystery to Ed as it was to Michael, but there seemed to be a reason for it. It was only later that Michael figured out that Ed's real-life counterpart (we're in Hannah's reality, stay with me here) was the first responding officer on the scene of the accident.
And to mess with our heads even more, Michael was able to recall pieces of the accident that got him to this place, complete with annoying (to Michael; it was endearing to us) Queen karaoke ("Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? Caught in a landslide, no escape from reality. Well played, Awake!) by Hannah and Rex, throughout the episode. The SUV tumbling over the side was no accident, as we suspected, and the person behind the wheel of the car that pushed the Brittens off the side of the road was Ed. At least, that's what Michael thinks.
Michael got suspended from the force after running into traffic and fleeing from crime scenes and generally acting like the kind of guy who lunatics point at and say, "That guy's a little wacky." Captain Harper seized the opportunity to boot him, claiming instability by way of grief. But that just gave Michael reason to live above the law as a vigilante madman out to kill a cop and find out the truth. Well, at least that's what I'm pretending happens next. It's a stunning change of pace for the series that sends Awake into a good kind of orbit. Conspiracy confirmed. Murderer found. Vengeance imminent. Of course, this idea relies on the very unreliable Michael Britten, a character who is either the best dad and husband in the world or a schizophrenic maniac about to cause more than a bit of mayhem in Los Angeles.
Here's a crazy theory just to throw it out there: We know that Michael bumped into Ed Hawkins in Rex's timeline at the carnival at the beginning of the episode. Hawkins gave him more than a knowing look, like their chance shoulder rub was some sort of mission complete. We can assume it didn't happen by chance. Can we go so far as to assume that Ed (in Rex's reality) planted himself in Michael's mind somehow? Maybe just a glance at his face is enough to trigger some memory that Michael can carry over to the other reality? Ed used himself in Rex's reality to put Michael on the track of Ed in Hannah's reality. Perhaps Rex-reality Ed is the good guy, and Hannah-reality Ed is the bad guy, and Rex-Ed knows this. We saw how different two Kates could be across realities in "Kate is Enough"; the very same thing could have happened to Ed. But unlike Kate, perhaps Ed knows that there are two realities (it's reasonable to assume he's aware of the conspiracy, right?) and he's pissed off at Harper and her cohort and his Hannah-reality doppelganger and he wants Michael to bust their asses for reasons we don't know yet (was he cut out of a deal in Rex's timeline?). I'm calling Rex-Ed as some sort of disgruntled employee who's using Michael to seek revenge. And that should be okay with Michael, because he's going to want revenge too.
"Say Hello to My Little Friend" was probably the best episode of Awake since the pilot, and it managed to hit all the right notes while pushing the series into a fascinating place with two episodes left to go in first season. This is going to be very fun.
– Bird rockin' the Bird-stache! Nice look there, Bird.
– I didn't mention the second scene with Michael meeting up with Emma's dad, but it was fantastic. That was some real talk, right there. Nice to see Emma's dad get the stick out of his ass.
– I can't say it enough: Jason Isaacs was AMAZING in this episode. One of the best performances of the year by anyone.
Follow TV.com writer Tim Surette on Twitter: @TimAtTVDotCom