(Be sure to check out our Q&A; with Awake creator Kyle Killen in which he discusses the meaning of the episode and discusses where the show would have gone in Season 2.)
There have been several IT WAS ALL A DREAM moments in television. Dallas, St. Elsewhere, Newhart, that time Allison Brie and Sarah Shahi were fighting over me in a pool of sausage gravy. It's a technique that's generally frowned upon, because as arrogant audiences, we're too smart for that trope. We've seen it done before so often that we expect to see it, and it was a popular theory when Awake started. Everything Michael is experiencing is a dream. His wife is dead. His son is dead. And he's dead. Or he's in a coma. Or he's suffocating under a fat lady.
Tonight's series finale "Turtles All the Way Down" touched on the notion that it was all a dream but never firmly stated that, or anything for that matter, leaving a whole lot of everything beautifully up for interpretation for all of eternity. It served as a very satisfying series finale with a heart-swelling final scene that keeps a lot of questions unanswered, but it was also a great season finale that kept just enough open to wonder what could have been.
Because we know Awake isn't coming back (pour some out for our homie, show creator Kyle Killen), we unfortunately have to take "Turtles All the Way Down" as finality, even though it serves us better as the end of a chapter of a series that, despite naysayers, easily could have gone more seasons. With this the end of the series, it appeared that Michael controlled his own mind and chose a third option rather than be resigned to living alternately in the Red and Green Worlds.
Let's look at the final chat with Dr. Evans, where she's convinced that Michael made huge steps by coming to terms with his "dream" state, which featured Vega in a penguin costume, astral-projected dream DVR with Kinect controls, and the thing that set the second half into orbit: both Michaels having a conversation with each other. Michael wasn't sold on Evans' idea that one reality was in his mind, and he never had been all season long. He wanted both Hannah and Rex, so he hung onto the two separate realities throughout the first season.
But his mind got stuck on solving the conspiracy of who tried to kill him and who ultimately killed Rex or killed Hannah as collateral damage. When he closed that door and sent Harper away in the Green reality, Michael said it wasn't like the other cases he'd solved where he found closure. Closure was what was missing. How did closing that "case" feel? "Like it doesn't matter," said Michael. Because to him, it didn't. He had been chasing the wrong thing. But it was something that would lead him on a path to closure.
"I believe you'll find that allowing yourself to invest fully in one real life is ultimately going to be a richer experience than dividing yourself between two," said Dr. Evans.
"What if I just had a dream?" was Michael's response.
That line could be interpreted a few ways. He could be talking about the past, how he just had a dream that created a phoney reality. Or it could be a new solution, as in "Why don't I just have a new dream?" And it hit him. Instead of creating two realities where his son and wife were both alive (or creating one reality where one was alive and living in actual reality where the other survived the accident), he abandoned both and created a new world where both his son and wife were alive. He took control of his mind like some lucid living. The only reality Michael cares about is one where Rex and Hannah are both available for breakfast around the kitchen table. This is a man who famously said, "When it comes to letting one of them go, I have no desire to ever make progress." Michael chose not to make progress. Michael chose his family unbroken, fabricated or not.
It's an ending very similar to Steven Soderbergh's Solaris [Spoilers for that movie incoming!], where George Clooney's character had been dealing with the death of his wife and went on a space mission to a planet that brings your desires to reality. Solaris brought his wife back (or at least a convincing facsimile), and when faced with the decision of getting sucked into Solaris in an exploding spacecraft or retreating back to Earth, he stayed put and was rewarded with an existence where he and his wife were together again. Even if it wasn't "real."
But what is real and what isn't? Relativity is the key here, and as long as everything feels real to Michael, who are you to tell him it isn't? Michael chose what was most important to him at the cost of everything else. Beautiful.
Killen has been quoted as saying that one of the realities was definitely real and one was not. I'm going to assume that he was telling the truth and say that Hannah's reality was the "dream," given the unusual sequence with Wilmer Valderrama as The Penguin and the impromptu dinner date with Hannah.
However, I think there's still a lot more to the story, and that's probably what Season 2 would have explored. How was Michael able to see the events in the Silver Saddle Hotel, which gave him the ammo he needed to put Harper away? Was there something else external involved in Michael's dual-reality predicament or was this the case of a man who was so strong-minded he was able to craft a separate reality? Would Michael have been forced to pull away from this new third reality he created and spent his days trying to get back? Would Bird grow out a sweet 'stache?
There might be a large contingent of folks out there calling this a cop-out ending, but given the circumstances, I'd argue that it couldn't have been much better. This was a series that didn't know whether or not it was coming back when the finale was written (which was a while ago), and needed to provide a satisfactory ending that could serve both purposes. And it really did. When Michael walked downstairs and Rex and Hannah entered the room, it was one of the more rewarding television experiences of the season. And that's because so much care and effort went into making sure that scene paid off with incredible family moments throughout the season. Awake is so much more about Michael than other shows are about their protagonists, and seeing his reaction to having his family before him gave us the closure Michael so desperately sought and the happiest of possible endings for a man we cared so much about.
– I know I only talked about the last 10 minutes or so, but really, that's the good stuff that deserves talking about. I did really enjoy the entire episode, and loved the way the intensity held up. It's just that the last half of the episode, when Michael was in prison and was told he had a visitor, the show jumped to a whole new level. Once again, fantastic pacing. There was never a moment of downtime in the last two episodes.
– Lots of 2001 in this episode as well. Killen's influences are certainly in the right place.
– Let's go back to the episode "Kate is Enough," one of my favorites of the season. In that episode, Rex's old babysitter Kate was a superstar hotshot in one reality and a junkie jailbird in the other. In tonight's episode, Michael was on his way to commendation in one reality and in an orange prison jumpsuit in the other. The only difference between the two Kates was that in one, her mother made one more attempt to help her fix things. But here, it was actually Michael that helped himself out and became that extra push he needed. "Kate is Enough" was one of the episodes that was pushed way up in sequence to better convey the ideas the series was going to portray.
– Thank you Kyle, Leonard, Jason, and everyone else involved in Awake for putting together a fantastic show that will not be forgotten.