If the first five episodes of Awake showed the strength of a man holding on to his family and reaping the benefits that came with it, "That's Not My Penguin" flipped the show upside-down and nearly broke that man's spirit. But more importantly, just as we (and Michael Britten) were settling in and getting comfortable with living two realities, last night's episode kicked us in the groin and dumped a carton of milk on our heads.
In the Hannah-reality, Michael got called in to negotiate a hostage situation at a mental hospital where a schizophrenic patient named Gabriel wired a bunch of bombs and threatened to blow up the joint if he didn't get to see his sister. The problem was his sister was dead, murdered four years ago. It took the episode all of zero seconds to relate Gabriel's condition to Michael's, and that theme permeated throughout the episode. Gabriel was a representation of the worst-case scenario for Michael, a man whose life between fantasy and reality manifested itself in confusion and potential danger.
Once inside the hospital, Michael found himself trying to convince Gabriel, while under the pressure of keeping innocent people alive, to differentiate between harsh reality and cuckoo land. And though the comparisons were fairly heavy-handed early in the episode, it ended up being a clever way to have Michael reflect on his own condition and look at it from an outside perspective.
And of course while he tried to talk Gabriel off a ledge, his own mind screwed with him, further complicating things. Gabriel loaded Michael up with Ketamine after Michael forcefully tackled him, which caused Michael to hallucinate like a Deadhead with a penguin fetish in both realities. Naturally, we began to wonder if Gabriel was telling the truth about his sister being kidnapped, and part of me thinks Michael hoped it was the truth so he could believe in his own situation. But Michael's search for clues proved that Gabe's sister was, in fact, dead.
Or course, the situation wasn't just confusing for Michael. "That's Not My Penguin" was the joker that pulled the rug out from underneath us. Remember, this is a series that hinges on Michael and the audience bouncing back and forth between confidence and doubt. The more we relate to Michael, the more powerful the overall story will be, and questions about Michael's sanity or insanity were sprinkled throughout this episode, thanks to his convincing shrinks. But as confused as Michael was for the duration of the episode, he seemed to have a much better grasp of what was going on than I did.
Off the case, Michael worked on his relationship with Rex, who was taking advantage of some "progressive parenting" by his girlfriend's parents. Michael didn't even know Rex had a squeeze, and upon learning she existed, asked to meet her. He did, it went well, and he and Rex became closer for it.
I think it was that closeness to Rex that caused Michael to do something that saved this episode from being intentionally vague for the sake of being vague and made Michael's character feel remarkably consistent. He lied to Gabriel and told him his sister was alive, so that Gabriel could hang on to a happy ending. It worked, and Gabriel went peacefully. But it also played true with how Michael thinks about his own condition. Michael says that if his sanity is the price of holding on to his family, then he has no interest in making progress. Why should he be the only one? (Note: We do not endorse telling crazy people that their dead sisters are actually sipping Pina Coladas somewhere in the Caribbean.)
"That's Not My Penguin" had a purpose: to let us know that every episode won't end with a warm fuzzy feeling and that Michael is tiptoeing the line between sanity and insanity. But it also reminded us that Michael, even though his world is crumbling around him, is a man of his convictions.
– I had figured out that Dr. Lee wasn't actually in the hospital, but I was still pretty mind-blown when it was confirmed. Was it the drugs or was it the walls of reality becoming increasingly permeable? Was it actually necessary to include imaginary Dr. Lee at all? I'm not sure.
– The penguins reminded me of the mind-trips from ABC's Life on Mars, which featured robots sometimes appearing in the main characters' minds.
– "What's so great about seeing reality for what it is?" AMEN, MICHAEL! Time to chug a bottle of Absinthe!
– I still love how Dr. Lee and Dr. Evans step in, both to walk us through what's going on and slap us in the face to remind us, "But it can also be this way." Awesome stuff.
– Don't look at the ratings. They'll just depress you. (0.9 in the adult demo, 2.54 million viewers. Worse than not good.)
Follow TV.com writer Tim Surette on Twitter: @TimAtTVDotCom