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.