How long can Michael Britten live in two realities?
More and more that's becoming the question at the center of NBC's Awake. After Britten (Jason Isaacs) agreed to move with his wife Hannah (Laura Allen) to Oregon — a move encouraged by his therapists as a sign of progress — he received a haunting phone call from the serial killer he was chasing that urged him to not let go of his dual-reality gift.
In Thursday's episode (10/9c, NBC), Britten tries to defuse a hostage situation at a mental hospital, but soon starts suffering hallucinations (a penguin in the living room!) that are better suited for the institution's patients. We caught up with creator Kyle Killen to discuss how long Britten can keep this going, whether the move to Oregon will actually happen, and the big mystery surrounding the accident that kick-started this phenomenon in the first place. Plus: Will the serial killer be back?
That phone call between the Gemini Killer and Britten was intense. What was the significance for you?
Kyle Killen: We're really interested in the idea that Britten is a man who keeps telling himself that he's fine, that he can handle all of this, and that ultimately he wants to live this way. And the only person who can say "I get you. I understand how it is to see the world differently," is a serial killer. It's very disconcerting for someone like Britten to hear that the person closest to understanding him happens to be a lunatic.
Will we be seeing more of the serial killer?
Killen: Not in the season. I mean, we wouldn't have left him out there with that information, unless it was something that we thought that we could have a lot of fun with in the future. But with a 13-episode order and the things that were already on the table emotionally — his family, his job, the mystery of the night of his accident — the serial killer just can't make a return.
Will that conversation at least bring about any changes in how Britten proceeds?
Killen: The very next episode really pushes a lot of the same buttons and much harder. And I think that it all goes back to the end of the pilot when he says, "If you're telling me that the price of having my wife and my son is my sanity, then I will gladly pay it." We as writers have been asking him, "Are you sure about that?" ever since. And I think [these episodes] really start to go after that aggressively. Just how bad is it going to get for him psychologically and how much of this can he handle in order to hold on to his wife and son? He's pretty unwavering in his commitment to maintaining those emotional connections, but the toll that it begins to take is represented a little more strongly.
Represented by... penguins?
Killen: [Laughs] Yeah. What are the psychological ramifications of attempting to live your life this way? When you're dividing yourself between two realities, two cases, two sets of facts, two sets of families, when do you start to lose your grip on one or both of those realities? And I think it's safe to say penguins might be one of the things you could encounter that could make you question whether or not you're losing that grip.
Britten has agreed to move to Oregon with Hannah. But how serious is he about that?
Killen: He knows that part of the price of maintaining both of the worlds is that you have to treat each of them independently. It's pretty clear that in the world with his wife, it's something that she needs in order to be able to go on. So despite the risks, he's absolutely going to commit to doing it. Following that arc forward for the remainder of the season is really a big part of the storytelling on that side of the world. But he's committing to something that both of his therapists are saying, ultimately, may be the beginning of the end for his dream.
Will the therapists be proven right or wrong?
Killen: Without tipping it, I would say that the move itself leads to one of the biggest turns in the story.
Now that the people he works with are becoming more and more aware, how will Britten adjust ?
Killen: I think he becomes a little more careful about how he answers questions. Vega [Wilmer Valderrama] is a new partner. So their relationship is going from a place of being adversarial to slowly winning one another's trust. With Bird [Steve Harris], it's harder to lie to his face because they've known each other for a long time. Knowing somebody for a long time both wins you the freedom to decide what you do and don't want to talk about, and yet also makes you feel a little more guilty when you know you're hiding something from them that you probably shouldn't be.
Will Hannah become more clued in as well?
Killen: She is choosing to believe that he is weathering grief the way that she is, not that he is going to bed every night and seeing their son. I think that would torture her. But as circumstances between the two worlds ... drive him toward something that only he can understand, everyone who's had latent questions about how healthy he is and how he's processed everything since the accident, find themselves wondering, "Is he out of his mind?" And Hannah's among them.
Let's talk about the accident. You obviously introduced the big mystery around it for a reason.
Killen: When you realize that the accident wasn't an accident... [you wonder] what will happen to him if he were to figure that out? Would it reveal to him which world was real and which wasn't? And if things were headed in that direction, would he shy away from or embrace those answers? Once the questions start to be really clear to him, it's hard for him to focus on anything else and those questions really drive those last three episodes.
Were you surprised how negatively some fans and critics responded to that plot twist?
Killen: I'm a little surprised and I haven't yet decided what it is about. Is it that this particular storyline is unappealing to some segment of the audience? Is it burnout on these types of storylines? Or, is it burnout on being offered these types of storylines and then having shows canceled and never getting answers?
Well, what can you say about which questions you will answer by the end of this season?
Killen: I think the real question of Season 1 is what happened the night of his accident. If we make it to the finale, you can at least get answers on that, and those answers raise new questions. If you'll follow us down the rabbit hole, you may hate it and you may riot... but it goes somewhere. We didn't come up with it without an idea what we were doing. Ultimately, it takes us in a wonderful direction. We're really proud of those last three episodes. ... I think it creates a really fertile, interesting spot for a potential Season 2 to take off from.
So, we won't know which reality is real by the end of this season?
Killen: Well, [Britten is] on a journey where he is both seeking and avoiding answers. He doesn't want to know which of his worlds is real and yet, I think he will eventually come to see that there are questions about that night that demand answers. The two are on opposite sides. You can have answers to what happened to you... or, you can have both of your family members and not upset the apple cart. What would you choose?
Awake airs Thursdays at 10/9c on NBC.