Is detective Mike Britten insane? That’s the implicit question behind the premise of ‘Awake’. This past Thursday’s episode decided to address that topic head-on. More importantly, it made Britten himself address it head-on. Is he ready to accept that possibility?
In the episode, very bizarrely titled ‘That’s Not My Penguin’, Britten has to assist with a hostage situation at a mental hospital. (Why a homicide detective would be called in for a hostage crisis isn’t addressed, but we’ll just go with it.) One of the patients, a schizophrenic named Gabriel (Billy Lush from ‘The Chicago Code’), has jury-rigged a bomb on a dead-man’s trigger and locked 25 doctors, nurses and patients in the building with him. He demands to see his sister, which doesn’t seem too unreasonable until Britten learns that she died several years earlier. Paranoid Gabe refuses to accept that answer. He believes that she was kidnapped as part of a government conspiracy against him, and is being held in a secret underground facility by someone called Dr. Wild. Britten can find no record of any such doctor, but does learn that Wild is the name of the cemetery where she’s buried… underground, of course. Clearly, Gabe has conflated actual details from his real life into his fantasy – which is more or less what both of Britten’s psychiatrists have accused him of doing.
Britten gets into the hospital to negotiate, and initially seems to win Gabe’s trust, but an overzealous S.W.A.T. team makes Gabe nervous. He knocks Britten out and stabs him with a syringe full of ketamine. The unconscious Britten immediately wakes up in his other reality, where he seems to be having a pretty easy day, aside from worrying about what will happen when he switches back again. Oh, and there’s the small matter of having unshakable hallucinations about a penguin that follows him everywhere. He’s afraid to tell anyone about that, even his shrink Dr. Evans (Cherry Jones), because she might assume that he’s gone even crazier than she already believes him to be.
Britten eventually switches back and wakes up. His other shrink, Dr. Lee (B.D. Wong), has been sent in to assist. Lee tells Britten that he must get through to Gabe and make him face up to the reality that his sister is dead. Britten, on the other hand, decides to do the opposite. He plays into Gabe’s delusion by telling him that the sister escaped from the evil Dr. Wild and is safely on the run. A relieved Gabe finally stands down and releases the hostages. Dr. Lee is impressed by Britten’s ingenuity and insight into Gabe’s mental condition.
Dr. Evans, however, is worried. Although she’d previously been supportive of Britten exploring his fantasy world (the one where his son is still alive), she fears that he has created a scenario designed to validate his continued delusion, one where he saves the day and wins the admiration of a skeptical doctor, as a reward for refusing to accept his own reality (hers). Britten is inclined to dismiss her theories, but his penguin hallucinations and a later realization that Dr. Lee was never actually in the hospital with him make Britten himself fear that he could be cracking up.
As I’ve said in previous recaps, I still have issues with ‘Awake’, mainly to do with the show’s insistence on fusing an interesting premise onto a routine cop procedural formula. With that said, this is a very strong episode that explores the dynamic of Britten’s situation in interesting ways.
I happened to notice in the opening credits that former ‘X-Files’ writer Darin Morgan is a consulting producer on the show. (Morgan was responsible for several of that series’ best and most memorable episodes.) I don’t know exactly how much involvement he has with the writing here, but the very funny scenes with the penguin remind me of his off-kilter sensibilities. That’s a good thing in my book.