Monday, April 9, 2012

Green World: "Oregon"

This is a spoiler review of "Oregon", episode five of Awake, a TV series about a police detective, Michael Britten, who loses a family member in a car crash. Britten responds by creating a dream world in which a different family member died in the crash, a dream world so real that he can't tell it from the real world, and is in fact determined to act as though both worlds are real. As I've noted before, while in reality (the Green World) Detective Britten's wife Hannah died in the crash, Britten has created a dream world (the Red World) where Hannah survived and it was his son Rex who died in the crash.

We open in Britten's dream world, seeing Britten's love-hate relationship with Los Angeles, represented by smoggy skies, bumper-to-bumper traffic, and a homeless guy living under a bridge. While jogging, Britten encounters a woman walking a yappy little dog, who lunges at him. The dog's owner chews Britten out for "scaring" the little monster. A homeless man offers to sell Britten a box of junk for ten dollars; when Britten declines, the man asks for a dollar on general principles. Britten then intervenes in an increasingly violent argument by two drivers whose cars have collided, while muttering, "Stupid city." But in the dream, Britten is alone; Hannah is in Portland, Oregon, and when he's on the phone with her she can't say enough nice things about it.

Los Angeles is just as much trouble in the real world, where Britten finds himself stuck in a traffic jam with Rex. At the station, Freeman drops a set of files on Britten's desk and says the captain wants to know why they don't have any suspects for any of them. When Freeman suggests lunch, Britten opts to jog in Griffith Park instead, remembering his dream-world run. Just like in his dream, Britten encounters a dog. However, this dog is not a subconscious manifestation of Britten's ambivalence about his native city. This is a real dog, and instead of lunging at him, the dog leads Britten to a corpse. "Stupid city," Britten mutters in an echo of his dream.

Britten has stumbled upon the latest victim of the Gemini Killer, a serial killer who drains his victims of their blood, then carves a Roman numeral II in their chest, and always kills two paired victims. For the last twelve years, the Gemini killer has killed two victims every year in a different city. The dead man Britten found is his first in Los Angeles. The problem: the Gemini Killer is dead. So either the Gemini Killer has risen from the dead, or there's a copycat Gemini Killer out there. Either way, within 48 hours another victim will be killed in another park.

After Britten and Freeman explain this to Captain Harper, she tells them that an FBI agent who has been on the Gemini Killer case since its beginning will be flying in to join the investigation. We then meet the FBI agent, Elizabeth Santoro, on the phone with her ex-husband arguing about custody of their daughter. She tells Britten that she has been in Portland writing a book on the case, and that one detail of the murders they didn't make public was that the killer always left a two dollar bill in the victims hand. Since Britten's victim didn't have one, they definitely have a copycat killer. Remembering his dream, Britten asks her what Portland is like, and Santoro tells him it always rains, like London with hippies.

Britten returns to Griffith Park with Freeman, and they find the dog who found the victim. When the dog is examined, half of a two dollar bill is found in its stomach. Santoro denies that this means it's the real Gemini Killer; she says it just means the copycat had access to classified information, and is therefore probably a disgruntled cop or ex-cop. Freeman thinks Santoro is too quick to dismiss the possibility that this is the original Gemini Killer. Santoro says that she shot the GK herself. No, says Freeman, you shot a man named Arthur Mintern who fit your profile. If Santoro is wrong, they'll be going up a series of blind alleys while the real killer finds and kills another victim. Captain Harper decides to let Santoro have her files of disgruntled cops. Britten tries to convince Santoro that she might be wrong, but fails. We cut to the Gemini Killer as he carries out his well-worn ritual in preparation for his next murder: scalpel, hypo, two dollar bill.

That night, Britten dreams of calling Hannah for help finding his cell phone charger. She doesn't pick up, so he leaves a message. He finds the charger, and also finds an estimate from a moving company: Mountain Top Moving & Storage. Britten is disturbed -- he didn't realize Hannah was this serious about moving to Portland. Even more disturbing is the fact that Hannah didn't tell him about this.

In therapy, Dr. Lee asks why Britten didn't think Hannah was serious about moving. Britten says that moving to Oregon isn't a realistic option, but Dr. Lee says Britten has let confirmation bias cloud his judgment: Hannah has been telling him how serious she is, but Britten hasn't been listening. This, Dr. Lee reminds Britten, is how most marriages end: not with screaming fights, but with two people who gradually drift apart from each other. Britten has always drawn strength from his dream-life with his deceased wife. Now, though, Santoro's real-life divorce is bleeding over into Britten's dream. The wife that his subconscious has re-created for him may be slipping away, just as the real one did.

At the station, Vega tells Britten he has a lead on a case. However, when they go to meet Vega's lead, the supposed pawn shop is a vacant storefront. When Vega admits the lead offered to help him for $100, Britten tells him he's been scammed. "If you have to buy it, it may be information. If they try and sell it to you, it's always BS." Britten adds, "Think of it as a rookie tax." But Britten notices an odd bit of graffiti on the vacant storefront: a red exclamation mark over an asterisk.

Back home, Britten gazes at the movers' estimate and calls Hannah again. Again, she doesn't pick up. This time, he doesn't bother leaving a message.

Back in the reality of the Gemini Killer, Britten agrees with Freeman that Santoro shot the wrong man, and they're dealing with the original. They start asking around at cheap motels, near Griffith Park, in hopes of finding him. As he emerges from one, Britten sees an abandoned building with the sign MOUNTAIN TOP MOVING & STORAGE. Remembering the dream of Hannah's estimate, he enters the building, and . . . almost catches the Gemini Killer.

Santoro is very suspicious, though, because Britten can't explain why he picked this particular building to investigate. When the Gemini Killer sneaks back into the abandoned building, he overhears her discussing Britten with Captain Harper.

Driving back from the warehouse to the police station, Britten stops at the vacant storefront he visited with Vega in his dream. It looks much the same -- except that the red exclamation point graffiti is missing. When he reaches the station, he learns that Santoro received a phone call from a man claiming to be the Gemini Killer -- a call that came from Britten's home phone. Britten can't explain that he was checking out a building he had dreamed of the night before, and Santoro decides that Britten is the copycat. Captain Harper asks him to hand in his weapon.

An hour later, Freeman confronts Britten. He doesn't believe Britten is a copycat, but he does point out how wierd Britten has been acting since returning to work. He hands Britten a set of crime scene photos, and says that if Britten is going to pull another rabbit out of his hat, now is the time. Britten does: a napkin at the abandoned warehouse has a green exclamation point logo just like the one from Britten's dream. This was what Britten's subconscious had been warning him about.

It turns out that the green logo is from the Bay Street Coffee Shop chain, which has six locations in Los Angeles, each in proximity to a park. How to pick which one? Britten looks back at the crime scene photos from the Griffith Park murder. Santoro is in the background of one, holding a coffee cup with the Bay Street Coffee logo. She had the cup when Britten met her in Brentwood. The coffee shop in Brentwood is in the lobby of the Meridian Hotel -- where Santoro is staying, and where the killer has been stalking her. Britten realizes that the Gemini Killer has targeted Santoro for his next victim.

When Santoro doesn't answer her cell phone, Britten is convinced that the killer has abducted her, and he's right. Freeman has the park nearest the Meridian, Aliso Canyon Park, sealed off, but the killer, using Santoro's FBI ID, is able to get past the police. Freeman and Britten head for Aliso Canyon Park. The killer is draining Santoro's blood and preparing to carve the Roman numeral into her abdomen, when he is interrupted by Britten. After a gunfight, the killer flees, and Britten saves Santoro. The killer gets away from Freeman.

In the hospital, Britten watches as Santoro's ex-husband and daughter come to visit her.

In Britten's dream that night, Hannah is back from Portland, and he talks to her about the estimate -- and about his fear that she wants to leave him. She says she didn't tell him about it because she was ashamed that she couldn't cope with Rex's death the way he was able to. She doesn't want to forget Rex, though, and being with Britten helps her to remember him.

Britten tells his therapists, both the real Dr. Evans and the imaginary Dr. Lee, that he is willing to move with Hannah to Portland. However, in real life, he'll be remaining in Los Angeles with Rex. Both therapists think that moving to Portland will weaken Britten's ability to maintain the reality of his dream, and that Britten will finally recognize it for the dream it is -- which means acknowledging that one member of his family really is dead. Dr. Evans predicts that Britten will fight against the loss of his dream Hannah, but will eventually give in. Britten assures her that he will not. "This thing works because I make it work."

While sitting in traffic the next day, Britten receives a call from the Gemini Killer. The killer broke into Dr. Evans' office, and now he knows about Britten's double lives. Unlike Dr. Evans, the killer accepts the reality of both worlds -- he sees Britten and himself as two of a kind, experiencing realities that other people can't understand. "Sweet dreams, Detective Britten. And speaking just for myself, I'd be very disappointed if you woke up."

Britten is able to maintain an entire internally consistent imaginary alternate world because there are so many common elements between it and his real life. The fact that it's his imaginary therapist, Dr. Lee, who points this out to him, shows that at least subconsciously, he is well aware of it. However much he might deny it consciously, his subconscious knows that the Red World is just a dream. If he wants to maintain his sanity, Britten will eventually have to give it up. His marital troubles with the dream Hannah, and the upcoming departure of his dream world from the familiar environs of Los Angeles, are a way for his subconscious to prepare Britten for the day when he has to acknowledge that his wife really is dead.

At the same time, there is more at stake for Britten than just the loss of his wife. Dr. Evans has always believed that the Red World was more than just a coping mechanism for Britten's grief. It was also a direct link to Britten's subconscious, allowing him to communicate with a part of his mind that is inaccessible to most other people. The two obvious examples in "Oregon" are the moving company and the red graffiti mark, both of which are methods that Britten's subconscious uses to help guide his hunt for the Gemini Killer. Losing the Red World will mean losing that direct connection to his subconscious.

Finally, there is the chilling call from the Gemini Killer. The killer regards himself as a unique individual with a unique perspective, placing him on a higher level than the rest of the human race, whom he regards as playthings. However, now that he knows of Britten's double life, he no longer sees Britten as a plaything. He thinks of Britten as someone who, like himself, sees the world sideways.

Britten has not seen the last of the Gemini Killer.

On the other hand . . .

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