Monday, April 9, 2012

Red 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 Red World) Detective Britten's son Rex died in the crash, Britten has created a dream world (the Green World) where Rex survived and it was his wife Hannah who died in the crash.

We open by seeing Britten's love-hate relationship with Los Angeles, which we see 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." We then see Britten on the phone with Hannah, who is walking through a college campus in Portland, Oregon, and can't say enough nice things about it.

Britten's troubles follow him to his dream world, where he 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, no doubt influenced by his real-world run. His real-world experiences intrude themselves into his dream even more obviously when he encounters a dog. Instead of lunging at him, though, this dog leads Britten to a corpse. "Stupid city," Britten mutters.

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. 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.

Back in the real world, Britten calls 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 thinks 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.

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."

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.

In his dream 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. With a vision of Hannah's estimate in his mind, 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. Later, her suspicions deepen when she receives a phone call from a man claiming to be the Gemini Killer -- a call that came from Britten's home phone. Santoro decides that Britten is the copycat, and 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 warehouse has a green exclamation point logo that Britten remembers seeing spraypainted, in red, on the vacant storefront he checked out with Vega in the real world. While the killer was making his phone call to Santoro, Britten had been to the vacant storefront in his dream. It was the same, except there was no spraypainted red mark.

It turns out that the green logo is from the Bay Street Coffee Shop chain, which has six locations in Los Angeles, all 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. 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 the real world, Hannah is back from Portland, and Britten 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. Lee and the imaginary Dr. Evans, that he is willing to move with Hannah to Portland. However, in his dream, he'll be remaining in Los Angeles with Rex. Dr. Lee thinks 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 Rex really is dead. Dr. Evans predicts that Britten will fight against the loss of his "dream" of Hannah, but will eventually give in. Britten assures her that he will not. "This thing works because I make it work."

In his dream, 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."

As Dr. Lee points out, Britten's ability to maintain an entire internally consistent alternate dream world is based on his ability to constantly reinforce it by importing details from the real world. The two most obvious examples from "Oregon" are the Mountain Top moving company and the exclamation mark icon, both of which he imports into his dream to help him deal with the Gemini Killer case. However, this naturally raises the question of just how much reality there is to the Gemini Killer. Did Britten create him out of whole cloth?

I tend to think that there is a real Gemini Killer, and that Britten has been subliminally aware of him for the past twelve years. In his dream, Britten's subconscious brought the Gemini Killer to Los Angeles, and also brought Elizabeth Santoro, the FBI agent who, in the real world, tracked him down and shot him the year before. The Green World has always been a wish-fulfillment fantasy of Britten's and "Oregon" makes that particularly clear. While in the real world Britten is helplessly watching his marriage to Hannah slowly dissolve, in his dream Britten not only tracks the Gemini Killer to his lair, and almost captures him, he saves the life of the FBI agent who mistakenly thought she had killed him. And also, incidentally, Britten uses his dream Santoro to counteract Hannah's adoring descriptions of Portland; Santoro dismisses the city as a dreary place full of rain and hippies.

It is significant that Britten's conversations with his dream therapist, Dr. Evans, do not involve the Gemini Killer case, or indeed anything in the Green World. Instead, they talk about events in the real world: Hannah's desire to move to Portland, and Britten's willingness to accommodate her. Britten's subconscious knows that the events in the Green World aren't real, and don't ultimately matter (except to the extent that they allow Britten to deny the reality of his son's death). What matters is his marriage to Hannah in the real world.

Britten refuses to accept that one of his worlds isn't real, but his subconscious knows better. What's more, he subconsciously knows that his dream world is driving him slowly but surely insane. That's why Britten dreams of a phone call from his imaginary serial killer. "You're just like me," the psychopath tells him, and there can be no more chilling reminder of the danger Britten faces by refusing to accept reality. In the end, if he doesn't wake up and face the truth, he will become just like the Gemini Killer.

On the other hand . . .

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