Awake, the highly anticipated drama from Lone Star showrunner Kyle Killen (which airs tonight at ten on NBC), introduced a new twist in its second episode last week. Not only is detective Britten living in two realities — one in which his wife died in a car crash; the other in which his son died — but there may be a conspiracy operating around him to keep the memory of that fateful day under wraps. It blew the minds of viewers already tuning in to have their minds blown. We spoke to Killen and producer Howard Gordon (Homeland’s showrunner) about this new information, the ramifications it has on Britten, and Killen’s fascination with dualities.
Why did you guys decide to save the huge reveal for episode two?
Killen: It’s a big show with a lot of ideas, and it was hard enough in the pilot to introduce people to his world and his situation without getting into secondary characters and big subplots. One of the advantages of doing a series is you have time to roll those things out. Obviously, we felt it was very important to get it out quickly, and let you know it’s part of the landscape. But we just think it would’ve protracted the pilot.
Gordon: I didn’t write the pilot, but something that was naturally suggested by the pilot was that there’s a barrier between the record of Britten having a drink and having an elevated blood alcohol level, and his own memory or scattered memory of that. That was a good way of addressing it. The thing that’s interesting to us is people’s trepidation about our introduction of a conspiracy theory. One thing that is to our advantage, in that we’ve completed the season, is that it pays off, and pays off well. We’re happy with the way the last three episodes end. And it all has to do with various ideas introduced at the end of the first episode.
There are moments in the second episode that don’t have Britten in them, which has the potential to confuse viewers. Like, if one’s a dream and the other isn’t, it’s odd to think the world goes on without Britten there. Why include those scenes?
Killen: I think you have to commit to treating the world the way the character does. You have to commit to the idea that everyone around him is saying one is real and one is a dream, and yet he chooses or forces himself to live in each as if they’re real. And as writers, that’s how we approach each world. A lot of the fun of the show is playing with his understanding of that. But we attempt to service both stories on each side as if they were real. As far as the point-of-view issue, when I first met Howard, he pointed out from a practical [standpoint] that it’s essentially impossible to create a TV series where one person is going to be in literally every scene. We had to look for ways to break that perspective. And I think we settled on the fact that it’s equally deviated from in both worlds, and psychologically you can come up with our understanding of why and how that is possible and it doesn’t effect the premise of the show. And the short version of it is you glean far more than you think when you dream. You dream all parts of a world, but you only hold on to the parts of your dreams that feel like they involve you, that are first person, and that’s the way your memories are formed. And whether or not these things are actual objective realities that we are witnessing out of his point of view or these are things he’s dreaming, remains to be seen.
It introduces a third option as well: That both the son and wife are dead, and that Britten is fabricating both realities.
Killen: We’ve considered a number of options. I’m hesitant to say where the end of the season is going, but with that idea in mind, I think —
Gordon: You’re on to something.
Killen: I think you’ll find the end of the season intriguing.
Gordon: That’s the great thing about TV: You’re never more than a few weeks from an answer.
So there’s an element to Britten that makes him an unreliable narrator?
Gordon: I think your point is well taken, the unreliability of his narration and his experience works as a foil in either world. It’s part of the price he’s paying for maintaining both worlds. On the one hand, he has this great gift to solve crimes and help his surviving family members through their losses, but on the other hand, it’s exacting a toll on his mind.
Kyle, you’ve spoken a bit in other interviews about your fascination with dualities, which have found their way into Lone Star, The Beaver, and this show. What is the core of that story that draws you in?
Killen: I guess the difference in Lone Star and The Beaver is that those are people who choose duality. I’m very interested in characters that attempt to go both ways at the same time. In this particular instance, it’s not a choice, it’s something [Britten]’s had forced upon him. It’s not a burden, but an opportunity. Everyone else said you have a significant problem. But to him it felt like he had a magic bullet and he really wants to hold on to his problem but characters are trying to fix it. He needs his problem.
Are there moments in your life that started your fascination?
Killen: My life feels like a lot of places where a little nudge one way or another could have gone very differently. I think that’s the story of everybody’s life, but it just felt like I came very close to not writing, or writing and never having anything happen with it. But then things went drastically different, [in] the other direction. For TV, that razor’s edge — what you have and what you could have had instead — feels very real. So I guess I continually return to that.
Lone Star wasn’t given much of a chance and it was canceled after two episodes. What have you learned from that experience that you hope will lend some longevity to Awake?
Killen: Let me back up and weirdly debate the premise of that question. I think it was a show that was never given a chance by the audience. The network was insanely supportive and might have wanted it to work as much as we did; it’s just all of us failed to find a large group of people that wanted to hang out and watch it with us. It had a character who was extremely problematic. If you were rooting for him, you were oddly rooting for him to successfully swindle people and be married to two different women. It’s something that’s going to leave you conflicted, it’s not overtly positive. And on top of that it’s highly serialized. If you had missed the first two episodes, you were going to be very confused by the third. I think what Awake offers in each of those categories is a protagonist you can supposedly get behind. You’re emotionally with him, and not conflicted about him having what he desires. And while there is an overarching story, there is a taste-of-the-week procedural close-ended element to every show.
How did you arrive at the balance between larger story and procedural elements?
Killen: By trying a lot of different balances and ultimately deciding that this show has thus far defied a template. It’s not one you’re going to be able to break out the blueprint and crank out a hundred of them. We follow whatever the story is, and some weeks the big story that you want to stick with is a personal issue in one world or both. Some weeks it’s one crime that crosses both worlds, sometimes it’s two. The show has a lot of different shapes and flavors as you go through it. What it doesn’t have is a formula … It felt like everyone signed up to take a really big risk on Lone Star, and it didn’t pay off. And there are a lot of people who rightly, when they lose a big bet, take their remaining chips and go home. And 20th [Century Fox] turned out to be the kind of people who wanted to double down.
Does Awake feel like as much of a risk?
Killen: It’s a totally different kind of risk. You’re going after a totally different audience. You’re asking them to join you for something that is a different brand of something they’re familiar with. Anytime you’re not following the format, there’s a risk. Hopefully it looks seamless when it gets to you, but it’s a really hard show to write with two realities and keeping everything straight. It’s been a real brain-melter.