‘Awake’ series finale interview with creator Kyle Killen

I had planned on writing a review of the series finale of “Awake.” Then I watched the series finale of “Awake,” which was fascinating at times, puzzling at others, and moving at still others. I felt like this was a situation where the best approach was to simply talk to the show’s creator, Kyle Killen, about everything that happened, what it meant, and where the show might have gone if the ratings had been good enough to merit a second season. All of that coming up just as soon as I get my high heels fixed…
The day that the cancellation was confirmed, you tweeted out that at least it lasted 600% longer than “Lone Star” did. How would you compare the two experiences?

I think they were really really really different. “Lone Star” was an intentional experiment to see if we could put a cable show on network television, and it was over in the blink of an eye. It was a thrilling creative experience, and sort of painful to lose it after two episodes, when that was something we had a detailed map for where it would go in a single season. So in that way, it’s been a lot more satisfying to be able to share the whole story of a single season of “Awake” with an audience, whereas it got aborted with “Lone Star.”

Where were you in production of this when you realized how the numbers were trending, and did that in any way influence how you wrote this finale?

The numbers were never great even from when it started. It was always in the back of our minds, every week that it continued to air and continued to drop, that it might not be back. But we were absolutely, completely, totally done before any decisions were made. I think it may have made the powers that be a little more willing to let us swing for the fences in the final episodes – the fact that it may or may not come back. You try to walk a very delicate line of both summing up and giving some closure to things we talked about throughout the season, while leaving the door open for things that we would do in subsequent seasons.
Unfortunately, there aren’t going to be those subsequent seasons. I don’t know how much you are comfortable in talking about, in both explaining what happened in the finale and alluding to what might have come next. But let’s start with the broadest question possible: what happened in the finale?

I will be happy to give you my interpretation, and what we pitched to the network, but I’m genuinely curious – especially from someone who is a connoisseur of television – did you have a take on it? Was it just baffling?

No, it wasn’t baffling. It was intriguing and it was open-ended. I don’t think it explained a whole lot of anything, but I don’t know that I was bothered by all of that. The final scene where he’s with Dr. Evans and he starts suggesting that there don’t have to be rules, it’s you opening up a new chapter where it’s not necessarily going to be this binary thing where he just goes back and forth between the red world and the green world. It seemed to me as if you were setting things up to be a lot more fluid after that.

I think that’s not wrong. Essentially, our take was, the episode was about reaching a place where, in order to get all the answers, to get everything that’s floating around in his head, to get to the fact that Harper was involved in the green world, to figure out how he can actually apprehend her, he seems to be forced to recognize that the red world is his imagination, that it exists for him to work these things out. He’s so caught up in what’s happening there, and the idea that he’s injured and he’s paying attention to a thousand things, that he’s not closing in on the clue that he would normally come to, that’s not happening this time. So the dream fractures, and he steps outside the dream and it literally becomes very dream-like, in order to deliver to him the answer that he seems to need in going back to the other world. When he gets to the green world, he has the information he needs to capture Harper, but it comes at the expense of being able to believe the red world is real.

So when he’s in the final scene with Dr. Evans and she is explaining exactly that, he goes back into the same shell he’s been going into ever since this happened: he keeps talking himself into it, “There must be some way, some other explanation.” His explanation is, “Nothing that happened in the red world after I was sitting in my cell was real. That was a dream. If that world was real, there’s no reason I couldn’t have a dream.” And that’s exactly what happens. So he imagines that when he wakes up in the red world, he would still be in prison, and that’s what we would have played had we gone forward. Whether that’s because he’s really in prison, or because he’s so desperate to hold onto the idea that there is a red world where his wife exists that that’s where his dream continues – obviously, the last scene itself represents this idea that he believes there can be literal dreams, places between the two worlds. So if he was going to dream a third space, this is exactly what it would look like: a place where he had both his wife and his son, and that’s where we ended up.

Obviously, he uses what he learns in the red world to solve what’s in the green, and vice versa, but what Vega in the penguin is showing him is something he was not witness to in either of those worlds. He’s getting a freeze-framed rendition of something that only we saw.

This happens throughout the season. There’s technically things you could say was, “But he didn’t see that, he wasn’t there for that.” The whole idea of working things out subconsciously and taking note of things you missed on a conscious level. He’s one of the first people to the scene, he and Bird are there before the CSI techs have moved or seen anything. He’s been hearing the way Harper walks in green world, since he came back from the scene. Visually, he could have connected it with the heel tip he saw on the floor, but it’s not in his conscious mind. This helps him realize what happened, how Harper was involved, where the evidence is, that Harper was there. I would argue that there’s many scenes like that throughout the course of the season, where arguably, he didn’t see something and make note of it in the present, but that’s the role of his dreams: to connect the dots, when he walks through scenes in the present reality the way the rest of us do.
Knowing that the show isn’t coming back, are you comfortable saying that, say, Dr. Evans is right and green world is real and red world isn’t?

No, no, not at all. That’s not our intent, and ultimately not the argument we ended up making. I think there’s an equal argument to be made that red world is real. I think the two sides can totally continue to be flipped upside down and backwards. It would take a couple of episodes to work it all out, but I can assure you it was all on white boards and tested and tried, I can’t say everyone would get it, but it made sense to us. We reached a place where we were comfortable that if we had come back for a second season, we would have had a new set of toys in the sandbox, but that the sandbox still existed, and the shows could have existed in a similar vein to the way that it was in season one.

But obviously you had an answer in your head when you created the show. Or did you? Was this something you were going to figure out later?

The thing about “What’s real: red or green?,” maybe I feel like someone on “The Event,” where you wish you hadn’t named the show “The Event,” because when you talk about it, the show was never supposed to be just about that. I feel like the point wasn’t necessarily just about who killed Laura Palmer, it was about a man who wanted to live in both these worlds and what the consequences were of trying to spread yourself between two existences. I’ve never looked at it as a mystery that the show solely exists to solve.  Do I have a notion of which world I believe is real, which one makes more sense to me as real? Yes. I guess, to me it’s the same as asking “What happened to Tony Soprano in the end of that finale?” I don’t know that it would actually make things better to hear from the creator, “He lived, he died.” In some ways, it ruins it to me. It should be left open to interpretation.
You haven’t read the 20,000 word essay where the guy says that Tony died, and there’s no other possible way to read it?

I have not, but I love that someone is able to write 20,000 words on it because David Chase didn’t come out and say definitively, “It is this” or “It is that.”

But Chase ended it ambiguously because that’s how he chose to end it. This ended before you were ready for it to end because the ratings were unfortunately what the ratings were. Had the show continued for X number of years, do you feel there would have come a point where you would have explained that? Or not?

I really can’t say. It wasn’t in our plans. What I can tell you is that when I pitched the show, the last scene of the first season was in the pitch. It didn’t have anything to do with ratings, how we ended. We arrived right where we intended to go. How we got there was very different. We took a lot of twists and turns, and frankly did some episodes that varied dramatically from the formula that we ultimately thought was effective. We just tried a lot of things on. But the end of the first season is as was pitched before there was a show. It didn’t have anything to do with being canceled or having to do a quick wrap-up. This is where it was always intended to go.

In terms of trying some things that worked and some that didn’t, there was that point in production where you and Howard (Gordon) shut things down, took a step back to figure out what was working. In hindsight, having done that and seen the episodes you were able to do later in the year, what did you figure out that would have informed things in a second season had there been one?

I think what the show is when it’s most successful is less of a straight procedural. That’s always the holy grail, as we say in network television: it’s repeatable out of order, it has a satisfying wrap-up to the case, and so on and so forth. But I think in our show, it ended up feeling like just a guy with a magic trick that he did on a weekly basis. Ultimately, the show was at its best and its most compelling when it dealt with the nature of his situation and his personal life and issues and how they crossed over with his job as a result. So I think there are a few episodes where we pushed it in a pretty rote “two cases of the week” direction, and ultimately those were less satisfying for us creatively – I can’t speak for the audience – than things like we were able to do at the end of the season. The last three or four episodes represent what we were able to learn along the way and the direction we would have tried to go in subsequent seasons.

It was so much fun, as Britten was marching to the vault door, to see Evans and Lee finally interacting. I imagine that was something you had in mind all along. Was there any temptation at any point in the season to have the two of them interact in one world or the other, or to have Britten seek one of them out in the wrong world?

Absolutely. It’s odd to remember what’s in the shows, because we wrote so many scenes and went down so many directions that we didn’t have time for, or the stories came out differently. That was constantly something that we wanted Britten to do. We wanted him to seek out the wrong therapist in the wrong world, and have to play with what his expectations for them would be. Those are the sort of things that bumped right into the dual procedural aspect of the show. The episodes that had all of those sorts of things – it became an either/or. You can’t waste just running into Dr. Evans in Dr. Lee world in the background of trying to solve a case. It was a story that demanded you play it out and take your time with it. In that portion of the season, we were headed in a more procedural direction, so we didn’t get to do a lot of those things, and those are places we would’ve loved to go in the future.

I didn’t put a clock on this, and this could turn out to be an entirely false conclusion, but my impression as I watched the season is that we tended to spend more time following the cases in the green world than the red one. A lot of the Britten/Vega cases would disappear into the ether partway through. Was that something you were actually aware of, and, if so, was it by design? Was it saying something about the relationships with the two partners? Something you were getting from Jason (Isaacs) and Steve (Harris)?

I don’t even know that’s what technically happened. They were very different dynamics, but we grew to really appreciate and use the dynamic Jason had with both Steve and with Wilmer (Valderrama). I think more often we were playing some personal problems and stories with his wife, which might have taken up the available time in the red world, which might have pushed the cases to the side over there and left more room for Steve and Jason. It was always a puzzle: five stories you were trying to tell, and you couldn’t fit them all in. The way you’re describing it may be how it broke down, but it’s not my memory of it and it wasn’t by design.

Having done the experiment where you tried to put a cable show on network TV, and now having done another experiment in terms of trying to do a procedural with a heavy character focus and a science-fiction twist, and neither worked out, what do you feel you’ve learned about the network TV business and what you can do within it?
I think NBC’s fear was more or less having happen exactly what happened: the more you went away from the direct, straight procedural that was easily accessible and not particularly complicated from everybody – the more you veered from a “Mentalist” or “CSI” model – the more rabid the fans that you had would become, and yet that number would be dramatically smaller, which is precisely the formula for cable programming. On cable, you don’t need everybody; you just need the people you get to be super hardcore. I began thinking that I could do maybe my own spin on traditional network procedural. In the end, I’m a little less interested in cases of the week. I just feel like there might not be an incredible number of ways to reinvent that particular wheel. The stuff that this show offered, the design of the universe, had less to do with who stole what and who killed who, and more to do with this guy’s predicament, which is the one thing no ever detective character on television was facing. I think we became, ultimately, most interested in exploring that. The question is, would that have been a successful network show? And I think probably the numbers indicate it wouldn’t have. I have to judge the next idea when I get to it. I thought “Awake” could work on network; maybe it wouldn’t have worked on cable, either. It may have been a fundamentally flawed or not particularly interesting premise to begin with. But here we are.

There was a period after “Dollhouse” ended where people were saying, “Joss Whedon has to go to cable. Cable is the only place where Joss Whedon can have success today.” Obviously, Joss Whedon’s doing okay for himself. But is there a part of you that thinks, after the experiences where the network trusted you, and you did work you were proud of, and it didn’t quite work out, that maybe this is an arena you’re not suited for and you should be pitching FX, AMC, or whatever?

Sure. All of those places are places where they’re great for drama. So those are places where you’d love to be and work with, and audiences you’d like to speak to. At the same time, I grew up watching everything from “ER” to “NYPD Blue.” There was amazing network drama. It wasn’t just that there weren’t other channels; those were great shows. Network can still do amazing things in drama. I would say this season’s canary in the coal mine is going to be the “Last Resort” show on ABC. That was one where if you told me it was going to be on FX, and after the second episode, FX told me there would be a second season? I’m in; I’ll follow it wherever it goes with those auspices and Andre Braugher. I will be really curious to see if they can pull that off on network. It’s another test of where drama is at, with it being as successful as it is on cable, and the return of comedy on network, what is network drama, at the moment, a super-open question.

This is something I heard a lot anecdotally: where given what’s happened in network drama in recent years where shows that break the mold like you’ve done don’t last long, people say, “Well, I’m not going to make any kind of investment until I know it’s getting a second season.” Do you think that is actually the case? Do you think that might have hurt you in any way? Or is it just that you were a difficult show on a network that’s having a lot of other difficulties?

Both. I think we were absolutely a difficult show, low-rated. There’s a history of television shows, not many of them blossom hugely from really inauspicious starts. That said, the cable model of renewing these things as soon as they’re on is essentially that subtle way of saying, “It’s okay, guys. We’re in for the long haul. You’re not going to get screwed, we’re not going to pull the plug.” We don’t have, necessarily that luxury in the network world. I think NBC jumped in pretty quickly, early, to assure people that “Smash” was going to be around, and I think that helped people hold on. Whatever audience there is knew it wasn’t going to go away, and it wasn’t going to be abandoned, and if there were issues, hopefully they would be worked out to everyone’s satisfaction. I think that’s always helpful.
But I saw on Twitter every day exactly what you are describing, and I see it now with the show premiering in the UK where Jason has an enormous and active fanbase, but a lot of people are doing the same calculus: “It’s canceled. Why would I even start it?” To which I would say, if I told you that the first book in a trilogy was being published, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me to say, “I’m not going to read the first one, which is self-contained and maybe really entertaining and full of good stories because there won’t be a large number of them behind it.” The season, ultimately I think It has some really good things that stand on its own and warrant watching.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com