Jason Isaacs admits he finds it “strangely ironic and amusing” to be promoting tonight’s season finale of NBC’s Awake (10 p.m. ET), given that the show has been canceled. But receiving so many calls after the first hour of the two-part finale aired last week — and ended with his Det. Michael Britten shot in the reality in which his wife survived the fatal car accident, and placed in a police holding cell in the reality in which his son lived — recharged him. “I think we burned briefly but brightly,” he tells EW. “The fact that we’re not coming back for a second season doesn’t in any way diminish what we managed to do in one season. Some really smart people put their heads together and came up with something different. NBC was very brave to make it and very supportive while we were on.” He’s proud of tonight’s episode. “We left nothing off the table. It feels like a real ending. Nobody who’s watched the show is going to come up and want their money back in the street.”
Neither Isaacs nor creator Kyle Killen will tease too much about the final hour for fear of spoiling it. Isaacs says he hasn’t even told his wife how it ends. “And she’s been withholding privileges to try to get the answer,” he jokes. One thing Isaacs will confirm: “One of those worlds is a dream,” he says. “It’s not a rip in the fabric of time. It’s not string theory. It was nothing more or less extraordinary than a man who had been in a terrible car crash and could not bear to lose either his wife or his son, so he unconsciously constructed a whole universe in his head. It is a man who is teetering under the weight of this psychological denial.” Will we find out which world is real? “The episode certainly feeds one of those theories,” says Killen. Though, of course, it may not be the final answer. “When we wrote the episode, we didn’t know it would be the end of the series, so it would have been impossible to answer that question,” he says. “But you don’t need every question answered. I think what you need is something that feels like an emotional resolve, and I think it definitely offers that. It’s a really satisfying conclusion, and I think it will be a satisfying way to leave the show.” (While Killen made a concerted effort to shop his 2010 series Lone Star to another network after Fox canceled it — and failed — he doesn’t expect to make the hard sell for Awake. “There’s so many things aligned against you. Another network doesn’t want damaged goods from a competitor. It’s hard when you’re moving from network to cable, because the budgets and the deals are structured differently. So it’s sort of worse than starting from scratch,” he says. “It’s not that I wouldn’t be open to it, but I think the limited number of fans that there is needs to be prepared to enjoy the last episode and hopefully see some of the potential of the series realized.”)
In the creator’s and star’s minds, they definitely saved the best for last: “Britten’s still fighting for his life in one world, and in the other world, he doesn’t know that he’s walked right into the heart of the conspiracy against him. He’s asked his Captain [Laura Innes], one of the very people who was trying to get rid of him, for help. So there’s just as much explosive craziness in this episode as the last one, but it then takes itself to a whole other level when it becomes about Britten’s state of mind,” Killen says. Adds Isaacs, “When the script came in, I had to go down to the writers building and check that they weren’t all drinking because I felt they had really finally gone insane. This very tenuous hold that Britten’s had on his sanity all this time begins to fray. It’s clear that you’re watching a guy with deep psychological problems from the beginning — but he’s a pretty good cop in both worlds, and he’s a reasonable father and a reasonable husband, and he managed to hold it all together because he’s that kind of alpha male. I can promise you by the end, he’s not holding very much together at all. I hope everyone’s just sitting there in silence for 10 minutes thinking, Whew, I couldn’t have taken anymore of that. Hopefully, your brains and hearts will hurt.”
Killen will join EW.com for a live chat during the East Coast airing tonight to answer fans’ burning questions. In the meantime, we asked Isaacs to answer three of ours…
1. Will we have time for a shirtless scene in the final hour? Yes! That gunshot wound to the abdomen will need treatment, so Michael’s shirt will come off. Isaacs, however, issues the following warning: “You never want to ask actors to get their shirts off toward the end of a series, too many late nights and too many times they come around with the muffins.” No worries, we’ll always remember the episode in which Michael and Hannah went skinny-dipping fondly. Fun fact: “I thought it would be very, very funny to show my butt going up and down the stairs there, and somebody somewhere thought it would break Standards & Practices,” Isaacs says. “Also, there was a lady at the campus swimming pool there, god bless her, who came up and said right at the end of the night, ‘Are you naked?’ I said, ‘Well, not naked, I’ve got a small piece of material taped over my genitals,’ and she went, ‘That’s naked!’ I said, ‘It’s completely different.’ She said, ‘I can see your butt crack.’ So I taped a piece of material over my butt crack, too, and we had the last shot to do, where I ran up the stairs. It fell off, because it was just held on by a piece of Scotch tape, and she was FURIOUS. I thought they were going to have to withdrawal the footage. I’m glad that some of it ended up in the episode.”
2. Was the moment when Britten had the (false) realization that he was responsible for the accident scripted? “I think it was improvised. I knew that I had to wake up and realize I’d killed my son,” Isaacs says. “The crew, we all got on very well. I had big speakers on set, and to make sure that nobody ever took our job too seriously, I was playing cheesy disco music almost throughout the entire eight-month shoot. That day, I didn’t play music, and without asking them at all, they just fell very silent. They all read the script and knew what was going on. I sat on the floor, and [Innes, who directed the episode] said ‘Action,’ and I have no idea what came out of my mouth. We did it three or four times. It was completely different each time, and I had no idea which take she would use. I had to do that deeply unpleasant thing that you do sometimes as an actor and imagine awful things happening to your family. There’s a certain level of slickness that American television does so beautifully. I do remember afterwards thinking, It’s a network television show, I wonder if I’m trying to be too real and truthful? That whole episode was the most difficult to shoot for me, because one of the worlds had to disappear. I’d managed to avoid grief and really engaging with it for 10 episodes, and I suddenly had to imagine losing a child. I’ve had some friends who lost children. Out of respect for them, and the story, and anyone who was watching, I felt like I had to take myself there and imagine it.”
3. Why does Britten carry that large notepad? If you noticed it, Isaacs is thrilled. “The producers hate me for it,” he says, with a laugh. “I went out with homicide cops and they carry these giant pads all the time. ‘Even when you chase people down the street?’ “Yeah.’ The thing about being a detective is everything you do, from the first call that comes in, is about trying to secure a conviction. You take notes all the time, and both [partners] have to take notes so you can cross-reference them in court.” Wilmer Valderrama, who plays Britten’s partner Vega, was more game to carry the large pad than Steve Harris, who plays Britten’s partner Bird. “I think it ruined the line of Steve’s suit,” Isaacs cracks.