“Doesn’t this all seem like some ancient male fantasy? What they used to call science-fiction?”
From a science fiction point of view, this episode has everything; virtual reality, flying cars, future cops, a Blade-Runner-lite world, and some big questions. It also has the star power that we’re used to from this show. In this case it’s Anna Paquin and Terrence Howard. Based on a 1954 short story titled ‘Exhibit Piece’, this episode takes some liberties with the source material but leaves the core message of the story untouched.
The episodes revolves around two worlds, leaving it until the very last few minutes to confirm which one is real. The first world we see is the future, a pretty standard affair with flying cars, holograms, and fancy mobile phones. We meet Sarah (Paquin) and her partner Mario (Jacob Vargas) doing typical cop stuff – eating burgers at a diner. Sarah is burnt out and and stressed after a massacre left 15 cops dead. To relax her, her wife Kate (Rachelle Lefevre) gives her a try of some new technology her company is working on that will allow her to go on a vacation without leaving her house. She uses it and, like all of us at some point, wakes up as Terrence Howard.
This is the other world, the world of the past in which billionaire George Miller is avenging the death of his wife (also played by Rachelle Lefevre – the first of many connections between the two worlds). In this world George has developed a VR headset and when he uses it he wakes up as Sarah. So which is real? Well both worlds are drawn broadly enough that they could both be computer generated scenarios. The hot lesbian supercop scenario, or the violent vigilante justice scenario. Both play out like fantasies so it’s nearly impossible to guess which one is the real one. The characters even point this out, with Sarah observing how she has “a flying car and a gorgeous lesbian wife who wants to have sex all the time”, and George being compared to Bruce Wayne.
This is pretty different from the original story. The story followed a historian named George Miller, an expert on the 20th century (the post-WWII Eisenhower era specifically.) He ends up inside one of his displays, living in the past. It still has the same theme there however, whether the reality you know is real or not. But the story is a product of the Cold War and it is definitely a tough one to adapt directly, and still keep the message. Plus the idea of losing yourself in a world through VR is perfect in the world of 2017. Writer Ronald D. Moore has succeeded in updating the story, but has kept the phildickian themes alive.
I’ve seen a few a reviews saying the dialogue and exposition is a bit heavy-handed at times in this episode. But my assumption when watching it was that it was all part of the fantasy. When Mario mentions how some of the murdered cops were in his class at the academy, it’s stock dialogue straight out of any detective story or narrative. Even if it wasn’t intentional (and I really believe it was) it works as a quick way to establish these archetypal characters.
The performances of the two leads really sell this episode. Anna Paquin plays Sarah with a sort of quiet sadness, where every small movement and line of dialogue conveys a person that is struggling to heal after a traumatic event. Terrence Howard is at the other end of the acting scale, but is still excellent. He just cries a lot, but damn if he isn’t good at it (see Prisoners). You feel for George but it’s a heartbreaking all-out grief, as opposed to Sarah’s restrained melancholy.
Now the ending will please a lot of people. For the first time in the series, this episode has a concrete ending. I know open, ambiguous endings can split opinion, but endings that put all their cards on the table run this risk too. In ‘Real Life’ they justify it in my eyes, just because I feel an open-ended conclusion wouldn’t work this week. I need some closure, I need to know who was real. Plus the episode uses the ending to wrap up it’s themes of self-punishment and undeserved happiness in a nice, albeit bleak, way. But it’s never going to please everyone.
‘Real Life’ is the best episode of the series so far. To me it’s a near-perfect hour of science-fiction that asks some big questions and then answers them. But there’s still plenty to think about. With some great performances and direction, this episode has both the style and the substance. And although it changes the majority of the original story, thematically it stays exactly the same.
The next episode is delayed a week, so see you in two weeks for ‘Human Is’ starring the man himself – Bryan Cranston.
Reviewed by Jack