Electric Dreams: 105 “Real Life” Review
Reviewed by Ryan Monty.
(This review continues spoilers. Read on if that doesn’t bother you!)
If it weren’t for the now trademark calling card opening shot of an eye, you’d be forgiven watching the first couple minutes of this week’s Electric Dreams instalment, Real Life (adapted from Phillip K. Dick’s 1954 story Exhibit Piece), thinking you were watching a different show, as we focus on policewoman Sarah (True Blood’s Anna Paquin) who seems distant and wearing a pained expression on her face, a whole world away from her partner Mario (Jacob Vargas) as he talks to her. It’s not long though before Sarah reaches maximum uncomfortableness and calls for the hologrammatic bill for her food, and we step into a world of flying cars and copious amounts of neon (Real Life certainly has the greatest Blade Runner aesthetic about it from Electric Dreams thus far).
Sarah is a deeply haunted individual, mentally and emotionally scarred with survivor’s guilt over a massacre of fifteen of her co-workers in the Chicago police and, despite a year having passed since the event, she continues suffering great pain. Returning to her home, she sits drinking on her sofa as her wife Katie (Rachelle Lefevre) arrives home to comfort her, she presents Sarah with an opportunity of a vacation- “a vacation without leaving home” in a virtual reality device allowing her to escape the woes and vices of her real life for a little while and live free of real-world consequence, based on your secret, deepest desires, the ideal remedy.
Far from a relaxing, guilt-free occasion though, Sarah wakes up in the body of a man, surrounded by fire and lying prone on the ground with a cut on her head, as she’s frantically told to get up and move by her seeming friend Chris (Sam Witwer). After being involved in an altercation with a dangerous man who seems to know her- and threatens to feed her, her own finger- Sarah escapes with Chris to a car which she hilariously attempts to drive like her future car. Despite Chris thinking Sarah may have a concussion, the truth couldn’t be further away- it seems Sarah is now inhabiting the body of a billionaire tech mogul by the name of George Miller (Star of Empire and original Rhodey from Marvel’s Iron Man Terence Howard- and no, not the director George Miller!)
While some of Electric Dreams have preferred to keep their hands close to their chests for a large portion of runtime, Real Life’s central plot unveils relatively early, allowing us more than enough due time spent in the two distinct yet evocatively similar worlds that the two leads inhabit, to decide for ourselves which of the lives we feel is the “real” one. Before Sarah’s first delve into the VR world (or the real world?), her Katie points out the reality of dreams- that they are no more distinguishable from our own world, and when you reside within them you can’t possibly tell for sure. While the central concept of dual worlds has been done before many a time, the fact that both have their own traumas of guilt that the main characters suffer from gives each world a central conflict that lends more to the reality or unreality they represent.
While Sarah’s world is the one presented more so as the un-real, pointed out several times within the dialogue as she’s referred to as a “lesbian super cop from the future” like what used to be “science fiction”, George as a person seems just as much a fantasy as the world in which Sarah inhabits, described as a “real life Bruce Wayne” worth billions and driven to desperate vigilantism in the hunt for his wife’s murderer. Yet with that brings the similarities and impossibilities of each scenario, with key touchstones being present such as the same retro diner they eat in playing the same song, “All Right Now” by Free, both being forced to similar actions via their suffering caused by the exact same villainous figure Colin (Guy Burnet) and, crucially, having the same “perfect” wife by the name of Katie. Even though some instances are differing- their jobs, the people they return home to (Sarah to her wife, George to his doctor/personal aide Paula (Sherlock’s Irene Adler herself Laura Pulver) their lives follow each other far too much, bleeding into each other’s world as though their suffering carries through the realities (after all, dreams are indistinguishable from the real).
As it progresses Real Life leads you to strongly believe that Sarah’s world is the one that is fabricated, as being simply too idealised, too squeaky clean despite her own suffering to be plausible, and is instead an escape designed- literally, as its revealed George created the “original” VR headset- to escape from a world of pain over the death of George’s wife to a world where she still exists. Sarah begins to doubt her own existence and reality, pointing out just how surreal her life is, owning a flying car and living out an “ancient male fantasy”. Even passionate sex seems to further her belief that she’s living a lie, leading to the standout portion of the episode in a spine-tingling scene as she regards the world around her- her sleeping, doting wife, the home they have, and the world outside, before choosing to eschew that and return to the “other” life again despite telling Katie otherwise, laid out thanks to the terrific slowly building score and Anna Paquin’s acting that speaks volumes without words.
As Electric Dreams has progressed, it’s grown on me just how exceptional the series has been alone as a showcase for the actors involved, no matter the quality of the story itself. Thankfully the story of Real Life is about as complex and thematically involving as the series has been, anchored by the sublime performances of Paquin and Howard, assisted by director Jeffrey Reiner’s choice to utilise plenty of close-ups and lingering shots. Even though the settings help tell the narrative wonderfully (the production team continue to knock the look and feel of each episode out of the park each week, and this week’s instalment filmed in Chicago gives a different edge)-just because the future world seems more impossible to us, does that instantly make it the wrong reality? Real Life is, stripped away, about two individuals regardless of their existence and their struggles to cope with their grief, manufactured or otherwise.
I feel Real Life is a standout episode with The Commuter so far because it so beautifully mirrors the central angst of The Commuter’s charged story of heartbreak and coping, landing with a crushing final ten minutes that feels about as close to Black Mirror as the comparisons will likely get for this show as George decides that his more realistic life of pain and heartbreak must be the truth and defiantly smashes his headset, cutting off Sarah, who in our final scene we discover is now comatose, cut off from the world and the Katie which may very well have been real. As Ed chose to face his reality and the pain of life, shunning the “perfect” Macon Heights in The Commuter, George too chooses to eschew the fantasy to face his pain and “reality”, even if the ending seems that this time one of our protagonists has chosen to escape from reality for good instead.
Real Life’s central themes of coping with grief and our own need for self-punishment, when it often isn’t our fault, is powerful. While Sarah’s own admission that she “doesn’t deserve” her wife seems initially nothing out of the ordinary, it reveals as almost her own mind turning against her in the most crushing way. It’s that deep human feeling that sometimes we feel like we deserve the worst even when everything seems to be going swimmingly, and Sarah here sabotages her seemingly wonderful life to be punished for her real and imagined sins, feeling undeserving of her world, with George admitting that “we deserve to live here, as punishment for our sins” and that he “doesn’t deserve that life. I never do”.
As Sarah’s Katie rounds off Real Life in heart-rending fashion and the stories of George and Sarah with the truth that they both understood- that “we all think we need to be punished, even if our sins don’t exist”- George for the death of his wife, Sarah for her survival from the massacre- as she places a kiss on Sarah’s forehead. Nothing more needed to be said. Sarah and George couldn’t escape their realities, real or not, and by severing ties to a world thought too perfect, they chose to face up to a world of guilt they felt they deserved. Real Life is a gut-wrencher of an episode, and the promise of Bryan Cranston in two weeks (!) can only be a good thing!