When the going gets tough, ‘Real Life’ provides an escape–and the means to punish yourself.
Have you ever dreamt of a reality where taking a vacation was as simple as using a device to inhabit the mind of another? Well, Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams brings this dream to reality in ‘Real Life’. Starring Anna Paquin (True Blood) as a futuristic cop and Terrence Howard (Empire) as a widowed tycoon in the tech industry, ‘Real Life’ explores a world where one can escape their reality via a VR simulation. This simulation is meant to be a vacation for the individual using it, allowing them to escape the stresses of life. However, ‘Real Life’, written by Outlander EP Ron Howard and directed by Jeffrey Reiner (Friday Night Lights), dives much deeper than the idea of simply escaping.
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Sarah (Anna Paquin) is still recovering from the PTSD of enduring a massacre that killed fifteen of her fellow co-workers. As a result, her wife, Katie (Rachelle Lefevre) suggests taking a vacation from it all, and away from her mind. This journey would allow her to fulfill her deepest desires while momentarily escaping her current burdens. As we soon learn, Sarah carries immense guilt for being given the perfect life and wife and jumps into the mind of someone far more tormented than her own. As the episode progresses, the audience faces the dilemma of deciphering what world is real, and which world is the vacation.
Both Sarah and George (Terrence Howard) share similarities in their day-to-day life, however in George’s world, his wife Kate is dead. By the end, the characters are faced with the decision to comprehend which world they deserve to be in. Choosing a life filled with voids, loneliness, and sadness, George decides that his world is the one he truly deserves to stay in and destroys the VR device, rendering him unable to go into Sarah’s world. By the end of the episode, we learn that Sarah’s world was indeed real, but her need to punish herself for being given a perfect life took precedence over everything else. ‘Real Life’ dug extremely deep into the human psyche and illustrated man’s relentless denial of embracing happiness and left us wondering–do we really deserve it?
This episode was mind-blowing, right?! Now, let’s meet our roundtable and get to discussing all that went down!
J.D. (@JDGravesWriter)- teacher, writer, and Editor for EconoClash Review
Christine (@hotgreenteamama)- writer and I drink tea and I know things, including way too much about TV
Meena (@VeraFarmigasEye)- pre-med student, tv/movie aficionado, enjoys taking pictures and huge Vera Farmiga fan
Shemal (@shemjay93)- Sri Lankan, Passionate geek, Movie buff, TV addict, live tweeter
Wayne (@WayneHenderson)- Voice Actor, and Sci-Fi & Packers Fan Podcaster
1. Wow, what a mind-trip of an episode, right? What were your thoughts on the premise of living in another reality?
J.D. (@JDGravesWriter): First of all, great episode to kick off the American release. A pretty good primer for the work of PKD too. Hit all the buttons. The nature of reality and the meaning of humanity. I liked the contrast between the two environments. Both realities seemed overtly staged, but well produced. When the two timelines began intersecting I found myself rooting for Terrance Howard more than Anna Paquin. TH just seems to be more expressive. AP is a beautiful mystery of an actress. Difficult to pick up her subtext at times.
Christine (@hotgreenteamama): I thought the whole idea sounded incredibly confusing and disorienting. Clearly, Sarah needs help with her vacation planning! Why would you want to be part of George’s world? It would be barely tolerable if you were living in the reality of someone aspirational, like someone really rich or really famous. Jumping into anyone’s story mid-thought sounds like waking up with a really bad hangover, no matter how good their life is. It seems like an awful lot of work just to escape whatever problems you are having in your life.
Meena (@VeraFarmigasEye): Yes, it was definitely suspenseful. But don’t we all want to escape our realities sometimes? Go on vacation from our real lives? Let’s just say, if I wanted a vacation from my life I would rather physically go to Hawaii.
Shemal (@shemjay93): It’s awesome! Living in another reality is an incredible concept. Put yourself in the same position and think about the possibilities; it’s endless! Exploring the new and the “never-seen-before” can be very interesting. But depending on certain aspects, as we saw in this episode, there can be risks which also can be fatal.
Wayne (@WayneHenderson): Although it’s an intriguing premise, to look into from a variety of angles, it’s interesting that author Philip K. Dick had this at the core of the source material short story “Exhibit Piece”. Of course, PKD’s original story didn’t include the technology shown in the episode, but the concept was there. With or without technology, it’s a dangerous time, when people prefer something other than reality.
2. This episode introduced us to the concept of “sharing” headspace with another person. If you could take a vacation from your life or take on someone’s reality, whose would it be and why?
J.D.: I’m not someone with expensive tastes. I’d probably choose to vacation as my dog. It would help me get a better understanding of who I am as a human being, and I wouldn’t have to go to work. But if not Moxie (my dog) I know I wouldn’t pick either of the two characters in “Real Life” too much drama. Spoilt, unhappy lesbian cop with an inability to eat food, or spoilt, unhappy billionaire turned vigilante with an inability to keep anything eaten, down. The choices in “Real Life” would have a lot of people hitting the eject button on their mindshare vacation rental.
Christine: I don’t think I would ever want to share headspace with another person. Their life would have to be utter perfection, but I think you’d find it would be same s***, different day. Everyone has problems. It’s hard enough dealing with your own problems but nevermind being dumped into someone else’s problems. I’ve seen Freaky Friday enough times to know that people always want to switch back to their own bodies at the end.
Meena: If I had to choose one person whose reality I could take over, it would probably be someone close to me, just so I could see the type of person I am through someone else’s consciousness. Or maybe Oprah. She’s pretty cool.
Shemal: I’m a fan of surprises, shocks, twists, and uncertainty. Someone whom I’ve never met before or heard of in any way; a complete stranger no matter what the sex, race or ethnicity is. Now THAT is a person whose reality I’d like to take on.
Wayne: Wow, that’s a difficult question. I don’t think I would take a vacation from my real life, for several reasons.
3. When the episode first started it almost felt like they were heading down the Inception rabbit hole. Did you think this was the case or were you aware that Sarah/George were one in the same?
J.D.: The episode is super slow. I watched it alone first. Second time with my wife and she kept going to phone about every five min or so. Which is what she did with Inception. I thought there was a definite separation between the two characters at first. I wasn’t familiar with the source material so…
Christine: It felt pretty clear that Sarah and George were two sides of the same coin.
Meena: I was pretty aware Sarah and George were one in the same, but I did have trouble determining which person was real after the second trip.
Shemal: I didn’t think it was gonna go down as how Inception went. But it certainly felt that way in the beginning. Just a little bit.
Wayne: At first, I thought these were going to turn out to be two different, fairly straightforward storylines, that were going to dovetail together, much how the stories of many tv shows do. However, since this is based on a Philip K. Dick story, things are never that simple or basic!
4. As we watched the characters go back and forth between the realities, it almost became impossible to know which one was “real life”. Which reality do you think truly was real and which was the vacation?
J.D.: There’s a significant bait and switch aspect to the story. When Sarah doesn’t eat or shows her action hero chops, those things act as audience clues to make us believe that her reality is the fantasy. Her unhappiness is a superficial one. George’s reality is no better, but at least it’s more relatable. A character full of inner conflict that goes beyond the surface. Of course, Sarah would pick this as her a fantasy. The only way she can feel her humanity.
Christine: I felt the episode was written in a way where we can never clearly know which was the true life, so there’s no correct answer. But for the sake of argument, I’ll choose Sarah since the story starts with her. But like I said – what a crappy vacation planner Sarah is!
Meena: Up until the reveal, I truly thought George’s world was the reality. I mean, life isn’t perfect all the time and it’s a bumpy roller coaster ride, so it made sense to me that Sarah’s ‘perfect life’ was a myth. It was more believable to me and apparently Sarah too.
Shemal: It’s a tough question to answer. At the start we are made to believe that Sarah is living the “Real Life” but towards the end, it looks as if George’s surroundings were real. I think it’s two human beings living two separate lives and that too in alternate timelines/parallel universes which are linked through the simulation used. Figuring out that last part is a head-scratcher!
Wayne: This is the big question, to come out of “Real Life”. My co-host Steve, and I, had to really spend some time talking this question out, on our Electric Dreams podcast. In the end, I think that the “Katie and Sarah” world is the real world.
5. Sarah didn’t believe she deserved a “happily ever after”. Did you agree with Sarah/George deciding to stay in the more tormented reality?
J.D.: I don’t know if tormented is the right word. Definitely, both realities could be viewed as competing fantasies. One being more human, emotionally. The fact that Sarah gives up a surface happiness for something with more emotional depth, I believe is something that all people can relate too. As cultish as PKD’s work is, the producers of the show are definitely striving to appeal to the widest audience possible. It’s sort of like The Last Jedi paradox. Where you have a ravenous fan base for something that is basically a kid’s movie. And then as those children grow to adults they are incensed when the latest iteration stays true to its roots and doesn’t cater to their balding, middle-aged fan base.
Christine: Why didn’t Sarah pick the reality with Katie? I really didn’t understand why she thought she didn’t deserve happiness. And furthermore, is anyone really that self-loathing to not want to be with the one they love? What about Katie’s feelings? Why doesn’t she deserve her happy ending? It seems pretty clear if there’s a reality with your partner and without and you loved them, you’d pick the one with even if you are a tortured soul.
Meena: No. Once you’ve committed a sin, whether real or imagined, you could only hope or pray for forgiveness. I don’t think she necessarily deserved to be cut off from her reality. I think she should’ve listened to her wife!
Shemal: Well, it depends on whose viewpoint you’re looking at the scenario from. A “happily ever after” ending would have been typical, but I wouldn’t mind if that was the case. Maybe Sarah has seen enough suffering that she wanted to end it but it was George who did it through the simulation. Are both to be blamed for that?
Wayne: That’s hard to agree with, even though I know that some people like to feel the consequences of their mistakes, whether real or imagined. It’s weird that pain and suffering make some folks feel more alive.
6. This episode tackled the idea of fantasy versus reality in a deep, technological way. What are your thoughts on such emotion-inducing technology coming to fruition?
J.D.: I think it’s already here in the sense that a couple can spend the evening sitting directly beside each other, with their attention aimed at their phones. Two separate entities, Facebooking or tweeting or Redditting. This is what passes as quality time between people in the early part of the 21st century. I mean with such a plethora of options for infotainment at our disposal, it’s easy to be distracted. Either there will be a significant backlash to this behavior or all pretense will get shoved out the window as time ticks by. Dating will be a highly engaged exchange of focus to see if you can sit next to this person on a couch and ignore them later.
Christine: I may be naïve about the seamlessness of this technology, but I feel like we’ll always ultimately be able to tell reality from a manufactured one. I’ll be eating my words in 2040, but you can not replicate all of our senses so it will never feel complete.
Meena: This is such a difficult question because although it is interesting you’d never know what is real life or a fantasy. Or you could confuse the two. I would probably never experiment a VR trip. If you’ve seen Electric Dreams and Black Mirror, you’d see every possible thing that could go wrong!
Shemal: Like I said before it’s incredible. And it was great to see such technology coming to fruition. But like everything else, technology has its’ pros and cons. And we saw them clearly in “Real Life”.
Wayne: To be frank, I am frightened for the future, as this starts to come into reality. We’ve seen so much harm caused to people, that are under-equipped to cope with, some of the technology and connectedness that we already have. Too many people will almost assuredly totally lose themselves. We need to be careful and observant of others, and how they react to true Virtual Reality, as depicted in this episode.
7. That was one epic episode! What were your thoughts on the ending and the idea of Sarah punishing herself for her sins?
J.D.: I loved it. She finally achieved a sense of humanity. Besides, the food was better there. Most schools of thought promote a form of self-discipline. Of course, like I said previously, her reality and her happiness were all surface level. That in itself would cause a lot of people to seek understanding and enlightenment through withdrawal from worldly things. It definitely stayed true to PKD by not ignoring his interests in the metaphysical.
Christine: I don’t understand why Sarah felt the need to punish herself so deeply. It was very lazy on her part to tap out when she could work on her “happiness” in her reality with Katie. She could fight crime in her cool flying car, eat French Fry Fingers every day and hang out with her pleasant partner. But no, I’ll doom myself to hell without my wife, where my only memories of her are a torture video and some cold British woman wants to be my girlfriend. Ick, Sarah, what did you do to deserve this? Clearly, she has no judgment if George’s life was her idea of a vacation.
Meena: I was shocked and dumbfounded. I liked how the episode tackled the theme of guilt and sin. “Real Life” made me realize that we are too hard on ourselves. The underlying message here is that we want to punish ourselves for our sins. None of us truly think we deserve happiness, so we somehow engineer and form ways to punish ourselves, such as setting ourselves up for failure or sabotaging our relationships. It was kind of like ‘we get what we subconsciously think we deserve.’ In this case, Sarah was so filled with guilt that she didn’t believe she deserved her reality and so she punished herself by subconsciously torturing herself in a fantasy world.
Shemal: Yes, indeed! It was a beautiful episode. Loved Terrence’s & Anna’s characters in this one. It was great seeing both of them. The ending was a bit sad but if a decision has to be made when there’s no turning back, then a decision has to be made!
Wayne: It was definitely one of the best episodes of this season of Electric Dreams! I thought the ending was so well done. I really felt the emotions of Sarah, George, and Katie, as the story came to a close. Although “Real Life” was aired as episode #5 in England and Australia, I’m glad that Amazon Prime Video has it as episode #1, because this is the episode I recommend most people start the Electric Dreams viewing journey with.
Final Verdict: Accepting happiness isn’t as easy as we thought.
‘Real Life’ brought front and center the idea that perhaps we don’t always believe we deserve the happiness we are given. Human nature dictates that we hold ourselves accountable for the bad things we do–for the most part. But what about when life is good? ‘Real Life’ teaches us that as humans we don’t always appreciate or allow ourselves to bear the fruits of this happiness.
A panging sense of guilt overwhelms us when our lives may appear better than another’s. This is the resonating core of Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams first episode, and what Sarah’s guilt inevitably led her to do. After the massacre and its devastating effects, she truly believed she didn’t deserve her Blade Runner-esque car, beautiful wife, and next-level techy apartment. Because, according to her, what made her deserve all that when so many perished while she stayed alive?
‘Real Life’ was a beautiful and tragic reminder that this question lives amongst us all–as does the need to self-sabotage. As we strive to be as happy as possible, we also put up a wall built on a foundation of guilt and shame–finding ways to punish ourselves because we feel we don’t truly deserve it. This is the message behind ‘Real Life’–and might we say it was epically poetic.