Insomnia episode 1 recap: What's going on with Emma?

Insomnia episode 1: Tom Cullen cuddling Vicky McClure
Emma can't sleep and is worried about history repeating itself. (Image credit: Paramount Plus)

Insomnia is a six-part Paramount Plus series that follows Emma (Vicky McClure), a career woman, wife, and mother who is worried about ending up like her mother.

Emma starts to suffer from insomnia a few weeks before her 40th birthday, which is the exact same thing that happened to her mother, who suffered a violent psychotic breakdown on the night of her own 40th, which she witnessed. 

Emma's mother had warned her that she had the same "bad blood" and would suffer an identical fate, so when history starts to repeat itself Emma is terrified for her future. As events worsen, Emma’s world begins to unravel and she realizes she must delve into her painful past to find the answers to her present and prevent a second tragedy in the family. 

The first episode introduces us to Emma and her family including her difficult relationship with her sister, and sees her trying to come to terms with this sudden case of insomnia.

Here's what happened in episode 1...

Emma is struggling...

Episode one opens on a rather chilling note, with a woman counting a series of numbers before hitting her head off a mirror and falling to the floor in a bathroom. She is being watched on security cameras, and it looks like she is some sort of facility.

We then cut to Emma who is lying awake at night and can't sleep, and she looks visibly distressed by this. Her husband is asleep next to her. She goes into the bathroom and washes her face, before she is interrupted by her son Will who had a nightmare. She tells him to try and get some sleep. 

It is revealed that Emma's 40th birthday is coming up and she gets a distressed call from her sister Phoebe, which causes her to rush out of the house and drive off in her car. She arrives at a hospital, believing her sister had an accident, and is shocked to find her sister sitting in a chair next to their mother, who is the one in trouble. Phoebe says she knew Emma wouldn't come if she had told the truth.

Emma is frustrated and swears at her sister, storming out of the room. Phoebe is insistent that she comes back because she smashed her head through a mirror and might not make it, but Emma is dismissive and says she has friends coming over so needs to get back home. Emma storms off and says she wants nothing to do with "that woman".

When she gets home, her husband Robert asks where she went and she lies saying she went to sign some papers at the office. He is suspicious of this considering it was a Sunday, but says nothing of it as he takes Will off to play football and the two leave.

Later, when Emma and Robert are making dinner, their daughter Chloe comes into the kitchen and they're annoyed she isn't properly dressed. She also makes an offhand comment about how she doesn't eat red meat anymore, which annoys Robert since they're making chilli. After she leaves the room, Robert tells Emma he smelled weed on her again and expresses concern she's hanging out with the wrong crowds.

The family friends arrive and Michelle, a doctor friend, notices that Emma looks pale and asks her what's up. Emma admits she hasn't been sleeping well and asks if insomnia can run in families. Michelle says it's sometimes possible, but to get in touch if it continues too long. While wandering round the kitchen, Michelle notices that it's Emma's 40th coming up as she spots the calendar, and asks why she didn't remind her. Robert gently tells her about Emma's mother's breakdown and says she "just wants to get past it".

Elsewhere, Phoebe arrives and Chloe answers the door, letting her in. Emma feigns niceness and says there's plenty of food. While everyone else eats dinner, Emma sits in silence and looks worried while people joke and chatter around her. She asks Phoebe to come and give her a hand, leading her into the kitchen where she tells her off for showing up uninvited. Phoebe says she wanted to say she's sorry, and Emma says what she did was completely unacceptable. 

Phoebe tells her it's not healthy to keep hiding things from her family, and Emma hits back saying she doesn't want to be pushed and she's not going to visit their mum. Phoebe gets angry and tells Emma to stop worrying she's going to end up like their mother because "there's no such thing as bad blood". This prompts Emma to have a sudden flashback where she and her sister found their mum having a breakdown on her birthday.

Emma starts having hallucinations of her mother and is still unable to sleep, she keeps hearing rattling sounds, which are revealed to be due to her mother rattling things during her breakdown. She tries to keep herself busy at work but is clearly struggling, and one of her clients struggles during an arranged meeting with his son. 

It is revealed that Pheobe is pregnant during a scan at the doctors, and he suggests letting people know about the baby as it's hard thing to go through on her own. Meanwhile, Emma's client approaches her and says he doesn't think he can work with her anymore. She reassures him and offers to give him a lift home so they can talk about it.

Emma returns home to see Pheobe waiting for her, and she asks if she can have a word. She tries to open up about her pregnancy but Emma stops her because she says she hasn't got time for it, and her insomnia is getting worse. Emma asks what she's doing here and if she needs money which insults Pheobe, so she leaves without telling her.

That night, the insomnia continues. Emma tries to throw herself into work late at night which only appears to be adding to her stress. At work, someone brings back her dictaphone saying they're having issues with it and it seems like she's accidentally recorded something on there.

Emma freaks out when the dictaphone plays back the exact series of numbers that her mother would say out loud during her breakdown, and clearly she isn't the only one who can hear it since her colleague looks concerned. She decides to go to the hospital to visit her mother, where she tells her that she's nothing like her. 

Lucy Buglass
Senior Staff Writer

Lucy joined the team in 2021, where she writes series guides for must-watch programmes, reviews and the latest TV news. Now she works for our sister site TechRadar in the same role. Originally from Northumberland, she graduated from Oxford Brookes University with a degree in Film Studies and moved to London to begin a career writing about entertainment.

She is a Rotten Tomatoes approved film critic and has a huge passion for cinema. She especially loves horror, thriller and anything crime-related. Her favourite TV programmes include Inside No 9, American Horror Story, Stranger Things and Black Mirror but she is also partial to a quiz show or a bit of Say Yes to the Dress