Enlightened – Season Two
I’ve always pictured that title with a little more punctuation than is proper, Enlightened? seems more suiting of the show to me, more indicative of its illusory ambiguities; though even minus that mark the title is more question than answer. The word has two main meanings – in some uses it indicates a spiritual awareness but in others it denotes the opposite, a rational, modern and well-informed outlook – and the show displays both of these contradictory traits in near equal amounts. After succumbing to the stresses of modern-day corporate culture Laura Dern’s Amy Jellicoe has a break down, goes to rehab, finds that first kind of enlightenment and attempts to spread it in a world plagued by the more pessimistic side-effects of the second to torturous and eventually touching results. Enlightened was an intriguing and occasionally entrancing show for its first season, but this year it has taken a leap – transcended if you will – and as a result I now find myself referring to it (whenever I possibly can) with a certain vigor as Enlightened!
For those of you that groaned at the thought of having some pseudo-science patronizingly presented at you for twenty-odd minutes each week it’s important to note that the show isn’t its protagonist – in this way its recent pairing with Girls is a prescient one – their views are not necessarily parallel; in fact they often pass and clash which is, in many ways, what makes this such an interesting show. You can watch it either as a treatise for a new-age new world order or as a satire of all such things but the real sweet spot is somewhere in between, the real joy in figuring out just where your personal slider sits on the scale set by those two poles. Are you ignorantly idealistic? Are you callously conceited? Can you be both? Can you be better than both? These are some of the questions that Enlightened asks of you as you watch it, your answers shifting scene to scene as series auteur Mike White skillfully pulls at the strings.
If any talk of philosophy puts you off though then know that these questions, while constant, are still the subtext of the show – slipping through the breach between story and essay only during the intentionally overdone voice over monologues – and that the majority of the screen time is dedicated to character study. Amy says all the things we as a society have deemed ‘good’, she has only the best of intentions (so far as we hear) and yet we strain so to stand her presence, and yet we think of her like one would a villain. Most people then won’t particularly enjoy studying, or spending any time for that matter, with a protagonist like Amy Jellicoe – her name perhaps a play on angelic in the same way that Abaddon (the company she works for and the shows setting) is an obvious one on the demonic; another binary – but that doesn’t render the class of the material here moot, nor does it mean that you can’t enjoy the time spent in her staid, stuffy, apathetic and yet artificially sunny world.
When the first season of the show aired there were a number of critics who wrote it off by saying that they didn’t like Amy and thus they didn’t like the show, they assumed that it had intended to sell us to her side and failed but that’s simply not true. Any doubt that one has about the show’s ability to convey compelling and empathetic characters is washed away by its ‘perspective episodes’. These special episodes drop the story – such as it is – and Amy’s positively perverted perspective on it in favour of a specific side characters; so that her Mother, her ex-husband or her Toadie are given the limelight and attention that she so clearly craves for herself. Last year Dianne Ladd drew acclaim for hers and this year Luke Wilson’s, which was as emotionally engrossing in its twenty minutes as any movie has the right to be, was the best thing that the show has ever delivered and will be up there at year’s end when I make my list. To my mind these were easily the show’s strongest episodes, but then this final stretch of the second season began.
Somehow – perhaps with the help of the outrageously prodigious list of directors that he hooked in to work on the show: Nicole Holofocener, Todd Haynes, Johnathan Demme and fellow Aussie David Michod among them – Mike White and Laura Dern have managed to turn this slow, simple and meditative show into something gripping and almost epic in scope, without ever sacrificing its soul. Stranger still he has also managed to make Amy, once a figure only of frustration, into someone that you genuinely care about. The salt-the-earth whistle-blower plotline that has dominated the season seemed a little ill-suited at first, especially for a show only in its second season, but its exaggerations have lead to exaggerating the flaws of its central figure in a truly tragic way; the seeds of discontent she sowed throughout the seasons finally start to flower and no matter where you stood early on you can’t help but care about the results now.
I say that, I say that I was supporting Amy’s satisfaction, smiling at her Mother’s approval and saddened by some of her relationships but I still don’t know that I would say I was strongly on her side, that I now subscribe to her world view but nor am I supposed to. The show revels in its conflicts and contradictions, it is strongest when asking questions not providing answers and so I’m happy to say that I still don’t really know how I feel about a lot of what has happened on this show, but I do know that week-in week-out it made me feel and that is something. Another mystery, I’m not sure if this was the series finale but if it was then it left me satisfied, its message fully conveyed and its feeling carried across to us. Like Amy the show may have a relatively low count of twitter followers but it still full of hope. The final opening monologue of the season summed it up pretty well: “How strange is this life. To be born into a body to certain/uncertain parents, to this beautiful/upsetting world. It’s so bizzare.” As is life, so is Enlightened.