Now that the season’s over, Enlightened reminds me of a ‘50s Rossellini picture, with Laura Dern in the Ingrid Bergman role being driven crazy by the ugly truth of modernity. That process cutaway in “Comrades Unite!” is as haunting as Rossellini’s overpowering factories, Dern and Bergman playing silent witness to a train they couldn’t stop if they tried. Maybe that’s why Damon’s condescending “Let’s not get crazy” in the season finale “Burn it Down” filled me with more rage than Lowe's Hardware. Mike White’s writing, as always, finds the precise expression of a character’s personality, here letting Damon seem to be reasonable, try to assert some scenario wherein he’s the calm good guy, and condescend to his target with the perfect little callback to that other time she “got crazy” in front of all those Abaddonn execs. But it’s not just that little dagger that provokes, but the history of men marginalizing women and then calling them crazy for responding the way any rational person would. It’s a quick semantic hop from Damon’s shit-eating smirk to Ingrid Bergman staring out the sanitarium window. As Amy points out early in the season, she got demoted and he got nothing. What’s the difference between Amy’s selfishness and Damon’s? Hers has a smaller blast radius. And at least she sees room for growth.
That said, just because they are out to get her doesn’t mean Amy’s not paranoid. Enlightened isn’t about judging Amy or anyone else, the writing full of ambiguities and moral minutiae that would make Kafka jealous, but for a reality audience hell-bent on arbitrating every little point of dispute between characters—trust me, I’ve covered Real Housewives—Enlightened is the Sistine Chapel, Amy its ceiling. “I’ve been asked to give a brief presentation to my old department,” she says in the best possible light. That first conversation with Tyler nicely hints about Amy’s progress over the season. When he pushes her about using her sexuality to manipulate men, it’s as confrontational as Tyler gets while still getting the point across: Amy hasn’t grown as much as she thinks or, more to the point, says.
But in at least one way, Amy has grown. Instead of turning green, bursting out of her clothes, and breaking out another “I will kill you, motherfucker!” she takes her ridicule fairly in stride. She’s mostly calm, absolutely collected, and above all right. That situation, that charade, was wrong, her information, as Tyler confirms, is genuinely damning, and this time she’s not going to be cowed. I can’t describe the relief I felt, or was it pride, seeing Amy finally make some genuine progress—and to realize that self-esteem isn’t necessarily wrapped up in pleasantries and topped with a smile. What’s more, it was this climactic moment where Amy got up and stopped polishing the floors for people who would sooner go broke than be seen with her. Ingratiation isn’t working.
And like Mad Men suffusing character drama with social commentary with topicality with philosophy with entertainment, the climax of Enlightened doesn’t just resolve its plot and reveal Amy’s progress but also lays bare the show’s politics. Amy’s speech—
“You told me about that, remember, Damon? About how all you guys at the top have this game you’ve got fixed where you double dip and make bonuses and then squeeze everybody else for pennies. That’s what Cogentiva is, by the way; I know, because I’m down there. Am I the only one who sees this?”—reads like a person finally realizing the world is run by the rich and powerful without so much as spare change for the poor and powerless. Amy may as well have said “Abaddonn is America” and winked at the camera. Here’s this single, solitary person—the American dream!—trying to pull herself up in an elaborate organization that fucked her—literally and figuratively—an organization that supplies a drug store chain, if you want to get cynical about it, and discovering the grim reality of mobility. She could participate in the system the way the myths tell us to, but we know Amy isn’t really the elbow-grease kind of worker, the perfect little wrinkle complicating the tapestry. She could try to work the system, manipulating things in her favor, but while Amy also isn’t a smooth operator, the people on top only pretend to treat her with anything but contempt—presumably because they need her, and people like her, to help them keep their bank accounts lush. She could burn it down, and for more than a second I was invigorated and disappointed that Enlightened was going for a genuine anarchist solution; is that really what it’s gonna take? Or she could blow the whistle, effectively shaming other, bigger systems into living up to the ideals supposedly inherent in the running of the western world. But where does that get her?
I wasn’t kidding about that Sistine Chapel business. You could spend weeks—or the nine months until Season 2 hint hint HBO—parsing what’s going on in Amy’s head. She’s motivated by righteous frustration, self-serving revenge, glory (or at least the delusion that whistle-blowing will make her a star), preemptive strike (considering she’s one wrong step away from being fired), and even the pathological need to participate in something big and dramatic, to feel meaningful and alive. Enlightened is a thrilling accumulation of gestures, a Cirque du Soleil performance covering the gap between what people are willing to put into words and what people let their bodies express: Witness Damon’s pained struggle to break away from solitaire when Amy doubles back in his office, or Levi’s eyes searching for an escape from the recovery he claims to want, or Helen trying to restrain her skepticism. Laura Dern, on the other hand, lives in her face. I’d say Amy Jellicoe does—which is true; girl should probably stay away from poker—but so many of Dern’s characters discover uncharted wrinkles and contortions on her face that Lon Chaney climbed out of his grave just to pass the torch.
That humanity is what animates Enlightened. It’s got the same frustrations with the feckless, monolithic, omnipotent corporate-industrial complex as Arrested Development, The Wire, and Better Off Ted, but it doesn’t fight fire with fire, or, say, a sweeping and cynical take on a sweeping and cynical enemy. It’s filtered through and dominated by these imperfect people living their thematically imperfect lives, a fly on the wall instead of a god's-eye-view. The characters derive the politics, not vice versa, stumbling out of the cave and into the sunlight as the season progresses. At the beginning of “Burn it Down,” Amy believes, or seems to—it’s impossible to know how much she’s lying to herself, and even if she is whether it’s out of hope or fear—that everything can be transformed and goodness exists, that Levi will come back a changed man. Maybe Enlightened is making fun of her and her new agey behavior, but the proof is in the pudding. If Amy Jellicoe can learn from her mistakes, there's hope for western civilization after all.