Girl Enlightened. Part 3. Her Nervous Breakthrough.
Do you really wanna do something good,
or are you just tired of feeling powerless?
I guess, both.
The tagline for the HBO series Enlightened was this: “A woman on the verge of a nervous breakthrough.”
That woman is of course Amy Jellicoe, a challenging protagonist I wrote about extensively in THIS post. In season 2 of the show, the human catalyst for Amy’s actions is Jeff Flender, the Los Angeles Times journalist whom she contacts to leak hacked information to and, eventually, begins sleeping with. When Amy first visits Jeff’s apartment, she sees a photo of him with an older man, and asks him if the older guy is his grandfather. It is actually the political theorist Noam Chompsky. The difference between Amy and Jeff is significant – as a journalist, he basically makes a living using social media. But she tells him in the episode ‘Follow Me’ that she thinks technology is cutting people off from each other.
This prompts Jeff to invite Amy to attend a party being thrown at someone’s mansion for activist Roberta Jackson – a fictional librarian-turned-activist who fomented an anti-corporate movement using social media from a coffee house in Monrovia. At the party, Amy is inspired by Roberta’s speech to follow her, and embrace technology in the quest to change the world. As she tends to do, she then fantasises about what it would be like to be a true peer of one of the people at this fancy party – an activist, an agent of change.
A person for whom the world is global, important, “big”, rather than provincial, petty, and “small”. She wants to be a part of Jeff’s world – or rather, the world she perceives he exists in. Her attraction to him is really an odd kind of mirror to Marnie Michael’s attraction to Booth Jonathan in Girls – even if Amy’s desire is to do good in the world, her desire is coming from the same egoic place and attraction to glamour at this point (which is why I love the moment when a waiter at the party recognises her as a frequent customer of Chili’s in Riverside 😉 ). And, likewise, the question of MOTIVATION features heavily in season 2 of Enlightened, the fantastic final season of this series.
Where is the line between self-interest and altruism?
In Season 1, we saw Amy make genuine strides towards self-awareness and inner change – as well as mess up, backslide, make waves and alienate people. She still desperately wanted to be an “Agent of Change” on a grand scale, to gain some sense of satisfaction and importance, but had no clear strategy or goal to pursue yet. At the end of Season 1, though, after the humiliating meeting with her former section, she has an idea: use Tyler’s ability to hack emails to gather evidence against corrupt executives (and her enemies) within the company… and take them down. Season 2 follows Amy down this dimly lit path, and we see her capacity for self-reflection seriously compromised (before making a post-apocalyptic return in the beautiful series finale).
So, Season 2 questions what motivates some kinds of people to make changes – in particular, significant changes – in the world around them. In essence:
Are you doing this – pursuing this course of action – because you want to make the planet and yourself better?
Or are you doing this because you want to make a name for yourself? Or escape your “ordinary” life? Or be powerful? Or be famous? Or enjoy the kudos that comes from having any kind of political clout, “important” career and/or public influence?
Dougie is really clear about his motivation for helping Amy in her hacking – “I just want to fuck these guys. I just wanna fuck this company.” Tyler’s initial reluctance to go along with Amy eventually falls away, after he is humiliated by Omar one too many times, and decides that, like Amy said when trying to recruit him, he has been “too nice”… and it is time to exact some kind of karmic justice.In contrast, Amy, for a long time, insists on the purity of her intentions – to others and, more significantly, to herself. This is perhaps the most dangerous kind of thinking.
Back in Season 1, after her return from treatment, Amy was hell bent (or heaven bent?) on becoming an ‘Agent of Change’ (the title of the last episode). Through trial and error, her high ambitions were thwarted, and she was humbled repeatedly by the reality of her life and the world she lives in. But, Amy discovered ways she could affect positive change in the life she was already living – in her relationships, in her generosity, in local political issues. This was one of the things I found moving about that season – seeing this self-destructive and irritating person actual do what so many find impossible to do, and change herself. Her motives, at those breakthrough points in her story, were fairly pure.
However, after the complete humiliation of the boardroom meeting at the end of Season 1, she is tipped over the edge. A concoction of personal vengeance, righteous indignation, a desperate human need to feel significant and reclaim some sense of power, and genuine disgust at corporate greed, feeds the fire that spurs her on her “Mission” in Season 2. And the consequences, both positive and negative, are extreme. She both reconciles and completely destroys her friendship with Krista, in appalling circumstances. Despite Tyler’s early warning to her to examine her motives for her “Mission” because she was “pissed about her life”, she draws him deeper into that mission to take down Abaddonn – which leads to him joyfully framing hated co-worker Omar.
And at the end of Season 1, Amy convinced troubled ex-husband Levi to go to the Hawaii treatment facility that she had gone to, in order to get sober. Levi’s experience there is portrayed in the episode ‘Higher Power’, completely about him in rehab (episode guest stars Christopher Abbott, who previously played ‘Charlie’ on Girls). However, partly because of Amy’s ambitions for a “bigger life” with the award-winning journalist Jeff Flender, when Levi returns a changed man, she rejects his sincere proposal to finally settle down, help each other, and grow the family she always wanted. Later, Jeff tells Amy they will not be able to continue seeing each other after the exposé they are working on is published, and she finds herself heartbroken again (episode ‘No Doubt’ – a great episode).
So, although Amy’s mission to take down Abaddonn is successful, there are losers other that Abaddonn’s public image and corrupt CEO Charles Szidon. Amy, as she anticipated, loses her job, but is also kicked out of the house by her mother who, having already disapproved of most of Amy’s life choices, is disgusted and dismayed by her actions against her employer of 15 years. Amy’s success in her mission to take Szidon down does gives her some satisfaction, but it does not deliver the illuminated marvelous “big” life she wanted – instead, she finds herself lost again, questioning whether she really is the loon almost everyone in her life dismisses her to be.
That being said, the ending is decidedly positive – perhaps not in the way that the Amy in the pilot episode would have imagined, but full of light nonetheless. The final monologue and montage – finishing with satisfied pleb Amy walking down the street in flip flops – shows a perception of a world finally stripped of illusion, but with grounded optimism… and, perhaps, genuine ‘enlightenment’. The reflective words in this monologue are basically the same as those in the first monologue from the pilot episode – spoken by Amy when she was still in the nourishing, quarantined bliss of the Open Air Treatment Facility.
After her time there, Amy’s challenge was to take that wisdom, that ‘enlightenment’, out into the real world. And that particular mission will take the rest of her life. What’s important is that she gut checks, learns from her mistakes, and doesn’t give up.
The last exchange between Levi and Amy, before that final monologue, says it all:
Levi, who am I?
Who are you?
Am I crazy?
No. You’re just full of hope, you got more hope
than most people do … It’s a beautiful thing to
have a little hope for the world, you know?
~ – ~ – ~
I can completely understand why the masses didn’t flock to this show. But I really appreciated it. Although it was not picked up for a third season, as a two-season story, I think it is a complete and beautifully articulated piece of work. Writer Mike White has said it was a really personal project, reflecting where he is at in his life right now. I enjoyed it more than anything else I’ve seen from him, and as infuriating as the central protagonist often was to watch, Laura Dern completely nailed this role.
I wonder what White will come out with next……