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Episodic Classics: Enlightened, "Pilot" & "Now or Never" | Season 1, Episodes 1 & 2
Before The White Lotus, Mike White examined another search for paradise
Welcome to Episodic Medium’s Classics coverage of Enlightened. We’ll be covering two episodes of the show’s first season each week this September/October. As always, future reviews will be exclusive to paid subscribers, and you can receive 20% off and help potentially unlock an additional Episodic Classic for this fall when signing up for a yearly subscription. You can find out more in our full fall schedule.
When I was toiling in a very good video store back in 2011, I unsuccessfully attempted to hawk Mike White’s recently DVD-released Enlightened on my usually receptive regulars. In fact, as I discovered, the more I tried to sell Enlightened, the less effective my sales pitch became, ordinarily eager recommendation-seekers’ eyes glazing over in politely hooded confirmation that their night’s entertainment would not include White and co-creator and star Laura Dern’s prickly examination of the limits and possibilities of personal growth in a world of convenient conformity. Imagine such a thing.
So, thanks to Episodic Classics and its and our benefactor, Myles, I’m going to try one more time, a decade or more later. Enlightened is a two-season “prestige TV” outlier. Practically nobody watched it at the time, with the 300,000 viewers for the series’ second season premiere being the lowly high-water mark. This was despite an impeccable ensemble cast headed by Dern and a truly impressive array of episodic directors from White to Miguel Arteta, Nicole Holofcener, Todd Haynes, and even Jonathan Demme. Dern’s beyond-formidable work as series protagonist Amy Jellicoe won her a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy for the first season (Enlightened’s half-hour episode length slotting it uneasily into the comedy category), but that was the only major awards season win the show received during its brief run. And while contemporary HBO critical and ratings juggernaut Girls reaped much of the female-led prestige TV publicity, White and Dern just kept delving deeper and deeper into how Amy Jellicoe’s tumultuous plunge into choppy self-actualization affected her, and those around her.
Enlightened was, is, and will ever remain a tough sell. But when offered the opportunity to champion an overlooked TV series as Episodic Medium shifts into Classics coverage, I leapt at the chance with perhaps unexamined, Amy Jellicoe-like enthusiasm. So let’s do this.
“Are you asking for us to create a position for you that doesn’t exist?”
Enlightened drops us right into Amy Jellicoe’s career-ending breakdown. Crouched in a corporate bathroom stall, Dern’s Amy is all smeared mascara and sizzling rage, until an overheard bit of office gossip pops the seal on whatever restraint she’d managed to maintain, sending Amy on a pell-mell quest to plead her case to her boss (The Office’s Charles Esten, plying his trade in handsomely untrustworthy executives).
The promotional images for Enlightened capture Dern’s Amy right before she erupts, the lopsided grimace of her wild-eyed, tear-streaked face emblazoned with the tagline, “Meet the new face of tranquility.” It’s effective and reductive in equal measure, as no one can lay bare their emotions on their face better than Dern, while the juxtaposition hints at a more conventionally broad, if dark, comedy. But when Amy finally catches up to Esten’s Damon (who, in addition to having conducted an affair with Amy, has just transferred her to a less fashionable corporate account), Dern detonates any preconceptions of a more Office-style corporate satire.
Alternately pleading, threatening, and reminding her married boss of their illicit relationship, all in the earshot of a hallway full of understandably mortified colleagues, Amy ultimately rejects Damon’s brush-off by, essentially, turning into the T-1000. After it appears the grinding gears of corporate machinery will succeed in silencing Amy Jellicoe, the thwarted woman effortfully wrenches apart the closing elevator doors to scream into the now-terrified Damon’s face, “I will kill you, motherfucker!,” with such conviction that Dern’s position as David Lynch’s go-to cinematic muse makes perfect sense.
When we next hear Amy’s voice, it’s in the dreamy register of Laura Dern, the interview star-child. (Not a knock—as much for her bottomless emotionality, Dern’s comfort in the heady waters of the philosophical and spiritual is another reason Lynch teams with the actress so regularly.) Over scenes of a serene-seeming Amy amidst bonfire gatherings and underwater explorations of a paradisiacal location, Dern’s Amy intones in almost irresistible tranquility: “I’m speaking with my true voice right now.” Over images of the scuba-diving Amy making awe-struck connection to an ancient, implacable sea turtle, we hear her promise eagerly that “you can walk out of hell and into the light.” She concludes that she is now not only changed, but—rather ominously, considering what we’ve already seen of Amy’s capabilities—“an agent of change.”
Enlightened, then, becomes the story of a tightly wound and troubled corporate type (it’s eventually revealed that Amy had been with the image-scrubbed corporation Abaddonn Industries for 15 years) who gets, well, enlightened. After two months at her idyllic Hawaiian rehab, Open Air, Amy strides back into her old life, determined to remake it according to the sparkling, just, and wise image of the world that’s been opened up to her. Walking back into the unsuspecting Abaddonn, Amy’s hair is loose, her dress a flowing yellow in contrast to the corporate earth tones all around her, and her face a smiling and indomitable mask of eagerness and guileless goodwill.
Or mainly guileless. Amy is informed by a decidedly unsmiling HR representative (Amy Hill) that not only is Abaddonn not interested in addressing any of the high-minded and corporate culture-transforming ideas Amy immediately starts pitching, but they’re prepared to exit the Amy Jellico business entirely. Dern’s performance here is the key to what Enlightened is and will become, as Amy’s initial shock at this seemingly final brush-off segues into carefully worded lawyer-speak. After all, if Amy was undergoing a mental break of some kind and she’s since sought and completed treatment, then isn’t it a matter for legal action if the company now terminates her, especially if she could speak to an Abaddonn exec sleeping with a subordinate? Amy’s maneuvering is, in Dern’s hands, a bewildering dance of backtracking while advancing, Hill’s Judy realizing along with us that this Amy might utterly believe in her newfound enlightenment, but the old Amy is still lurking within.
The question becomes whether—or how much—we are accept Amy Jellicoe’s enlightenment, as she seeks to reestablish and repair the similarly fractured relationships with her mother, Ellen (Dern’s mom, Diane Ladd), her multiply addicted ex-husband Levi (Luke Wilson), and even Esten’s Damon, who Amy immediately attempts to meet with just to assure him that everything between them is all right.
On the surface, all of these resulting encounters portray Amy as, at best, comically misguided. Damon ducks her at work until Amy, her pleasant tone never wavering, winds up parked outside the married man’s house, leaving a voicemail that she’ll be out front in case, like her, he wants “a little closure.” Damon does not, hustling out to shush Amy before exploding, “You are a mistake!” (When Damon first peeps out his front door, Amy’s little wave as if nothing is weird about the situation is hilariously illuminating.) Naturally, Amy’s attempt to storm off results in her rear-ending Damon’s parked car, leaving her defeatedly offering up her insurance information.
Amy’s first stop out of rehab is her mother’s house, into which Amy swans with a suitcase, the prized shell she uncovered after her turtle encounter, and a whirlwind of assumptions about just how welcome her presence (“Just for a couple of months”) will be. Ladd’s Ellen, with her parakeet, her doting little dog, and her immaculately tended backyard garden, can only goggle at Amy’s unannounced arrival, her daughter’s unprompted hug prompting her to ask what’s wrong. As part of her recovery, Amy attempts to read aloud a letter addressing their fraught mother-daughter relationship, but Ellen isn’t interested in hearing how they—and the world—can change, instead asking if Amy’s been taking her meds. (She has stopped, as it happens.)
Amy’s visit to Levi is more tentative, as she at first just tries to leave one of her many self-help books at his apartment door, only for her ex-husband to spot her and invite her out for a drink. Opening up about her transcendent experiences at Open Air, Amy is encouraged by Levi’s good-natured toast, “To the presence of God, really,” only to flee once, back at his place, Levi nonchalantly does some lines of coke in front of her.
It’s a lot of pain, awkwardness, and implied backstory, and it makes this pilot feel much more dense and packed than its 29 minutes. (Spoiler: that does not change.) In the end, as Amy comes home to find that her mother has fallen asleep reading her letter, Dern makes Amy’s renewed hope for her life, and change, and the world ring with a sincerity queasily at odds with the cascading catastrophes we’ve witnessed in her wake.
“I will not run away from life,” Amy Jellicoe restates to herself as she settles into her mother’s guest bedroom. “I will try to really live. I will be mindful, I will be wise.” As, the next day, she strides into Abaddonn’s elevator once more, she peers up to see a vision of the sea turtle, placidly sailing in ocean where the ceiling should be.
“I will change, and I will be an agent of change,” Amy Jellicoe states, smiling, and Abaddonn Industries is about to find out just what that entails.
“Now or Never”
“Have you ever been to Level H?”
In her initial meeting with HR, Amy not-so-subtly implied a lawsuit should Abaddonn not take her back. So they do. As she closes her eyes in preparation for her second meeting, Amy imagines herself making such a strong, passionate, yet irreproachable case on behalf of responsible company policies that everyone at Abaddonn gathers in head-nodding acknowledgement of her proposals. As it happens, despite Amy’s initial salvo of various top-to-bottom, world-improving corporate changes (complete with a newly created position for herself as some sort of as-yet-undetermined goodness supervisor), Abaddonn’s legal department responds by sending her literally to the bottom of the world.
Level H (“I didn’t even know this was down here,” Amy marvels nervously as Judy walks her further into the building’s depths) is the home of in-house “warehouse productivity project,” Cogentiva. It is also, as Judy explains with practiced delicacy, the Abaddonn home of “people like you who we’ve had trouble placing.” In short, Amy’s been warehoused herself, and the plummet from her dreamy ideal of a new life changing the world to her final landing spot of a fluorescent-flickering data-entry dungeon sends Amy fleeing back upstairs in search of a sympathetic ear in the form of former assistant Krista (Sarah Burns), who now occupies both her old job and office.
To be fair, Level H isn’t promising. Team leader Dougie (Timm Sharp) is a walking HR complaint, immediately apologizing for his river of inappropriate statements with dutiful insincerity. One coworker is seen idly humping two of the action figures on his desk, while the prim Connie (Bayne Gibby) glowers disapprovingly at everyone. (Generally all of the Cogentiva team looks ready to drop from Vitamin D deficiency.) And then there’s Mike White’s Tyler, incongruously introduced by Dougie as “my fuckin’ rock star,” a pale, wan ghost of a man who timidly explains just how meaningless Amy’s new existence truly is. “You just keep doing the same thing,” Tyler shows Amy of her data-entry task, before assuring her that he’ll have to recheck her work before it’s submitted.
Still, it’s jarring when Amy complains to the embarrassed Krista about the “freaks” she’s been stuck with. After Sarah blows Amy off for lunch and Amy (kindly invited out by said “freaks” on her first day) spots her former underling lunching with fellow upstairs folk Damon and Michaela Watkins’ acidly unimpressed Janice, her confrontation (in her old office, which Krista now occupies) is similarly telling. “Cut the shit, Krista!,” Amy explodes at Krista’s equivocations, before immediately downshifting to exclaim feelingly, “I considered us friends.” (In the pilot, we witnessed Amy respond to Krista’s attempt to head off Amy’s self-sabotaging stampede with a sneering, “Oh my God, Krista shut up, you fool!”)
Enlightened, in this second episode, opens up our understanding of Amy Jellicoe. Hawaiian epiphany or not, Amy is single-minded to the point of megalomania, and woe to those who seek to thwart her. White (writer of the teleplays for all Enlightened’s 18 episodes) worked with co-creator Dern to examine what happens when self-obsession entwines with altruism, Amy Jellicoe’s steamroller transformation from corporate killer to world-saver an exercise multi-level empathy and cringe comedy that seems poised to curdle into cynical mockery at any moment.
And yet if you look at White’s 2007 directorial debut, the Molly Shannon-starring Year of the Dog, it’s clear that Mike White and Laura Dern are on Amy’s side, even as they set her up for repeated, crushing, and audience-alienating failure. There, Shannon’s lonely, dog-loving character follows her own altruistic instincts to some very dark places, only for White to let her not so much off the hook as free to live in her own perceived truth, no matter how inconvenient or baffling it is to those around her. Here, Amy Jellicoe is already clearly a deeply troubled person (a return visit to ex-husband Levi suggests a shared history of addiction and codependence) who has seized upon what she perceives as enlightenment with the zeal of a convert.
To those who’ve know Amy (or pre-Open Air Amy), this Amy is puzzling, alarming, even threatening. Her mother sighs that it’s a miracle her old job took her back in response to Amy’s excited plans to return to Abaddonn with redoubled efforts at fundamental change. A defensive Levi rebuffs Amy’s pamphlets and advice, taunting the fleeing Amy by proclaiming, “My door’s always open, and I don’t judge.” And in the face of Amy’s monomaniacal obsession with her new world view, it’s not difficult to at least sympathize with their exasperated skepticism.
And that’s because we’re conditioned to share it. Haven’t you rolled your eyes when confronted with an acquaintance’s breathless tale of the great new thing that’s changed their lives and can change yours, too? Everyone’s a mess, and everyone’s looking for answers, so why do we disdain those who claim to have found theirs? That’s the question White starts with in his dissection of Amy Jellicoe, a woman who was desperately, self-destructively unhappy until she decided that fixing the whole world could fix her, too. Enlightened is a whiplash-inducing game of empathy ping-pong, a deviously layered comic tragedy about the search for meaning in this life, and the chaos that comes from finding it.
As Amy, unbowed, returns to work to search out and print an armload of damning articles about Abaddon’s impressively destructive legacy around the world, Judy furiously mocks her for “making little collages, stirring up shit that can get us both fired” before tossing the stack of paper in the trash. (Notably, not in the recycling.) Amy tosses her latest self-help book, Change, Now or Never, in the Cogentiva trash, too, before a glimmer of interest from the unassuming Tyler immediately rekindles her fires.
It’s around the Open Air beach fire in her imagination that she sees Levi, her mother, her coworkers, and herself, all happy and warm, and in perfect understanding. “I close my eyes and see a better world,” Amy Jellicoe tells herself, one where “this world itself is healed, and where nothing suffers.” And there is nothing anyone can do to block her way there.
Somewhere in my Twitter recesses, there’s an unexpected exchange where I received an out-of-nowhere response from Mike White himself after I complained how hard it was to sell people on #Enlightened at the video store. “Tell me about it,” is all it read.
Diane Ladd is remarkably contained and relatable as the forbearing but wary Helen. There’s a telling exchange where Amy misses the subtext completely—after Helen scolds that “jobs aren’t supposed to be fun,” Amy sneers, “What job? You were a stay at home mom!”
Luke Wilson, too, is as good as he’s ever been in anything as the troubled Levi. When he tells Amy, “I miss the person I was with you,” it’s as much a rebuke to what he sees as Amy’s passing obsession as it is deeply touching. And then he does four lines of blow in front of her.
The corporate branch that Amy hints is at the root of some of Abaddonn’s most egregious crimes is called Clean Meds, which is about perfect.