In the genius, if underrated, HBO series Enlightened, Amy Jellicoe, former corporate executive turned idealistic do-gooder, struggles to change the world after having an affair with her boss and suffering a mortifying, at-work breakdown.
What’s interesting about Amy is that she is a flawed character and her quest is not an entirely noble one. From the beginning of season two, we get a sense that her lofty ambition to take down corporate giant Abaddon may conceal a less enlightened desire for vengeance. “What kind of revenge play do you have going here?” LA Times reporter Jeff Flender asks when she leaks confidential company emails, “Did one of these guys screw you over?” Outraged, she rebuttals: “This isn’t about revenge, it’s about justice.” But is it? Throughout the series, the true nature of Amy’s motives remains uncertain.
Co-creator and writer Mike White isn’t interested in having his characters fit cut-and-dry black or white categories, which makes for compelling and at times, unbearable, television. There is a duality to Amy: she is alternately contemptible and heroic, awkward and charming, psychotic and sane. On the one hand, she despises the superficial materialism of the 1% but, on the other, she longs for their particular brand of power. “I’m tired of feeling hopeless and plastic and numb. Please,” a desperate, teary Amy begs Tyler, “don’t make me go back to being nothing.”
Being somebody, doing something: this is the heart of Amy’s goal. It is up to us to decide whether her crusade is a commendable one. Amy yearns for something more but her starry-eyed aspirations are often complicated by an egotistical lust to climb the social ladder. One of my favorite scenes is when Amy rushes to take her trashy Entertainment Weeklies off the table before Jeff comes over. “We don’t read those,” her mother says confused as Amy spreads out copies of TIME magazine and the New Yorker. No, they don’t but she wants Jeff to think they do. “He’s a big deal,” she tells Tyler.
Though Amy may be caught up with impressing Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists and schmoozing her way into the liberal, activist elite, upon watching season 2, I think we can agree she is a pretty remarkable character.
When the finale opens, we see Amy watching TV, transfixed by footage of the Arab Spring. “Am I my higher self or am I in the mud?” Amy wonders via voice over (a clever device used throughout the series to glimpse her inner dialogue). “Am I an agent of change?” she muses, “Or a creator of chaos?”
In the preceding episode appropriately entitled “No Doubt,” we see Amy become less and less certain of her decision to expose Abaddon. When Charles Sizdon, her supposed nemesis and Abaddon’s nefarious CEO, offers her the community outreach position she’s been hoping for, the once radical, burn-the-fucker-down Amy can’t help second-guessing herself: had she made a mistake? Would it have been better to impact change from within? Before she had been fighting a concept, an idea-corporate greed, the inhumane exploitation of workers and the environment-but now she was rallying against a living, breathing human being. Sizdon is likable, charming even, and Amy can’t help questioning whether sending him to prison is the right course.
This doubt continues to play itself out in the final episode. Sane, adult-like pragmaticism finds form in hyper-sensible Helen, Amy’s mother. After confessing that she has helped to expose the evil-doings of her slimy, unethical employer, her mother is disappointed, not proud.
“Why would you do that?” Helen asks, exasperated yet again at her daughter’s refusal to fall in line and conform.
“Cause the guy’s a criminal…”
“And why is that any of your business? They brought you back after all you did (never mind that Abaddon wrongfully transferred her out of her department in typical boy’s club fashion, siding with her sleazy, dick-headed boss) and this is how you repay them? You have done a lot of foolish things in your life but this is too much.”
Where Amy expects to find confirmation, she meets disapproval (and a chilly suggestion to pack her bags and move out). Ms. Jellicoe may be doing something great but Helen-like the rest of the world-just doesn’t care.
Enlightened makes the upsetting suggestion that the majority of Americans don’t care. If we knew what Amy knew-that our company’s CEO was bribing a government official, essentially rigging the system to line his own pockets-would we do something? would we be compelled to action?
For the creators of this one-of-a-kind tragicomedy, the answer is no.
White never makes this observation in a condescending, predictable people-are-sheeple kind of way but he maintains the claim regardless. So many of the show’s characters-Amy’s mother, Krista-are unwilling to face the reality of the world in all its injustice and terror. At the end of the episode, Amy stands alone as the only one willing to wake up and be “enlightened.”
“Am I crazy?” she asks ex-husband Levi in one of the episode’s most gorgeous final shots.
“No,” he responds, “you’re just full of hope…It’s a beautiful thing to have hope for the world.”
Like Amy, the idea goes, we have to be a little crazy if we want to change the world.