“There was no turtle. Just a bunch of garbage at the bottom of the ocean.”
In the best episode of Enlightened‘s first season, “Consider Helen,” the show switched focus and devoted a half hour almost entirely to Amy’s mother. Though in truth, it wasn’t entirely a change in focus. In a series of present-day vignettes and flashbacks we saw how Helen’s past–her husband’s suicide, troubles with her daughters–had made her the cautious, skeptical woman Amy knows today.
It was a beautiful, poignant, nearly self-contained story, but in the larger context of the series it was also about Amy. We had spent eight episodes seeing her mother from the outside: sometimes Helen was sympathetic, sometimes she seemed cold, but always she was more or less an obstacle to Amy (other than in providing her a house to live in). We had seen her from Amy’s perspective, as an adult daughter still working through childhood issues. By seeing her fleshed out–by considering her–we not only understood her but Amy more fully.
“Higher Power” is also likewise a change in focus, but not entirely. Except for a bit at the beginning and end, we spend the entire episode with Levi. But because of where he is (at Amy’s old rehab in Hawaii) and why he’s there (he’s an addict, and Amy suggested he go there), the episode also gives us another perspective on Amy.
Amy’s larger story, after all, is that she’s trying to fix things. The main focus of the season’s A-story is her trying to fix Abaddonn–or, by exposing it, to fix the world–but her aims don’t stop there. She also wants to fix Helen, her coworkers and Levi–and to fix him in precisely the way that she was fixed. She had enlightenment knocked into her by a particular hammer, so everything else in the world now looks like a nail.
In Levi’s case she turns out to be both wrong and right. Wrong because Levi is never going to see therapy, especially this form of it with its spirituality and New Age lingo, the way she saw it. He’s different, and maybe, already, the world is different too. Where she found magic, he sees confinement, and bullshit, and his roommate’s farts, and a polluted ocean. All this self-examination, he decides, is not going to do anybody any good: “The past is a junkyard, with everything dead, rusted and broken.”
So Levi rebels–against Amy’s idea of self-improvement, against all the spiritual bullshit and above all, against the idea of being made to confront at what he’s made of his life. He has to see it for himself, which he eventually does on a wild, sad night of escape to a generic little hotel bar with two fellow rehabbers (including Girls’ Christopher Abbott) and a bunch of blow.
It’s important to Levi that he see himself set apart from the other losers at Open Air, special. They’re weaker, dumber. They buy into all this recovery crap. They’re whiners. They probably, as he says after doing coke in the hotel bathroom, never even partied that hard.
He needs to see himself, in other words, as separate, an individual. And he has to hit bottom in his own special, individual way, which he does as the night drags on and gets progressively sleazier and creepier in the suite of the lecherous old hotel guest (“You guys remind me of my stepkids”).
The sequence, the whole episode really, is another example why it’s pointless to try to classify this story as a “comedy” or a “drama.” There are notes of comedy in Levi’s ranting about his broken iPod and smelly roommate, and in Creepy Hotel Guy’s clumsy attempts at flirting. But there’s also a deep sadness, sometimes in the same scenes–as when we see Levi’s fellow Open Air patient (Ashley Hinshaw) hook up with Creepy Hotel Guy and realize she’s probably making the same mistake she did with the rich, older ex she described before. The funniness and sadness blend into one another, because they’re part of the same story, like a night of partying gradually shifts into puking and dread as the dawn gets closer and the drugs wear off.
This episode, which in another world could have been a fantastic movie on its own, is also about that feeling: the dawning realization that your feeling of exhilaration and superiority is just the product of a cocktail of chemicals and delusion. As it wears off, Levi begins to realize that he’s not better than Open Air. He may not be like everyone else there–who is?–and he may not believe all the hoo-hah. But he needs help just the same, and he won’t get it alone.
He sees that, and acts on it: in another funny-sad scene in which he apologizes to his stinky roommate, by going back to group and “doing their dumb trust games,” and by going back into the bay hoping, against all likelihood, to find Amy’s turtle. “But even if I don’t,” he says, “I know you did. And for me that’s good enough.”
In that sense it turns out Amy was right about Levi. But so was Helen: he could not get help until he wanted it himself, and he had to come to that realization his own way. You can lead your ex-husband to water. But he’s the one who has to figure out how to swim in it, or drown.
Quick hail of bullets:
* Maybe no more perfect choice of ending music that Warren Zevon’s “Hula Hula Boys”–sad, sarcastic, and absolutely gorgeous.
* The little scene in which Levi describes Amy to his lady friend was a nice encapsulation of the way the show looks at Amy. Hearing that Amy is his ex, she invites him to run her down and make fun of her meddling and do-gooderism; but Levi can’t do that so easily. It’s a good way of making Amy present in an episode she only appears in for a minute or so.
* Likewise the shot of Levi, lying silent on his mat for guided meditation: “He asked us to remember a time when we were our best selves. I’ve never been my best self. The closest to it I could think of was the person you thought I was.” Luke Wilson is great at this kind of hangdog-melancholy character, and the directing of the final montage (by writer-creator-costar Mike White) does a fine job gently walking him through his small self-realization.
* I can’t claim credit for this insight, but the Atlantic’s Richard Lawson tweeted me that week that this episode reminded him of an Alexander Payne movie. He’s right (not just because of the Hawaiian theme), and this also gets back to what I’ve been saying about not classifying Enlightened as a comedy or drama: movies like Payne’s have a freedom to occupy that space that TV series have not, maybe because of the half-hour-vs-hour distinction.