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Enlightened Watch: This Beautiful, Upsetting World

Enlightened gives Amy something like a happy ending. But let's hope it's not the end.

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LACEY TERRELL / HBO

Spoilers for the season finale of Enlightened below:
“Am I crazy?” “No. You’re just full of hope. You’ve got more hope than most people do.”

Is hope a gift or a disease? Is it something you’re empowered by or infected with?

There’s been a lot of reference, in this season of Enlightened, to sickness. There’s been the literal language of therapy, with Levi’s treatment and the aftermath of Amy’s. But there’s also been illness and contagion imagery: the first episode’s reference to “castles … made of cancer,” the Abaddonn CEO’s description of humanity as “bacteria” that have unleashed apocalypse on the Earth, even Amy’s fascination with the viral potential of the Internet. In a bigger sense, you could say the show is about hope as a necessary illness: it makes you crazy, crazy enough to try to change things that sane people accept as unchangeable.

Amy begins the episode knowing that the news about her employer is about to be released from the lab into the world, and wondering whether that will be a good thing. As her opening monologue plays–”Am I an agent of change or a creator of chaos?”–we see her watching images of the Arab Spring erupting into violence, and realizing that an idea, let into the wild, is not so easy to control.

“Agent of Change” walks Amy over the cliff and it looks, at first, like gravity will take over. Word gets back to Abaddonn about the exposé, and assuming that Krista is the source, she goes to the hospital to confront the new mother. It seems at first like we might be seeing the old Amy–the Amy that Krista herself, in the opening of the show’s pilot, warned was making herself look insane. At home, she gets into an argument with Helen that again puts her in the role of the rebellious adolescent: “Are they going to get you a job?” Helen asks about the LA Times. “Are they going to get you out of debt? Are they going to put a roof over your head?”

Not entirely terrible questions. And yet–though it feels entirely plausible Enlightened might have set us up for a downer–she triumphs. And she does so precisely by letting go, by giving up her job, her income, her roof. In the final confrontation, she can’t be intimidated by the room of lawyers and executives because she has so little to lose: “I have a car that’s doesn’t work and I’m $20,000 in debt, so knock yourselves out.” In a scene that echoes Amy’s elevator breakdown in the pilot, the CEO–in what is maybe too broad a sputtering-villain performance–threatens, “I’ll crush you like the bug you are.”

Not a bug, exactly. In his earlier words, she’s a bacterium–virtually nothing. And here’s the thing about bacteria: they’re too small to stamp on.

I want to be careful with this next section, because I want Enlightened to get another season, I believe it’s earned one (at least in the sense of being the best thing going on TV right now), and I think it has more to say. Amy’s life isn’t fixed by a long shot, after all. She’s embarrassed Abaddonn, but will she really have changed anything after a few news cycles? She still needs to work, she still needs to live somewhere and pay her bills. And she needs to see–with her crusade behind her and no clear next step ahead–whether she’s truly healed and fixed.

But the episode clearly seems to be made to serve as a potential series-ender–or, at least, as a definitive wrap-up to the Abaddonn/whistleblower arc that ran over the first two seasons. (Which, Mike White said when I interviewed him before the season began, he had originally intended to take up only one season.) There were a lot of callbacks and full-circle-closings in “Agent of Change”: the final moments with Levi, the showdowns at the hospital and the office, the very phrase “agent of change,” which brings us back to her mantra from the show’s pilot: “I will change, and I will be an agent of change.” There’s a kind of shift, in the closing moments, from a minor to a major key, underscored by the choice of “So American” by Portugal. The Man on the soundtrack.

Individually, there have been better episodes this season than “Agent of Change”; Enlightened’s episode order was cut from 10 to 8 episodes, and maybe as a result the ending of its corporate-thriller arc these last two episodes has felt a little rushed.

But it was deeply satisfying as an ending to a fantastic season’s story, and even more so as a restatement of the series’ themes of change and openness. The opening sequence, with the birth of Krista’s baby, is a pretty little tone poem, but it’s also something bigger. The perspective shift to the point of view of the newborn, seeing its mother’s overjoyed, exhausted face, feels like a visual mission statement for this show, which has always tried–sometimes in uncomfortable ways–to get us to see the world with fresh eyes.

Here’s hoping it gets to keep doing that. I can’t claim that HBO, any more than any other network, has a moral obligation to keep on the air a show whose ratings are in the six figures, and not the high six figures. But if Mike White has a pitch for another season, I think there’s a self-interested reason for HBO to keep it around. HBO needs hits, but it is also, to an extent, in the halo business. It cultivates a reputation as the network that creates beautiful things that no one else will and keeps them on the air when no one else would.

It does this not merely out of charity but because this is its identity; you know that HBO will take chances on producing amazing things, and people feel that they want to have HBO, even if they don’t watch everything it produces. And in Enlightened, whether it planned things this way, HBO has the best thing TV is doing right now—a show no other network would probably make, telling a story that the movies couldn’t tell, not at such length and depth. Without HBO, this story would not exist, and HBO is a company in the without-us-nothing business.

In other words, HBO doesn’t owe it to us to keep Enlightened on the air; HBO owes it to itself. That’s what you get when you bring something amazing into this beautiful, upsetting world.

23 comments
whiteglovenantucket
whiteglovenantucket

Mike White, you have written a beautiful yet disturbing, funny yet sad story - a complex and inspiring one that shows the light as well as the dark.  It is mesmerizing, haunting, heart breaking and uplifting.  Such a rich delight of a show!  It deserves another season and I pray that HBO will reconsider.  I, for one, was enlightened by watching both seasons and want more.  

Not_the_DJ
Not_the_DJ

Enlightenned is the best shows I have seen since....

@mikewhiteMW  What have you done ??? It's so wonderfull !!

Xina08
Xina08 like.author.displayName 1 Like

Not what I expected for a finale, but this story MUST continue, so HBO better bring it back for season 3...and 4 and 5 and 6 :)

MikeLLD9
MikeLLD9 like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

@mikewhiteMW The praise for S2 of #Enlightened is insane, easily the best show on television. Please bring it back for another season @HBO

roseng_je
roseng_je like.author.displayName 1 Like

@mikewhiteMW The disease language in @poniewozik's review/tribute reminds me of the first time I saw "Safe."

aideens
aideens like.author.displayName 1 Like

@mikewhiteMW Thank you for writing such an amazing show. You're a talented artist and I look forward to season 3 - fingers & toes crossed!

BarbWedge
BarbWedge like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

@mikewhiteMW Loved it. Glad to see Amy's mom smiling...choked me up to see her heart change!

dailypainter1
dailypainter1 like.author.displayName 1 Like

@mikewhiteMW Mike White, you're a rock star!!!! I'm hoping this isn't the end of Enlightened.

Ellegirlnyc
Ellegirlnyc like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

Season 2 has been amazing. I really wish there had been more episodes, it left me wanting more. I hope there is a Season 3 because I'm sure it would be compelling and I don't doubt that Mike White has many more stories to tell.


dogobenz
dogobenz like.author.displayName 1 Like

I was about ready to give up on TV Till this great show that isn't stupid silly degarading violent or just unrealistic. A show about a situation that could actully exist.

HemmerleinJ
HemmerleinJ like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

@mikewhiteMW Wonderful article, and so-well deserved. Such a beautiful, funny, and moving season. Truly special and one-of-a-kind.

TashaHarley86
TashaHarley86 like.author.displayName 1 Like

@mikewhiteMW @HBO It's a good thing to have a little hope for the world" we hope for more #Enlightened! Let'sl awaken to our higher selves!

LoyTM
LoyTM like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

@mikewhiteMW Enlightened is so, so good. I'm sorry it's over for the season. So well done, well written, well thought out. Nice work.

jonathanpalmer_
jonathanpalmer_ like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 3 Like

@mikewhiteMW thanks for a beautiful season. #Enlightened

True2Me2BeHappy
True2Me2BeHappy like.author.displayName 1 Like

@mikewhiteMW Enlightened is brilliantly written & directed! It can't be over-we need to know what happens w/ Tyler and Levi and Amy and...!

TheHoobie
TheHoobie like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 3 Like

Wow, thanks for a review that's as sublime and well-written as the show!

I too wish Mike White et al had been able to take just a little more time with the end of the season. I know they'd have used it well. I just want more! More moments like Dougie's hilarious awkward-yet-genuinely-supportive goodbyes to his crew. 

More moments like Amy's crystalline, "How much more money do you need?" (Which reminded me of my favorite lines from Chinatown: "How much better can you eat? What could you buy that you can't already afford?")

More moments like the very satisfying one in which Amy hung up on Jeff. He may be surprised at her naivete (which springs from her genuineness), but she's not so naive as to think that a romantic relationship with him is worthwhile....

So here's to season 3! I trust HBO to do the right thing and renew it.

dianemichaeli
dianemichaeli like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

@mikewhiteMW enlightened is the best thing on tv!!!! "I'm just a girl who's over it!" Mike white is a genius!!!!

mikewhiteMW
mikewhiteMW like.author.displayName 1 Like

@jaimeedmondson thanks, Jaime ;)

EnlightenedSeeker
EnlightenedSeeker

@mikewhiteMW I love you. I love every second of this show. It is beautiful, profound, funny. You are corroborating everyman's truth and creating art that registers beyond a well crafted tv show. I have been telling everyone I know to watch it. I am obsessed with your show. Thank you.

thisfarmingman
thisfarmingman like.author.displayName 1 Like

@mikewhiteMW Thanks for a great show, whether it was the end or not!

Jeanette607
Jeanette607 like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 3 Like

@poniewozik Wonderful review!ENLIGHTENED=the only show that brings me to tears every ep.,leaving a lasting impact on my heart & soul.