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The Morning After: Enlightened’s Origin Story

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Ladd and Dern (real-life mother and daughter) in Enlightened.

Brief spoilers for last night’s Enlightened below:

I realize that Enlightened is a polarizing show, to the extent that a TV show that a couple hundred thousand people watch is capable of polarizing anyone. I’ve argued here before that this dark-comedy-drama-thingie is insightful, sympathetic and beautiful (if sometimes uncomfortable) to watch; I was surprised to hear from a lot of fans (considering the ratings), but also heard from plenty of folks who find it morose, dull and focused on the whining of an unlikeable character with no real problems.

“Consider Helen,” one of the best episodes of TV I’ve watched all year, is not likely to unpolarize anyone. But it was also the show’s finest expression yet of the philosophy that the best way to self-understanding is empathy for others.

As the title suggests, “Consider Helen” was a complete perspective shift for the show, shunting Amy (Laura Dern) off to the side to focus on her mother (Diane Ladd). It was also a tonal shift to straight drama, in which Amy, and the rest of the ghosts of Helen’s life are very much present even when they’re not there.

This was very true in the early scene in which Helen meets an old friend in a grocery aisle, a tour de force sequence from the establishing shot, showing her walking, alone and isolated, in an arid grid of parked cars. The conversation is nothing explosive, just talk, and yet it says so much about Helen’s disappointment, her regret and her confusion that her life and Amy’s haven’t turned out differently.The little lies she tells herself and her old friend to make the encounter a little more bearable (“She’s living with me now, and I just love it!”) are, in their way, sadder than the episode’s eventual revelations about her husband’s suicide after a failed business deal.

Helen is a character that TV doesn’t generally like to tell stories about, not as a focal character anyway. It’s not just that she’s an elderly woman, though that factors into it. It’s that her story is one of regret, of disappointment, of failures in which she was blameless or had a part—but on top of that, she’s not going to get a second chance. She has her children (this was, if I’m correct the first time we learn Amy has a sister), she had her husband, she has her house and her dog and her life. This situation, a person getting to the point where she can begin to see the final summation of her life, is something we’ve all seen in life but only occasionally see on screen.

In the process, “Consider” cast new light on both the title character’s personality, to this point seemingly harsh and sometimes cold, and her relationship with Amy. Helen’s asking her husband why he can’t bounce back from his setback has strong echoes of the way she talks to her daughter—”What is the worst thing that could happen? What is the absolute worst?” Seeing what that worst thing turned out to be, and realizing how it colors everything in this story—Amy’s skittishness, Helen’s pained bearing, the fallout with Levi—made this season resonate that much more strongly, and having Dern play present-day Helen opposite the ghosts of her past made the this-is-your-life stock-taking that much more powerful.

Also, let’s be honest: it’s just nice to see an HBO backstory episode about a troubled mother-child relationship that involves no incest! If you’ve stuck with Enlightened, and somehow managed to find this review, let us know what you thought of the episode.