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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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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.