(For the next several days, some of our writers will be swapping duties on some of our most popular shows. Some of them will like what they see, but for different reasons. Some of them will have vastly different opinions from the regular reviewers. And some of them won’t be all that different. It’s Second Opinions Week at TV Club.)
Getting everything she wants is the worst thing that could happen to Amy Jellicoe. And at first blush, it seems like the worst thing that could happen to Enlightened, too. This has never been a show about punishing a character whose ambitions are beyond her means, but it is one that’s propelled by her desire for the intangible quantities she lists in her big “All I Ever Wanted” monologue: “A life engaged, a love not selfish or closed, someone to believe in,” etc. I have no doubt that Mike White could make a similarly strange and beautiful version of Enlightened that centers on a fulfilled and happy Amy, but the sense of momentum that’s built throughout this second season—and that truly starts to snowball this week—originates from things that are just out of her reach.
Yet “All I Ever Wanted” illustrates the types of conflicts that arise when everything’s coming up Amy. The emails Tyler pulled from Eileen’s computer last week turn out to be the break in the Cogentiva story that Jeff’s been looking for, and in his muckraking ecstasy, he pulls Amy close and plants a big wet one on her. And then they sleep together, and spend a whole weekend in Los Angeles sipping coffee, screwing, reading, and undertaking other montage-ready activities—a time-warping good call that mirrors the emotional headrush Amy’s been waiting for since she met Jeff. She’s so firmly planted in the moment that she forgets about that estranged husband she persuaded to dry out and straighten up at Open Air—until he shows up on Helen’s doorstep hours before a celebratory dinner with Jeff. Be it caused by a velociraptor or an unexpected Luke Wilson, I can watch Laura Dern’s surprise face all day.
Levi’s early return from Hawaii presents an interesting challenge to “All I Ever Wanted”: It’s a sitcom-like twist of the “two dates on the same night” variety that isn’t used for the purposes of plot. Instead, it’s treated as the latest kink in the relationship between Amy and Levi, a relationship to which the former hasn’t given much thought since the latter pissed all over the teachings of Open Air via the postal service in “Higher Power.” The follow-up letter Levi writes in that episode finally reaches Amy in “All I Ever Wanted,” and it’s that piece of correspondence that cuts her the deepest. She can’t throw this one away, and she can’t ignore the fact that it represents the chance for real change in Levi—change she could see if she weren’t standing a full car’s width away from the guy with her back turned to him. There’s some fruitful collaboration evident between director Todd Haynes and cinematographer Xavier Grobet in that moment, the growing space between Amy and Levi illustrated by blocking and scenery while magic-hour light filters through Laura Dern’s hair and casts her and Wilson partially in shadow. It’s goddamn gorgeous, and I have half a mind to continue this review in Buzzfeed picture-book style with a dozen screenshots of the scene preceded by single lines of glowing praise.
The space Haynes put between the actors also illustrates the main point of “All I Ever Wanted”: Amy hasn’t considered the consequences of her actions at all. She pushed Levi toward Open Air, and now she’s seeing how she looked when she returned to Riverside talking about the program’s life-altering energy. She slept with Jeff without thinking that a post-Hawaii Levi might want to reconcile—and might actually be in a place where he could pull it off. Most egregiously, she passed the emails on to her new pseudo-beau without meditating on the ill effects that decision will have on Tyler, who’s making a genuine connection with Eileen—a genuine connection threatened by whatever article Jeff manages to squeeze from the contents of Charles Szidon’s inbox. (In a well-played echo of Amy’s “be careful what you wish for” scenario, Jeff appears overwhelmed by the windfall of damning evidence with which he’s presented.) There’s talk about “political fallout,” and Tyler speaks of Eileen as if she’s going to be the collateral damage of Jeff’s piece, but Amy just brushes it all off. Something’s finally happening, things are finally going her way, so everything else is just noise.
Fittingly, “All I Ever Wanted” gives off an infectious version of that sensation; it’s tempting to call this the best episode of the series, due to the way all of its various elements rise to the occasion of Amy’s perceived triumph. And like Amy’s elation, that might be a premature evaluation—but in the immediate afterglow of the episode, the performances Haynes drew from the actors, White’s winning dialogue, big laughs like “Mom, he’s at the door—I can’t get a fucking haircut!”, the way the camera meditates on certain images (the skyline painting in the diner; the way the lens follows Amy’s hand as it traces Jeff’s side, slowly shifting the focus to her wedding ring), and the subtle parallels to “The Weekend” all meld together to form the image of a TV series at the apex of its powers. And while the whole thing floats along on Amy’s jubilation, consequence hangs around the edges of the episode. As Amy and Jeff finally head out for dinner, the sun sets on the honeymoon period of their quest to take down Abaddonn. And there’s Levi, with more boundaries separating him and Amy: Jeff’s car physically, Jeff metaphorically. Like those emails, he’s there, a ticking time bomb primed to go off. So accustomed to everything going wrong, Amy never could’ve thought that everything going right could cause so much trouble.