Enlightened: “Consider Helen”
A-

Enlightened: “Consider Helen”

Until “Consider Helen,” the episode’s titular character existed on the fringes of Enlightened. Seemingly numb and disinterested in human contact beyond her daily interactions with Amy, the first eight episodes showed the character shuffling through her waking life. She had her dog, her garden, and her television, and it seemed like those were the only things she needed in her life. She was rarely cast in a sympathetic light; the series’ perspective on Helen has softened considerably since “Not Good Enough Mothers,” but even that episode found her refusing to loan her car to Amy. She says it’s all for insurance reasons, but she seems convinced of the notion that something terrible is going to happen to Amy in the car. Such an accident would be on Helen’s insurance—and, to a lesser extent, her conscience.

“Considering Helen” sheds some light on Helen’s fear of automobile-related trauma (warning: big spoiler ahead): Her husband, Jim, asphyxiated himself in the driver’s seat of the family car when Amy was a child, driven to suicide by a real-estate deal that went south in the 11th hour. The episode never comes right out and says it, but we can gather from the flashbacks and reminders that come to Helen throughout “Considering Helen” that she partially blames herself for his death. “What’s the worst thing that could happen?” she asked Jim when his partner pulled out of the deal. Apparently, he didn’t wait around to hear the answer.

There’s always been a profound sadness to Diane Ladd’s performance in Enlightened, and this episode goes a long way toward elaborating upon that. The other person she blames for Jim’s death is his partner, whose wife (played by Barbara Barrie) she encounters in the grocery store during “Considering Helen.” What unfolds is a spectacularly bold scene from a spectacularly bold episode (one which temporarily relegates the series’ main character to secondary-player status), which runs the character through an emotional gauntlet from apathy to envy to poorly masked anger. It’s striking enough to see a conversation between two older women on television (that isn’t played for laughs); that the conversation last as long as it does and covers so much territory—Helen’s feelings about Amy’s extended return home, the emptiness in her life, and the first mention of Jim’s deal-gone-bad, to name a few topics—is all the more remarkable. The scene goes beyond sheer novelty in terms of its emotional content and the raw, untreated quality of the exchange between Ladd and Barrie. That realistic quality helps underline the tension at the core of what initially seems to be a simple catch-up session; when Helen asks Carol point blank why her husband left Jim in the lurch, there’s a bit of a release—but only enough to let the tension rise to the surface.

If it seems like that scene and a later conversation between Helen and Levi—the latter of whom stops by the house to drop off photo albums requested by Amy in an ill-advised late-night e-mail—is over-stuffed with dialogue and background information, it’s probably because the rest of the episode is so stunningly silent. Given how Helen spends her days, it would be disingenuous for the “Considering Helen” to be that talky for the entire half-hour. But the episode manages to say a lot in its silence, filling in the space with distant voices and the pained-yet-detached look which Ladd has expressed for most of the season, but really starts to carry some weight here. There’s a subtle acknowledgment throughout the episode that Helen is more like her daughter than either party is likely to admit, which helps the proceedings still feel like a part of Enlightened, even if we’re taking a brief detour from the main arc of the season. Like Amy, Helen is haunted by “lonely ghosts” from her past, echoes from a happier chapter that careened into a tragedy of which Helen is reminded every day. Every corner of the house holds some tie to that period: The garden (which Jim’s death transformed into a sanctuary—it’s where Helen was during his final moments), the kitchen, the living room, the pool, the crushingly empty garage. In what I count as the episode’s stealth affirmation/meditation, Amy ends the episode by commenting to Helen how “you forget about things, and you look at one picture and it all comes flooding back.” Though the last memory Helen revisits is a happy one—Jim and the girls opening presents on Christmas morning—I get the impression Helen wants to know how to stem that tide.

If I have any misgiving about “Consider Helen,” it’s that Helen’s conversations with Carol and Levi keep coming back to Amy. That makes sense, seeing as every episode that came before this one was tightly focused on the character, but the time spent talking about her is time we lose for learning about Helen’s relationships with Carol and Levi. It reinforces the fundamental emptiness of her day-to-day life, but this still feels like a missed opportunity.

Still, that’s a trifling reservation for an otherwise fantastic episode, a welcome breather before next week’s finale and a brave move on the part of Mike White. Helen may still exist on the outer edge’s of Enlightened’s world, but now we have a better idea of how she got there. Not many television series would grant their characters that courtesy.

Stray observations:

  • Diane Ladd shares all-star credit for “Consider Helen” with Mark Mothersbaugh, whose score does a lot of the heavy lifting during those silent scenes. It’s melancholy without being sappy, with an impressive capacity for emotion in spite of Mothersbaugh’s minimalist approach.
  • I’m curious to hear what those of you who have stuck with the series have to say about this episode, seeing as it’s more or less a complete break from the season’s ongoing story. Did you enjoy it as much as I did? Are you frustrated that the show built up all that momentum, only to pull away for an episode? And how did it affect your impression of Helen?
Filed Under: TV, Enlightened

More TV Club