“Higher Power” is bookended with letters to Amy from Levi in Hawaii. The first is a heartbreaker. Levi doesn’t buy into his own treatment. He reaffirms that God is a beer on the beach. The one thing he actively pursues is Amy’s turtle, but all he can see is garbage at the bottom of the ocean. “Anyway, your turtle, if it ever existed, is gone. At least I can’t find it.” Wherever that line could go pessimistic, it does. But the second letter is moving in a different way. Levi, of all people, is committing to the program. He may not believe in a god, but he does believe in Amy. He believes that she wants what’s best for him, that she’s proof the program can work with the right attitude, that she sees the man that he wants to be. The god element is a contentious part of recovery programs, but the idea is humility. The first three steps of Alcoholics Anonymous are about admitting that addiction is more powerful than we are, that a higher power could restore us, and to turn ourselves over to that higher power as we understand him. Levi doesn’t hit rock-bottom or anything at that hotel. He just starts to find humility.
It begins as another Enlightened close-up on self-centeredness. Even at the Jellicoe household, things are tense. Helen tries to read Amy’s mail, Amy refuses to share her thoughts, and a partition conspicuously divides them into two halves of the image. The dissolves that keep two characters in the same frame are the closest thing to connection here. And then comes Hawaii. Rhyming with season one’s “The Weekend,” when Levi ditches a river trek in search of a fix, “Higher Power” lets Levi be Levi. He can't stand his slobby roommate Tony, he hates the group therapy facilitator Patricia, and he thinks the other patients are whining about wimpy problems. Luke Wilson's clenched performance and Mike White's delicate writing trot out Levi's ego. “You know what, uh, what really bugs me about a lot of the people in there is that you get the impression that they never even really partied that hard.” Nobody is up to Levi’s standards. The roadblock to his recovery is everyone else. He connects with another patient, Travis, who admits to insulting other people—“There goes that fat fuck”—for no reason other than to promote himself. The ghost of Levi past says, “There’s so much that I just fuckin’ hate, and there’s so little that I love.”
Mike White’s ironic punchline direction is a natural fit. Levi storms out of therapy, and the camera pans up to a self-help slogan in exaggerated type. Fellow patient Danielle humblebrags that she got in trouble for sexualizing the group, and then a wide shot reveals she’s sitting between Travis’ legs on a hammock wearing a low-cut top and jean shorts. When the three of them—Dani, Travis, and Levi—ditch the center after dinner to get high at a nearby hotel, the night ends with the one-two punch of Travis screaming for joy about the party and a smash cut to Travis venerating before a toilet in heavenly spotlight, his whole body undulating as he dry-heaves nothing into the bowl. The episode takes a clown hammer to their bullshit complaints about everyone else. After falling asleep to his own sob story, Travis still can’t help himself the next morning, lying in bed at the off-site hotel as Levi rushes back to the center.
“Higher Power” is a little tidy, but there is one question that evokes some of that Enlightened ambiguity. Levi isn’t a true believer like Amy at the end, but he’s giving it his some. What brings him around? Is it Dani accidentally provoking him to defend Amy? That doesn’t immediately bring anything to a halt, but maybe it sticks with him enough to make that final-letter realization that his best self is the way Amy sees him. Is it Travis confronting him with a mirror of the kind of truly pathetic self-pity Levi had previously assigned to the lightweights in his group? After all, Travis has two DUIs, and this program is an alternative to jail-time. Expulsion in his case is pretty serious. Maybe Levi sees a sad alternate outcome for himself in Travis and wants to straighten up. Or maybe he just sees that his kindred spirit ain’t as cool as he seemed the night before. Is it Tony covering for him when the authorities come looking, thereby keeping Levi in the program, saving him from another fuck-up that would inevitably be shared with Amy, and giving him a second chance? After all, that’s the one thing that immediately precedes his final letter. And Levi’s relationship with Tony is the only one where Levi has cause to reevaluate his negativity. Maybe it’s a combination, or something else entirely, but the mystery is what charges Enlightened. “Higher Power” could feel pat because Levi shapes up over the course of a half-hour, but it’s not. It’s electric.
- This is the second episode in a row written and directed by Mike White. Next week, let’s talk auteur TV.
- The one thing in Levi’s first letter that’s still ringing in my ears is when he calls Amy’s outlook wishful thinking. He’s not wrong. But is that so bad?
- Even in a Levi episode, Amy Jellicoe is a standout: (1) She’s wearing a Save The Whales sweatshirt. (2) At the end of her scene with Helen, she says, “Ugh, Mom!” and stomps off to her room.
- Another contributing factor to Eli’s turnaround: He ultimately does want to get better. “I’d like to start eating healthy, I’d like to start exercising, and I would like to take a break from the drinking.” Those are generic self-improvements for many of us, but they bear a lot more weight from the inside of a treatment center.
- Speaking of wishful thinking: “I keep going out every day looking for your turtle. I really want to find it, but even if I don’t, I know you did, and for me, that’s good enough.”