As Enlightened opens its second season, Amy Jellicoe’s usual self-help mantras are replaced by dark self-aggrandizement. She’s cast herself as the hero in a magical medieval legend. She alone can pull the sword out of the rock and lop off the head of the king or the dragon or the witch or whatever. As we float through an empty corporate plaza at night, the American flag wilting, Amy addresses us with the first words of the season: “What if this kingdom really is cursed? It is cursed.” That’s Amy Jellicoe. She offers the illusion of conversation and then answers her own question in the way that becomes her. She thinks she can break the spell of amoral capitalism and doubts whether anyone else would. If you had the key that could free us all, “Would you use it? You have to use it.” There are no open questions. There is only what Amy wants.
When last we saw Amy Jellicoe, she sat in the basement of a drug-store corporation named Abaddonn with illicit access to personal e-mails thanks to a friendship-slash-power-dynamic with an ex-IT guy named Tyler. She had asked and been given permission to present some damning environmental information regarding Abaddonn to executives who used to be her colleagues, Amy’s downward mobility courtesy of being the female half of an interoffice affair. The male half Damon runs the meeting, and his sycophants mock Amy and her good intentions. Amy also knows that Cogentiva, her “experimental” department monitoring worker productivity, is about to be replaced by a computer. She sits at the bottom fueled by revenge and hungry for justice. They’re not mutually exclusive.
Enlightened is too full to be defined by a single episode, but “The Key” is packed with meaningful gestures, like the sight of Tyler scratching his empty scratchers and the portraits of the wage-slaves at Cogentiva, all mussed hair and exhausted movements. Amy says Tyler’s paralyzed by his lowliness, and he responds, “Well, I’m changing. I just joined the company gym, and I got a discount because of my employee badge, and I’m gonna work out more. And my aunt died, and I just found out that I got her time share, so I’m gonna go to the Bahamas for two weeks a year.” Tyler is offering another test case in Enlightened’s Sopranos-esque study of whether and how change is possible. Enlightened revels in the mud between what people say and what people do. Tyler says he’s changing, but so did Amy. Neither have much to show for their progress unless you count Amy’s self-important social conscience. Then again, Amy went on a $48,000 retreat. Tyler made a New Year’s resolution. It’s doubtful he’s considered himself and his life as much as Amy and her constant internal monologue. Plus he now has a time-share to pay for! Talk about growth.
The most pronounced behavioral motif of the episode is Amy subtly publicizing her heroics. She stands on the parapet at the Abaddonn plaza and places a call to Jeff Flender, a journalist with a background in corporate exposes. She talks slowly but not quietly and makes eye contact with passersby before realizing how obvious she’s being. She scampers to the break-room to take his return call. She meets with him at a nearby restaurant frequented by her co-workers. She glorifies herself and Tyler in their workspace as others pointedly listen. She tells her ever-skeptical mother Helen, “It’s better if you’re in the dark.” Amy is dying to be treated as the hero she isn’t yet. This goes way beyond simply wanting to feel alive.
And the big, damning information Amy has? Executives are planning to downsize Cogentiva. “That’s not the sickest part: They don’t care!” They even joked about it! Can you imagine? American elites laughing about the idiots supporting them? We’re not trapped in Amy’s head, but her perspective colors enough of Enlightened that it’s sometimes hard to understand her expectations. She expects her corporation to stop dealing with others known for environmental destruction because it’s the right thing to do. She expects at least 100 class-action law suits to result from her Cogentiva fact-finding. Is she really this naive? Maybe so. Maybe she doesn’t consciously try to manipulate men, but she does try to manipulate men. She applies some lipstick before her one-on-one meeting at Jeff’s apartment. Tyler calls her on it, and she replies that she just wants to look nice. Plausible deniability is the name of the game. But Amy isn’t pretending to be excited about her intel. She’s motivated by vengeance or at least a healthy appreciation for comeuppance, and she’s seduced by her own delusions. To question her info would be to question her legend.
Enlightened is about a system of forces from the corporation to self-help that are designed to be simultaneously isolating and uniting. Enlightened lives in flux. Thanks to her boardroom mockery (and bolstered by genuine righteousness) Amy has been driven toward the lonely pole. Nobody else would blow the whistle. In fact, experienced professionals don’t see what she sees in her envelope of e-mails. When poor Tyler protests, Amy pulls out her best play yet: sincerity. She’s playing a part when she cuts holes in her mom’s newspaper and then brags about it. She’s playing a part with her secret ops at Abaddonn and her nocturnal meet-ups. She’s absolutely honest with her meltdown in the car. It’s almost enough to convince that she does truly feel some level of connection with Tyler. “It felt good to feel alive for once, and not just dead and plastic and numb,” she says. “I’m so sick of dying.” But of course Amy’s worn out. Everyone at Cogentiva is. Just imagine how the workers under Amy's data-entry thumb must feel.
And the twist to Amy’s selfish histrionics is what it has always been: She’s not wrong. She wasn’t wrong when she protested her impending demotion with, “We fucked. So what?” She wasn’t wrong that Abaddonn is environmentally destructive and hazardous to public health. And she isn’t wrong that Abaddonn exploits workers and contributes to economic inequality. In fact, Abaddonn has even more skeletons. Jeff believes Abaddonn execs are paying off federal officials. So Amy and Tyler’s password are going back into the e-mails on a new quest, tilting at skyscrapers. But this is no mere quest. Amy’s god-turtle floats above the fray in the most unsettling image yet. This is a crusade.
- I mentioned a few of the evocative shots in “The Key” but not the director, Nicole Holofcener. (Last year she directed “Not Enough Good Mothers.”) Her film work (Please Give, Friends With Money) is a clear cousin of Enlightened, emotionally complicated and concerned with class and relationships.
- Not enough Helen in “The Key” for my tastes, but she gets in a good parry. Amy asks Helen, “Mom, do you believe in fate?” “No.”
- “If they knew, if they only knew, would they do something?” Amy’s breathy voice-over bleeds into real life when she monologues her co-workers eating lunch to Tyler.
- Amy speaks like the newly converted. “People are living under the delusion that the American dream is working for them. And it’s rigged by the guys at the tippy-top.”
- Tyler tells Amy, “I may not be at the tippy-top but I’m happy.” “No, you’re not. You’re miserable.”
- Speaking of possibly meaningful gestures, do people really open the door half-naked and then get flustered about who’s there?