One of my pet theories about television is that cancellation is sometimes the best thing that can happen to a series. For the most part, this has been developed in retrospect, as a way to cope with the fact that, say, there’s only 53 episodes of Arrested Development, that all of Undeclared fits on a single DVD set, or that Better Off Ted concludes on a goofy shot of Lem, Linda, and Phil getting down in the lab. It can go the other way, too: I wouldn’t wish cancellation on the funny, talented people currently responsible for the U.S. version of The Office, but my current opinion of the show would be much higher if the series ended with “Goodbye, Michael.” Television series come with an encoded expiration date, and it’s not often up to the people telling their stories to wrap things up around that point. That’s just the business of television, and the “beautiful corpse” silver lining of an early cancellation makes it a little more palatable.
That said, I’m not ready to let go of Enlightened, and I hope HBO feels the same way. It’s all because of the final shot of “Burn It Down” and a curiosity based around a few quick keystrokes. It’s not in the series’ nature to provide us with clear answers, but it’s hard not to want to know what’s to come from Amy gaining unsanctioned access to the e-mail inboxes of Abaddon executives. After positioning his protagonist as a potential whistleblower for nine episodes, Mike White finally presents Amy with the whistle that can bring attention to the nefarious deeds going down at Abaddon. Will it make a sound? We may never know. It’s frustrating on a basic level—but to have stuck with the show for this long, you have to expect that there are things White will leave open-ended. Doors play a prominent symbolic role throughout the finale, and they’re almost never closed.
Of course, even if we don’t know anything about Amy’s fate, we at least get to see her make the definitive decision to devote all her energy toward bringing Abaddon down. There’s no more gaming the system or trying to work her connections in her old department—the fantasy sequence involving the character soaking the premises in gasoline and lighting a single match more or less draws that conclusion. And while that visual metaphor might be a touch on-the-nose (but, at the risk of sounding redundant, it’d be contradictory of the series to suddenly convey Amy’s feelings in a more complex manner), it’s a well-timed marker to show us where the character is at after 10 episodes. There are several callbacks to the pilot sprinkled throughout “Burn It Down”—Amy’s yellow dress, the close-ups on Laura Dern’s face, Amy overhearing her smack-talking co-workers—but her actions and reactions here stand in stark contrast to the events of that episode. Rather than emotionally lashing out at the health-and-beauty buyers who think she’s a joke, Amy returns to the conference room to attack Damen and his cohorts on ethical grounds. When she returns to the elevator to head back to the basement, Miguel Arteta’s camera shoots Laura Dern from overheard, portraying her as the righteous David to Abaddon’s towering, gray Goliath. But whereas the Amy we met nine episodes ago would’ve unleashed a fit of unfocused rage, the current Amy pockets her slingshot in order to refine her strategy.
For all “Burn It Down” plays close to the vest, it does leave us with one critical piece of information: Tyler is stuck working on Cogentiva because he hacked into a former IT colleague’s e-mail, and it’s the password encryption he created to do so that enables Amy to go forward with her plan to strike back against the company. I like how this reveal colors Tyler’s character—White has played him like a sad puppy, while always giving off the sense that he did something massively wrong in his old position. In sharing the password with Amy, the characters come closer to a reconciliation, and the maliciousness of his previous actions are balanced by Amy putting his hacking to good use. Or at least that’s what we assume she’s doing.
Also coming full circle in “Burn It Down” is Levi, who begins the episode by bursting through Helen’s door like a drugged-up Kool-Aid Man before jetting off to Open Air. He remains skeptical that he’ll receive any benefit from his time in Hawaii, but there’s enough sincerity in his willingness to seek help to consider this a step in the right direction for Levi—and a small victory for Amy. Levi’s departure gives his arc with Amy a bittersweet button, as she mouths “I love you” to him—and he, after a brief pause, mouths it back. There’s still something of a spark between these two, and Dern and Luke Wilson have done such a great job at portraying it—even if they’ll never be able to bring themselves speak those words to one another.
Levi’s decision to check into Open Air gives “Burn It Down” a note of false hope that Amy can affect change with enthusiasm and persistence on her own—one which comes crashing down as soon as Michaela Watkins’ Janice bursts her balloon on a big, pointy dollar sign. It’s a pivotal moment for the episode, and for the series as a whole. We’ve watched as Amy’s drive to become an agent of change has encountered roadblocks and taken on new wrinkles, but her meeting with the health-and-beauty buyers threatens to undo everything that she’s learned. For a brief, shining moment, the fantasy from the first few episodes returns, and it appears that Amy can make a difference through an optimistic outlook and a few hours of Googling. It’s important that her “research” from before returns as a plotpoint in this episode—it needs to be ultimately invalidated and dismissed if Amy is to take the actions we assume from the final scene. Before she can light a fire, one has to be ignited inside her—and the discarded stacks of her presentation, earnestly titled “We Can Make A Difference,” are the proper kindling. Amy’s learned a lot about how to make a difference over the course of this first season, and realizing that she has to take actions more drastic than printing out a handful of news articles is the most important of all.
But what, exactly, has Amy been driven to do? Does she know what to do with this information? The look on Laura Dern’s face at the end of “Burn It Down” is one of quiet satisfaction and determination. As much as I like to think that a theoretical second season of Enlightened would deal with the moral and ethical implications of being presented with such power, it’s clear from those final shots that there’s no room for waffling here. Tyler has helped Amy unlock Pandora’s Box, and she’s going to use its contents to destroy the entity that has marginalized her, her co-workers, and thousands of people she’s never met before. This is not a door that’s been broken off its hinges or one that open and closes at the push of a button—once Amy gets that information out into the world, there’s no taking it back. The fallout from this action promises great dramatic heights, and I’ll be legitimately disappointed if the television overlords at HBO don’t let us see it. For the time being, however, I’m satisfied in knowing that Amy took action.
- I love that the key to blowing the lid off Abaddon is a simple, juvenile joke. Tyler’s password is a dig at the co-worker who got him booted from IT: “JULIE_BITCH.”
- One more powerful image from the clsoing moments of the episode: The fluorescent lights in the basement turning off, row by row, as Amy gains access to the incriminating evidence.