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The naïve viewer of HBO’s remarkable and now-defunct tragicomedy, Enlightened, may be forgiven for assuming, having gone through the first four or five episodes, that the show’s title is meant as a joke at the expense of its protagonist. After all, there could hardly seem a less enlightened “hero” than Amy Jellicoe (Laura Dern), whom we meet at the start of episode one crying her eyeliner out after being transferred from her division at a Los Angeles-based pharmaceutical company, partly for sleeping with her boss. Following a baroque meltdown in the hallways of the office, Amy adjourns to a Hawaiian retreat, Open Air, where she claims to receive a life-altering wisdom. But the show really begins with her return to L.A., where she endeavors, with a sunny obliviousness broken by temper tantrums and occasional fits of self-reflection, to apply that wisdom to her everyday life.

The first several episodes all follow what becomes a familiar arc, commencing with Amy expressing hope about some aspect of her new life (getting her job or her ex-husband back, making a new friend, starting work at a homeless shelter, etc.), and concluding with her disappointment—and often her rage—when things do not work out as she had planned. Both the hope and the disappointment are typically articulated in Amy’s lucid, sentimental, and often surprisingly moving voiceovers, beginning with her statement of purpose, set to a montage of nature images and men and women cavorting around a bonfire on a beach in Hawaii:

I’m speaking with my true voice now. Without bitterness or fear. And I’m here to tell you, you can walk out of hell and into the light. You can wake up to your higher self. And when you do, the world is suddenly full of possibility, of wonder, and deep connection. You can be wise. You can be patient. … You don’t have to run away from life your whole life. You can really live. You can change. And you can be an agent of change.

The speech is remarkable for its frantic combination of nearly every variety of new age pabulum. Yet such an observation may not protect the viewer entirely from hearing, behind Amy’s words, the always-inspiring vibration of a human being desiring to change her ways. In fact the voiceover demonstrates all on its own what the show itself will go on to exhibit at length: the potential of virtually every word we speak about enlightenment to be delusional, superficial, fraudulent, empty—and at the same time to be sincere, courageous, rich with the possibility of spiritual transformation or awakening.

I have spoken to detractors of Enlightened who believe that director Mike White does New Age movements a disservice by presenting as their representative such an obviously compromised individual. But White has not made a show about the select few able to devote decades to training under a guru or perfecting their meditation posture at monasteries. He has made a show about the much larger subgroup of Americans who, having limited resources and time, seek nevertheless to transform their lives in accordance with the highest principles. Amy is an illustrative, if slightly exaggerated, representative of this demographic, and the show does more than justice to the way such a person will tend to be viewed by those around her. Amy’s ex-husband Levi (Luke Wilson), her mother Helen (Diane Ladd), her co-workers Tyler (Mike White) and Krista (Sarah Burns), all share the naïve viewer’s initial suspicions, interpreting Amy’s lectures about change, fulfillment and the search for a better world as thin screens for her narcissism, emotional neediness and desire for revenge. “I just don’t want to jeopardize everything because you’re pissed about your life,” Tyler complains when she tries to enlist him in her plan to bring down Abaddonn, the company they both work for. His worry is echoed and amplified by Amy’s mother and by the LA Times journalist, Jeff Flender (Dermot Mulroney), who asks her what kind of “revenge play” is motivating her attempt to sell him on a corporate whistleblowing story in Season Two.

Neither the viewer nor Amy’s friends and family are unwarranted in their suspicions. Amy is paranoid, impatient and almost criminally self-involved. At night, she entertains violent fantasies about those who treat her poorly, and dreams of others she is convinced live free of anguish, all the time failing to see how she herself contributes to the anguish of those closest to her. The genius of Enlightened is just that it lays bare a soul, like most souls, in which the narrowest of passions bump up against the most noble of aspirations. Indeed it shows how the process of enlightenment itself, or the yearning for it, can bring out simultaneously the best and the worst in us. On the one hand, the desire for personal betterment exacerbates in Amy the sins of self-involvement and self-delusion. At the same time, Amy’s idealism, her hope for herself and for the world, seem slowly to work a change in her and those around her, prompting them to examine whether the lives they lead are really as satisfying or as full as they might be. “You saw something in me that didn’t exist, or maybe it did” Levi admits in Season Two, “Maybe you’re my higher power.”

Enlightened was billed by HBO as a comedy, and at times it can be very funny—especially in the scenes set at Abaddonn, which unspool in the deadpan register of The Office or Office Space. But White has ultimately lit his world with a different kind of light. Consistent with the show’s emphasis on transformation, the camera itself proves capable of converting suburban driveways, office parking lots and chain-restaurant dining rooms into sites for reflection no less provoking than the Pyramids or Walden Pond. (“People drive by here and they see a school and a field,” Levi observes in Season Two, as he and Amy sit in the bleachers of a familiar baseball field near their homes, “I see heaven … and hell.”) Meanwhile, the voiceovers magnetize the episodes up out of the realm of easy sarcasm and into the vicinity of hard and pertinent questions: What is the relation between personal betterment and the betterment of society? Is self-improvement really separable from narcissism? And what anyway is enlightenment?

That last question is addressed, famously, in a short essay by Kant (“An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?”). As usual, and with liberal use of italics, Kant gets right to the point:

Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s own understanding without the guidance of another. This immaturity is self-incurred if its cause is not lack of understanding, but lack of resolution and courage to use it without the guidance of another. The motto of enlightenment is therefore: Sapere Aude! Have courage to use your own understanding.

Although all men are in theory capable, Kant goes on to say, of overcoming their immaturity by means of their reason, only a few are actually trained to take advantage of their freedom. Consistent with the optimism and faith in progress that characterized his time, however, Kant believed that not just the elitely educated but the wider public, too, would eventually enlighten itself, so long as “artificial measures” were not devised to keep them in a state of unfreedom. We may not live in an enlightened age, he declaimed, but “we do live in an age of enlightenment.” Everyone would soon have the option of becoming enlightened; all it would take was courage, a good will, and the desire to shake off one’s chains.

Enlightened bears witness to the fact that we continue to live in an age of enlightenment (the show makes a punch line out of Open Air’s hefty price tag, but the retreat operates on principles that will be familiar to most viewers from local yoga classes, free meditation centers, Alcoholics Anonymous, and the self-help sections of neighborhood bookstores), although whether Kant would recognize it as such is an open question. When Kant speaks of enlightenment, he takes his bearings from the European movement to reform society along the lines of reason and science—and against the dogmas of authority, tradition and faith. Although addressing himself initially to the individual (Sapere Aude!), Kant thus primarily conceives of enlightenment as a collective project, capable of freeing society from the domination of church and crown and spawning in their place encyclopedias, schools of philosophy and a free and mature politics of self-governance. In the twentieth century, various European detractors of Kant’s idea of enlightenment (Adorno and Horkheimer, Foucault) objected that the historical Enlightenment was neither as rational nor as reliably progressive as its advocates pretended—but they did not question the premise that the goal was the rationality, or maturity, of society as a whole.

In America, however—as Tocqueville noted repeatedly—enlightenment did not develop in opposition to religion, nor was it conjoined with a practical political science or with efforts to improve social literacy and living standards. Instead it was ever linked to the spiritual project of awakening or (what Jonathan Edwards called) Great Awakening—a project that took it almost as its duty, one might say, to liberate the individual from the dreamworld that the Enlightenment had wrought. This is not to imply only that American thinkers privileged the individual over the political—although Thoreau did believe the time had come for men to attend to the res privata with the vigor they had formerly reserved for the res publica—but also that they prescribed for both the individual and society not knowledge or understanding so much as energy, intensity, zeal. “Sleep lingers all our lifetime about our eyes, as night hovers all day in the boughs of the fir-tree,” wrote Emerson, in a passage of “Experience” that would be answered at the close of that archetypal book of the American Enlightenment, Thoreau’s Walden:

We are sound asleep nearly half our time … I do not say that John or Jonathan will realize all this; but such is the character of that morrow which mere lapse of time can never make to dawn. The light which puts out our eyes is darkness to us. Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.

The idea seems to be that, in America, to fail to live one’s life is not so much to fail to make use of one’s understanding as to fail, so to speak, to get up in the morning—with the alternative being not ignorance or backwardness but lethargy, sleepwalking, or (what Emerson called) conformity. [1]

But how do we know if we have gotten up in the morning? The danger and obscurity of the American form of enlightenment have to do with the ambiguity of its criteria for fulfillment. If enlightenment does not show itself in stable scientific knowledge or social progress, then how can we distinguish it from its fraudulent (or merely benighted) imitators? Enlightened is studded with scenes of Amy waking up to her alarm clock, but as viewers we are prompted simultaneously to ask whether she has really awoken, say, to “that morrow which mere lapse of time can never make to dawn”—or, as she again puts it, to her “higher self.” Perhaps one can change—but does she?

What saves Enlightened from ever falling into didacticism, or full-fledged parody, is its circumspection in relation to precisely this question. Moreover, it repeatedly dramatizes the tension between Amy’s commitment to her inner awakening and her desire to “wake up” her society. Frequently, Amy’s quest to become an “agent of change” is shown to distract her from her own unfinished process of self-improvement, or becomes an excuse for her to discontinue it. The two projects even require contradictory virtues. To improve the world, Amy needs to be self-assured, combative, single-minded and sometimes ruthless. To change herself, she has to learn to question her motives and to accept ambiguity and doubt, a process that culminates at the beginning of the final episode, when she asks, “Am I my higher self? Or am I in the mud? Am I an agent of change? Or a creator of chaos? Am I the fool? The goat? The witch? Or am I … enlightened?”

She is both and all, as any watcher of the show by then knows—although this is a knowledge that is for Amy hard won. The first season of Enlightened is largely about Amy’s attempt to transform herself completely, banishing all that is inconvenient or complicated for the ideal version of herself she envisions in the aftermath of Open Air. “We can be free of our sad stories … and what’s left is pure life,” she reflects, drifting down a river in a kayak with her ex-husband Levi in episode four. “Every single thing can be transformed.” The scene is followed by a blow-up with Levi over his drug use, after which the two of them abandon the camping trip for a cheap motel in town where Levi can get high. By the end of the episode, Amy acknowledges that, “you can try to escape the story of your life, but you can’t. It happened. My story isn’t the one I would have chosen in the beginning, but I’ll take it. It’s my story.”

The final lines are delivered back in the garden of her suburban childhood home, where she has lived with her mother since returning from Hawaii. The garden serves as a visual touchstone, often opening and closing episodes, and representing the past that Amy so desperately wants to get free of. Throughout the season she alternates between dwelling in that past and dismissing it; the words, “I’ll take it, it’s my story,” thus resonate as progress as she looks out over the familiar flowers and the swimming pool that no one ever uses, which the camera reminds us contain a certain beauty, even as they remind Amy of all she considers stultifying and belittling about her backstory. One aspect of Amy’s personal enlightenment would then be the acceptance of what is familiar and native, alongside the “new world” she always imagines existing at the opposite pole from where she stands. To “awaken” in this sense (a very Transcendentalist one) is to see what is meaningful about whatever ground happens to be beneath one’s feet.

Season Two, at once snappier and less quixotic than Season One, revolves (with the notable exception of episode three, the masterfully told tale of Levi’s visit to Open Air) around Amy’s attempt to expose wrongdoing at Abaddonn, a crusade she places in the context of the failure of the American economy. Amy’s platitudes about wealth inequality and corruption (“People are living under the illusion that the American dream is working for them, and it’s not. Because it’s rigged by the guys at the top”) are redeemed somewhat by the risks she takes in attempting actually to do something about them. Nevertheless the issue of Amy’s motivation continues to yank her public mission back into the domain of the res privata. At times in Season Two, Amy is motivated by revenge, personal passion (for Jeff), and megalomania. At one point she is described (not without some justification) as a “mental patient,” while Jeff asks if she is an idealist, a do-gooder or just someone who “wants to have her name in the paper.” [2]

Nevertheless, there are moments in Season Two where it seems Amy will get everything she dreams of: the destruction of Abaddonn, a fulfilling relationship with Jeff, entrance into a new, politically active world where “things happen.” “Can you make your own heaven in this life?” Amy wonders. “Can you really get all you ever wanted?” Predictably, much of Amy’s expectation is disappointed—Jeff drifts away as the story goes to press, while Amy’s relationships with her mother and ex-husband remain complex and troubled. Less predictably, Amy herself begins to question the wisdom of her starry-eyed aspirations. “I’m waiting for my new life to start. Abaddonn is over. My past is over,” she tells Jeff over the phone in the penultimate episode, but her voice is wistful, unsure. “That’s a good thing,” Jeff responds. It was Jeff’s assuredness that had attracted Amy, his single-minded focus on exposing evil and enlightening the world. But, having gone through with her plan to expose the company she works for, Amy has begun to perceive the false comfort in such self-certainties. [3] To challenge authority, she begins to realize, entails having the courage (as Kant might say) to think for herself—not simply to substitute one set of truisms for another.

 

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Enlightened has the courage and resolution to conclude there, with an Amy who is not sure about anything, least of all her own enlightenment. Even in the somewhat rushed finale (which bears the scars of White’s not knowing whether HBO would grant him a third season), Amy falls prey to some of her worst old temptations, in one scene verbally assaulting her coworker Krista in the hospital on what turns out to be a false pretext, while in others demonstrating a poise and composure that would have been unthinkable in Season One. It is as if the show wants to leave us with the idea that there is ultimately no way of being certain whether the quest for enlightenment is indeed one long and futile charade, or whether it is the only thing capable of rescuing us from a long and futile charade. And perhaps there is no way of being certain. One may suspect that Enlightened seeks to recommend enlightenment to its viewers at least insofar as it paints a dark and daunting picture of a life lived in its absence.

Unfortunately for us, we are now compelled to live in the absence of Enlightened, which was canceled last fall by HBO after only two seasons. One wonders if it would have enjoyed a longer run had White chosen a more appealing protagonist. Amy was, in many respects, the opposite of the charismatic heroes and heroines of the new television: Tony Soprano, Don Draper, Walter White, Hannah Horvath. Such figures demand our attention despite treating others poorly and doing little to improve the world (often the opposite). In contrast, Amy tried to do good, and to improve as a person, yet she alienated not just her acquaintances on the show but also—judging from the ratings—most potential viewers of it. Well, the enlightened are often annoying. The light which puts out our eyes is darkness to us.

    Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Partly out of ignorance, I’m limiting myself here to distinguishing between American and European notions of enlightenment; of course an even wider chasm separates West and East on the matter. To some extent, though, the American version of enlightenment can be read as a Western appropriation, or application, of the Eastern version; certainly Thoreau and Emerson both drew heavily from Eastern source material—as do the majority of today’s native New Age programs. 
  2. As viewers, too, we may be prompted to question our motives and passions as we watch the story in Season Two unfold. In the final episode, Amy says she feels “satisfaction” as she gets to see the Abaddonn CEO Charles Szidon (James Rebhorn) flip out over her “betrayal”—and that feeling of satisfaction may spread to the viewer. But what are we taking satisfaction from? Personally, I took satisfaction from watching the smug and powerful brought low. Is that how someone enlightened would feel? 
  3. Her growth in this area is expressed by the final decision she makes, to go see her ex-husband, Levi, rather than Jeff, after getting fired from her job. The two of them sit together on the old, familiar steps outside his apartment. “I’ve just done something crazy,” she tells him. “What else is new?” he replies. 
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