Enlightened ended its first season the only way it really could, with Amy (Laura Dern) marching through her endless office complex, splashing gas all over the pristine white halls, and lighting a match. It’s a metaphorical moment that writer/co-creator Mike White wisely thought viewers would really need to see. Amy’s unhinged, mascara-splattered work meltdown during the pilot may have been hard to watch, but after enduring an entire season at that office with her, we were ready to see her burn it all to the ground.
The great delight of Enlightened was how deftly the show pushed us to that point. After her blowout rage early in the first episode, we met a different Amy, newly returned from inpatient treatment in Hawaii and ready to change the world. Really. As she strong-armed her way back into Abaddon Industries with a plea to be a kind of sustainability czar (“I had a lot of thoughts when I was away ...”), she was ultimately sequestered in data entry with the most miserable caricatures of corporate drones the show can muster.
As it went through these motions, Enlightened was often called “uncomfortable”: Amy’s persistent attempt to return to work with a frozen smile and ultra-progressive new outlook clashed with her office, where, of course, nothing had changed. And at first, truthfully, it was tough not to take the perspective of her old co-workers. Some did try to indulge her, even if they did it with a sideways grin and a constant look of exasperation, and Amy’s insistence on forging a new path could be tone-deaf and tiresome. She talked about child mortality at a baby shower and assumed a woman in HR would side with her leftist beliefs because she’s gay. Her newfound grace often seemed to be an extension of her maniacal former self.
But by the time she struck that match in the Season 1 finale, something had changed. Suddenly Enlightened no longer seemed like the story of a vaguely sinister corporate space navigated by a broken-down woman set on self-reinvention. After we got a long, wary look inside Abaddon and its culture, Amy started to make sense. As she hacked into her old bosses’ emails to reveal their misdeeds—the real-life act mirrored by that thrilling office blaze—the show tore open a new possibility: We’re the brainwashed ones, Amy really is enlightened, and she’s about to show us the light.
That totally cathartic send-off ensures us that Enlightened will be a very different show in its second season. Amy’s journey has been fundamentally altered. She’s no longer trying to save the people around her; she’s trying to bring them down for the good of everyone else. Mike White and Dern co-created the show (White also co-stars) and have proved they believe viewers are up to its unique challenges, so the intoxicating release of that first finale likely won’t last for long. Amy’s indignities aren’t over, and in the end, she is still undergoing a personal reawakening: Her insurrection at Abaddon will fuel her, but her relentless upward drive will likely see deeper and more volatile tests to come.
Even as Dern has seized the role of prestige pay-cable star and made it into something risky and vital, many of Enlightened’s best moments came last season when the terrific cast of supporting players breathed on their own. The episode that focused almost entirely on Helen (Diane Ladd), Amy’s mother, may have been the triumph of the first season. Hopefully the new episodes will show the same tangential curiosity—surely Dougie (Timm Sharp) is up to something in his free time?
The brief glimpse of the new season provided in its trailer, set to the amusingly over-excited jaunt of Fun’s “Some Nights,” suggests Amy’s mission to take down the company will hit its share of dead ends. But it also showcases what appears to be a more confident, lived-in sense of humor (“Tyler has a passcode that can get into anybody’s work account!” “No I don’t.” “Yes you do: ‘Julie underscore bitch!’ ”) and at least one new character (promising mostly because he’s played by Dermot Mulroney). I’ll be here Monday morning with a chat on the premiere with Slate contributor Matthew Dessem. All you have to do is not change the channel when Girls ends. Heed the call.
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