“The tumult of the present seems like an elegy for past youth and past summers, and there rose in her mind a curious sadness, as if time and eternity showed through skirts and waistcoats, and she saw people passing tragically to destruction”
— Virginia Woolf
In the opening shots of the HBO show Enlightened Amy Jellicoe, played by Laura Dern is shown hysterically sobbing in a bathroom stall. It’s a confusing, emotionally abrasive opening scene. Am I supposed to laugh? Empathize? As she proceeds to plough through her office in a fit of rage it is still unclear exactly what I am meant to feel and it is precisely this conflict between the caricature Amy and the relatable Amy that makes Enlightened so incredible. As she confronts the source of her rage, her boss Damon, (who she has been having an affair with and recently got her transferred when said affair soured) tries to do what men have always done to women and ignore her by getting onto an elevator. Amy refuses to be ignored as she pries the elevator doors open screaming that she will kill (that motherfucker) Damon. It’s a revenge fantasy we’ve all had and Enlightened gives it to us in these opening moments. We see the breakdown in all its gory spit-flying realness and then we are immediately dropped into the first of Amy’s many internal monologues which serves as the thread and needle throughout the series.
For me it wasn’t a boss I was having an affair with, but I did have an incredibly tough ending to a job last year and went to Cape Cod for a while. In the haze of my first real career disappointment I turned to Enlightened as a guidebook for how you can lose everything and still, somehow, keep moving forward. Enlightened provides the ultimate disgruntled employee fantasy in that (spoiler alert) Amy eventually does topple her corporate overlords and bring down the company that tore her down. In between cigarette breaks I would pour another glass of wine, start an episode of Enlightened, and laugh uproariously with a woman who wasn’t scared to show her emotions, who decided to scream and rage in the middle of her office until somebody began to listen. All of us have wanted to stand up at work and exclaim, “isn’t it crazy we do this all day?!”
Writer Mike White, who also plays Amy’s confidante Tyler, transports us from the meltdown to a montage of Amy’s experience in an expensive looking rehab facility called Open Air and then immediately back to Southern California and into, you guessed it, a traffic jam. The cracks in her veneer start early and often. Her mother (who she must move back in with) can’t be bothered to listen to her therapy manifesto, her ex-husband begins snorting cocaine right in front of her, her former lover Damon refuses to speak with her and when she finally does talk to him, trashes her, and her corporate job tries to fire her. This is a magnified version of something we’ve all experienced. Whenever we return from time away from our lives we come back ready to make so many changes, it can feel something like trying to walk out into the ocean and being continually knocked over by wave after wave. What’s great about Amy is she won’t stop getting up. I don’t mean to make Amy sound overly precious. She can be as self-centered as the rest of us, but there is a nobility in her refusal to be knocked down.
Amy often makes everyone around her immensely uncomfortable. She tries to relate with others in a way that she perceives as holistic and genuine however is often unaware or doesn’t care about what social convention dictates. Monotony can feel as if it is programmed into our DNA, but Amy won’t settle for a “this is all I can ask for” mentality. As a New Yorker I’ve become accustomed to this place that requires people to overlook the brutal realities of the society we have all implicitly bought into. Thousands of people stream by others living in abject poverty and won’t even spare a glance, in many ways cannot spare a glance, because to truly face the magnitude of that problem would make moving forward impossible. In these moments I too want to live out the credos of Amy Jellicoe, railing at anybody who will listen that we have to do something. Just stop and say, “look, please look, can’t you see?” but then I would join the ranks of those who are briskly ignored around the city each day.
Amy is all about confrontation. In episode two Amy discovers that her former assistant has taken over her office. In the previous episode this same assistant blew her off in order to go to lunch with Damon, the aforementioned ex-boss/lover. Amy must bring it up, but as is so often the case in the show she misses the mark. Her mind jumps to conspiracies believing that her former colleagues are all colluding with Damon. The show is great at showing how jobs can make communication feel so stilted. Everybody is constantly trying to deflect what they are really saying in an attempt to maintain order. Southern California becomes an overt metaphor for this reality. A place that often seems detached from nature, fully master-planned and designed with humans in mind. The overhead shots of Riverside, with its gleaming pollution filled sunsets and track homes in neat rows, remind us of the artifice Amy is up against. Rather than wanting out though Amy wants to smash it all to pieces.
In another reality, a different show perhaps, we could see a character like Amy moving to Utah or Colorado, getting a job at a non-profit and completely starting over, but in a strike of brilliance Enlightened makes explicit what so many shows ignore- the financial realities of Amy’s existence. Despite all that Open Air has done for her Amy is deeply in debt because of her time there. Total escape is not possible even if it’s what she wants, thus she must move forward with her plan to dismantle a system so strong and so ingrained it seems impossible to overthrow. The story morphs over time into a literal David and Goliath narrative with Amy slowly pulling back the slingshot, ready to launch the rock that will take the corporation down.
In the moments where Amy stares off into space you can almost see her mind whirring behind her yes. Often throughout the day I find myself stopping and ruminating. It’s been a part of my psychological makeup for as long as I can remember. Sometimes I feel like I’m seeing the holes in the fabric, the tiny tears through which I can see what’s really going on. In these fleeting glimpses I feel like I know, like I am understanding something only I can see, and then in a rush it is gone. I must move forward, the daydream must end, the cogs must stop spinning and I must work to put the sun down on another day. During rehab Amy was able to exist in these pauses, where she felt she could really see the meaning of life. Whenever we step away from our lives we get times like this, but the day to day reality of most people’s existence does not honor these moments. In one of the show’s most heartbreaking scenes Amy begins to openly sob after realizing she cannot take a job at a homeless shelter. The imagined life of working at a non-profit away from the corporate structure breaks down and crumbles before her eyes. Most people never admit that type of realization to themselves, but Amy feels like she must. Rehab may have given her healing, but more than anything it stripped Amy of her cynicism which simultaneously is her most admirable and most difficult quality. It’s easy to move forward when we are not examining our reality, it is much harder when we stop and really begin to reckon with what the world has put in front of us.
I feel Amy’s pain acutely though my path has been different than hers. I have my own anchor in the form of student debt and last year I reached a point where I decided I no longer wanted to work at my full-time day job. I got an adjunct position at a community college that paid around eight-thousand dollars a semester. I sat on a park bench after landing the position and imagined a future where I made that money work somehow, but then I thought about everything else in my life. My partner, the family we are trying to build, my life in New York, my loved ones scattered across the globe: all of this forced me to realize I needed more than eight-thousand dollars. Even in order to pursue my creative passions, such as this journal, I needed to be able to thrive, to stay in this city I love so dearly. We are always making compromises. A central question of Enlightened is how far are we willing to go, how much will we compromise? And perhaps more importantly, how much choice do we even really have?
It’s a shame the show was canceled where it was, but in a way it’s a fitting end to what I came to love so dearly about Enlightened. Her mission is complete, and she can begin to finally breathe. I google the show every couple of months to see if in the age of unlimited streaming services, a platform has decided to give season three a chance. I want to know what Amy’s life is like after completing something huge, what her public persona is like as a whistle blower, if her awkwardness becomes an asset finally. I like to think about all of these possibilities. Enlighted was something like a bible to me during several incredibly difficult periods in my life and only a show as gorgeously crafted with an actress as talented as Laura Dern can invoke feelings like that in people. I like to imagine Amy Jellicoe is finally happy.
Quentin Greif is a co-founder of Aptly Journal. He lives in the New York City area with his boyfriend.