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Enlightened Dared Women to Speak Out

Why you should be rewatching the show in the wake of #MeToo


When I saw the words “The Silence Breakers” splashed across TIME’s Person of the Year issue last week, a GIF began playing on a loop in my head. It was pulled from a scene of television from 2013, one that often flickers in the back of my mind. I saw Laura Dern as Amy Jellicoe, scowling in a sunny board room in the finale of Enlightened. The scene is one of divine retribution. Amy sits, seething in a denim jacket, across from the high brass at Abadonn Industries, a fictional Southern California pharmaceutical conglomerate where the character toiled for 15 years. The suits have just learned that Amy is a whistleblower who leaked incriminating emails to the Los Angeles Times. The head honcho glowers across the lacquered conference table, violence in his eyes. “Who are you?” he growls, by which he means what gives you, a woman far down the corporate ladder, the right to destroy my life?

Dern, whose elastic face is one of Hollywood’s great instruments, frowns wearily. “I’m just a woman who is over it,” she sighs. “I’m tired of watching the world fall apart because of guys like you.” As she leaves the meeting, the CEO flies into a misogynistic rage, spittle rocketing from his mouth. He hisses and turns red, telling her he will crush her, calling her a “psychotic fucking cunt.” After the elevator doors close and Amy is safe from any physical threat, she tries to suppress a nervous grin. Her life may have just exploded, but she won’t be the one going to jail.

This scene aired only shortly before HBO announced that Enlightened was cancelled. Mike White, the show’s creator, and Laura Dern—who became an executive producer—had planned out a future trajectory for Amy to follow in season three, but it was never made. The cancellation was a blow to critics and to a small but loyal cadre of evangelist fans, who crowed about the show’s merits so fiercely that by the time the show ended, it had a near-perfect Metacritic score. And yet, Mike White has said that the verdict did not come as much of a surprise. He glazed the finale in hopefulness for Amy, just in case this was her swan song. The network had already given the show one lifeline, greenlighting season two despite dismal numbers, some of the worst on cable. Streaming television hadn’t really taken off yet. (House of Cards premiered right as Enlightened was dying.) The show was one of the last great cable gems to wither on this cusp.

I have been thinking about Enlightened a lot in 2017. I recently re-watched the entire series and it felt as fresh as anything made this year. It is not that the show was ahead of its time—more that it now reads like a vital warning, a visual message in a bottle washing up on this anxious shore of a year. When once I looked at Amy’s new-age crusades with a mixture of cringey annoyance and pity, I now look on her journey through the series with a newfound tenderness and curiosity. This is not to say that I think the future is going to be made by an army of Amys—she is, after all, a white woman of privilege whose solipsistic search for meaning causes her to steamroller everyone else in her path. But I am seeing nuances in her story that I never did before, and new ways in which her dogged pursuit of justice in the workplace feels especially vital.

Earlier this week, New York magazine columnist Rebecca Traister published an essay entitled “This Moment Isn’t (Just) About Sex. It’s Really About Work” arguing that now, in the post-Weinstein reckoning, we must turn our attentions toward systemic workplace harassment rather than focusing solely on sexual assault. She writes that while the #MeToo moment is a powerful watershed, the important conversations we should be having are not simply about sex, and who gets to hug whom by a watercooler, and whether or not it is okay to marry your boss. “I am just as worried about what we will not do,” she concludes. “The thing that is harder and more uncomfortable and ultimately inconceivable: addressing and beginning to dismantle men’s unjustly disproportionate claim to every kind of power in the public and professional world.”

Like Amy, plenty of women now are over it and ready to demand change in the workplace. That final fearsome scene shows just how much is at stake when women try to move the needle. I keep watching it, not as a clear template for action, but as a parable about what can happen when a woman decides she is finally done.

When Enlightened debuted, no one knew quite what to make of it. Amy Jellicoe was as unlikable as heroines got on TV in 2011: a high-strung, self-obsessed do-gooder who exudes weaponized optimism. Emily Nussbaum of The New Yorker coined a new term to classify this new type of screen heroine: “hummingbird.” Leslie Knope was a hummingbird. So was Tracy Flick. So was Carrie Mathison, Claire Danes’s ever-frustrating CIA agent on Homeland. Hummingbird women are obnoxious. They never seem to know when to end a conversation. They are always in trouble with somebody. They always seem to live inside a vortex of personal drama. In one episode from Enlightened’s first season, Amy’s mother—played by Dern’s real-life mother, Diane Ladd—muses about how when Amy was younger, she would cycle through an endless roulette of close friends. “You’d get a fix on a girl, and then you’d have a falling out, and all the tears. Then, a new girl would show up. And she was your best friend. So involved.” Hummingbirds are always so involved.

It is possible that Enlightened failed to find traction with audiences, because no one knew exactly how to love a character like Amy Jellicoe. She was layered, but no one layer provided a steady foothold. She starts the series by returning to work after a nervous breakdown that was the result of sleeping with her boss. Immediately she starts to apply a shellac of self-help moonshine to every corner of her life. She meditates, she does yoga, she reads books about flowing through your rage. She sermonizes to her reticent mother, as well as ex-husband Levi (Luke Wilson), who has become a drug addict, alcoholic and daytime sleeper. When she goes back to work at Abadonn, in an aggressively peppy yellow sundress, she is relegated to a basement office with the company’s other “unplaceables,” doing data-entry. The company wanted to fire her, but fearing a lawsuit, they merely place her in the corporate equivalent of hell. From one point of view, Enlightened is an extended horror movie about human resources.

It is at work where viewers are meant to feel the most sympathy for Amy. Ousted from her old department because she had a mascara-soaked meltdown after an affair with her superior, she is punished for trying to return to the fold. In the basement, she meets her depressive desk-mate Tyler (Mike White) and Dougie (Timm Sharp), her stoner creep of a manager. His first words to her are, “Damn girl, you’re tall as shit.” When she says she isn’t good with numbers, he says, “Hey, tall and blonde and lovely, don’t need to be good with numbers.”

Both of these men, pathetic and comical though they may be, sexually harass Amy in the first season. Tyler tries to kiss her after a late-night working session, misreading her cheery congeniality as a flirtation. He is humiliated, and the two eventually reconcile, though not before he calls her a “fucking dumbshit” in a room full of her coworkers. Dougie’s transgression is more extreme; when the entire office goes to a club to celebrate his promotion, he drinks to excess and then gropes Amy on the dance-floor. Horrified, Amy tells a colleague who is interested in Dougie not to date him. In the next episode, Dougie takes his revenge, attempting to get Amy fired because she thwarted his game. “You cockblocked him,” Tyler tells her, as she is on her way up to meet with HR. Amy reports the harassment and keeps her job, but it is not a clean victory. By the end of the season, she starts to imagine burning down the office, dousing the entire place in kerosene. Corporate America is sick, she says, and the only solution may be cleansing fire.

At the time, we were supposed to read Amy’s fantasies of a better, more sparkly world as satire. Mike White, who himself suffered a breakdown after developing a show for network television has said that he returned from therapy with hope for the world, but also with the knowledge that much of corporate life leaves behind a sour taste. No one person can endure under the crushing weight of the system, even a person with Amy’s relentless desire to reach a higher plane. When I watch Enlightened now, I see that it is a show, above all else, about the systems that keep us down. Even the despicable Dougie is trapped: underground, in a literal glass bubble of an office, in his need to affirm his masculinity with come-ons. In season two, he’s fired. “This whole time I was working here, I thought I had some power,” he says, reading a memo detailing his dismissal. “I thought I was somebody.”

If we cannot root for Amy at the beginning of the show, it is because something about her flapping her wings in the face of such an oppressive system feels slightly deranged. No one wants to see a hummingbird slam into a glass door over and over. Amy’s ideals are grand, but her execution is always clumsy and sometimes cruel, and it is painful to watch her scrape her knees over and over on the sidewalk of good intentions. Now, when I watch, she seems more heroic. She sees more than most, and suffers more as a result. She is also petty, resentful, and selfish, believing that she is owed a pathway out of the bad system, but rarely concentrating more widely on the freedom of others. When she is offered a job at a homeless shelter, she balks at the low salary. Her yen to heal the world often ends at her own front door.

In season two, when Amy hatches the plot to work with a muck-racking journalist named Jeff Flender (Dermot Mulroney) at the LA Times, Enlightened becomes a heist story. It is in this season, which I think is far better than the first, that Amy becomes a true hero, and one that I keep thinking about in light of the revelations that have emerged in recent months. She is mad as hell, and finds a way to expose the company to the outside world. In the last moments before the LA Times piece runs, Amy gets cold feet, lured by the CEO’s offer of a lucrative corporate watchdog position that would enable her to advocate for change from within. Still, she realizes that when it comes to injustice on a systemic level, change rarely comes from inside the house. We have learned, in exposé after exposé, about how many layers of protection Harvey Weinstein had: lawyers, talent agents, investors, journalists, an entire “complicity machine” set up to launder his abuses. It was only when women put themselves on the line and told their stories that the gears started to move. As Jeff tells Amy, “the zombies will wake” only when the story hits.

Enlightened ends on a melancholic note. Amy has become the agent of change she always wanted to be. She is also out of a job. We never get to learn about the lasting consequences of her actions. The CEO is clearly toast. Perhaps Abadonn goes the way of Enron. Perhaps a new leader, who claims to have cleansed the company of its negativity in a pat statement, begins the cycle anew.

I used to take the cynical view. I thought, clearly, Amy’s bravery didn’t move the needle much. But now, at the end of 2017, I am of two minds. We live in a more anxious time than ever. Many of us have become unwitting hummingbirds, tweeting as fast as we can. We want so much for the world and for each other. As abusers’ deeds come to light, and we reckon with the treatment of women at work, there are glimmers of hope that we might see real change. As Traister and others have written, we must keep talking about the larger systems. In an essay called “The Unsexy Truth About Harassment” in The New York Review of Books, Melissa Gira-Grant wrote that “What is powerful about this moment, what is threatening, is that in place of women’s refusals, there are not only demands, but desire for a world in which sex, work, and power are not ruled by false notions of virtue and victimhood.”

It was only after Amy decided, at long last, that she was over it—her enlightenment would come not from self-improvement, but from using her resources to expose cracks in the system—that she was able to be powerful. If watching Enlightened in 2017 has taught me anything, it is that we must start there.