Friday, May 31, 2013

Week 2 of "My 25 Favourite Episodes of TV"

Wow, what do you know? This project actually continues into a second week, and right on schedule. Last week we made the list's only check in on reality TV, and this week we look at - well I don't know what the hell you'd call it. But it's the episode on this list that aired the most recently, so there's that. Not really sure why I'm choosing to be so cryptic about this, because it's painfully obvious what's coming.

After the break: Because this blog sure needs another 1,800 words about this show. Spoilers ho.

Enlightened, "Agent of Change"
First aired on HBO Sunday, March 3, 2013

“It’s a beautiful thing to have a little hope for the world.” – Levi Callow

Before she joined the ranks of complex TV heroines as Carrie Mathison on “Homeland,” Claire Danes was just a 15-year-old girl starring on an ABC high school drama called “My So-Called Life”. And while the characters are wildly different, the performances Danes gives on both shows are nothing short of spectacular. In one of the best episodes of “MSCL,” Claire Danes’ Angela Chase embarks on a crusade to publish a controversial piece of writing in her school newspaper. The man attempts to keep her down by firing the substitute teacher that inspired the piece and the ensuing student protest, so Angela instead decides to distribute her version of the paper, with the sexualized piece intact, to the student body herself. The principal calls in her and her parents, and she’s let off the hook entirely thanks to her spotless record up to that point. She and her parents leave the office, Patty and Graham Chase relieved that Angela got away with her stunt. As they leave her, Angela is left in the middle of a hallway bustling with her fellow students, never more disappointed for not being able to face the consequences of her actions. As Amelie Gillette wrote for The AV Club, it’s a perfect encapsulation of the powerlessness of adolescence.

Understanding and accepting the consequences of your actions is something that everyone has struggled with at some point, and it’s the main theme of what is now sadly the series finale of “Enlightened,” as well as the series as a whole. Since the opening minutes of the pilot episode, a sea turtle that Amy swims with while in treatment in Hawaii has recurred in various forms. During his own Open Air experience, Levi is desperate to see Amy’s turtle and eventually concludes that knowing Amy saw it is good enough for him. If you go back and watch the episode, there’s a green, ceramic-ish turtle hanging in Levi’s room at Open Air. The turtle is out there – he’s just not looking hard enough because he’s afraid to take responsibility for the pain he’s caused himself and those around him.

But Amy’s turtle most notably reappears at the end of the pilot. As she’s walking into Abaddonn for the first time since her meltdown to Regina Spektor’s “Human of the Year,” she looks up in the elevator and sees the turtle swimming in the ocean, and she smiles. Obviously the ceiling of this elevator is not actually an ocean-connected aquarium big enough to hold a sea turtle. It’s a representation of not just her hope, but also the power that she feels and a validation that she’s doing the right thing.

After Abaddonn discovers Amy’s involvement in the LA Times article in the series finale, she tries to make a quick exit but is intercepted by security, who lead her into an elevator to head up to Charles Szidon’s office. On the ride up, Amy looks up at the ceiling – and there’s nothing there. Ceiling tiles, fluorescent lights. Nothing. It’s Amy’s first moment of panic that she may have ruined the lives of many people for something that didn’t matter all that much, if it all. This is Amy Jellicoe’s darkest point, even worse than the nervous breakdown that sparked this weird journey – because for the first time in the entire series, she’s truly alone.

Most of us would cower at the thought of being in Amy’s position, but of course being Amy, she has to find a way to turn this into a positive. She realizes that it doesn’t matter that she feels low right now – what matters is that the opposite will need to be true in 30 seconds. So that’s exactly what she does. She already decided long ago that she’s better and can be more powerful than anyone at Abaddonn, and at this point she might as well say it right to Szidon and his underlings.

“I’m not really gonna discuss that,” Amy tells the executives when they pressure her into revealing what confidential materials she gave to Dermot Mulroney. “I mean I assume you’re gonna fire me so, I don’t really have anything else to say. And you guys just took my hard drive, figure it out.”

When threatened by a lawsuit, she doesn’t flinch for a second. “Well I have a car that doesn’t work and I’m $20,000 in debt, so knock yourselves out,” Amy says (I distinctly remember thinking something very similar when the bearded exec asked her “unless you want us to sue you”). When pressured further to disclose what she did, she simply tells HR rep Judy, “I did what I thought was right”.

“That doesn’t help us!” Judy replies.

“Well I’m not trying to help you, obviously,” Amy says, laughing. For the first time in 18 episodes, the shoe is on the other foot: Amy gets to laugh at Abaddonn for its ridiculous naivetés and expecting to get what they want just by asking for it, unaware of true motives. I never had a problem with Amy being annoying or difficult in the way that pretty much every other person who watched “Enlightened” did, but I can still so much appreciate this triumphant moment of self realization for her. She came back from Open Air hoping to find her true self and make a difference in the world – now, she’s finally done it. She checked her flower child shtick at the door of Szidon’s office and told it like it was. She didn’t talk about an amazing revolution that she was starting or about the great lasting mark she would leave on the world. So if she’s dropped the act, who is the real, competent, sane and sober Amy Jellicoe?

“Who are you? I mean really...who are you?” Szidon asks. Apparently he wanted to know too.

“I’m just a woman who’s over it,” Amy responds. “If caring about something other than money is dopey, then I’m a fucking moron.” And she gets up and leaves, as Szidon continues to berate her like she’s a child, even telling her, “Don’t you walk away from me, I’m talking to you!” (Szidon is the one really throwing the tantrum, played excellently by James Rebhorn). He continues to hurl insults at her, including the one that rhymes with the name of your favourite Todd Rundgren album, until Amy disappears into the elevator. She leans over to the security guard and softly says, “He seemed upset.”

I wrote back in March about why I love “Enlightened,” but something else I wrote earlier this year were not-very-good episode reviews of “Girls,” in which I talked about Lena Dunham responding to some of the criticism she took during the first season. This doesn’t feel like Mike White necessarily responding to the people who don’t like Amy, but it does feel like a natural point for that character to drop the act and be real in a way that appeals to the people who find her incredibly frustrating. Not only is this episode a tremendous conclusion to Amy’s 18-episode journey, it also redeems its protagonist to an audience who largely sees her as pitiful and embarrassing. It’s a satisfying payoff for a complex character, making for an episode about which you’d probably have trouble finding an “Enlightened” fan to say a bad word.

I would have loved more than anything to get a third season, but I can’t really complain with this being the end of the show. As it stands, “Enlightened” is nine masterfully conceived and executed hours of brilliance. And though it would have been incredibly fun to watch her be sued by everyone at Abaddonn and their mother, with her Island of Misfit Toys colleagues forced to take a side, “Agent of Change” concludes Amy Jellicoe’s journey out of hell in remarkable fashion.

Epilogue: Amy’s conclusion tips the episode into an all time favourite for me, but beyond that, “Agent of Change” is full of great conclusions for all its characters. Tyler has finally shed his white sheet and seemingly found happiness with Szidon’s assistant Eileen, but is forced to reveal he used her to get to Szidon when the article is published. Later outside Szidon’s office, Amy tells Eileen not to be mad at him for getting roped up in Amy’s mission, and thankfully, Mike White wrote his character a happy ending. Eileen forgiving Tyler is part of a wonderful closing montage in which Krista returns home with her new baby; Helen reads Amy’s article in the paper and smiles, finally realizing what her daughter was up to all season; Dougie shutting off the lights at Cogentiva and walking out of the building, returning to civilian life; and Amy seeing copies of the paper at the coffee shop with her front page story. She walks out with her drink and in the show’s very last scene, we see a straight-on shot of her walking down the sidewalk into the distance: on her left, man made shops and businesses; on her right, green and organic trees. Perfect.

P.P.S. I’ve written so damn much about “Enlightened” (at least by the standards of this little blog) that unless something pretty drastic happens in the future, here’s my final word on the show: TV critic Ryan McGee named FX’s “Louie” as his top show of 2012, writing, “In ten years, books will be written about how this was the show that changed what used to be called ‘television’.” I wouldn’t be surprised if that book included “Enlightened” and was given a title that went something like “We Gave An Insane Person Their Own TV Show and Here’s What Happened”. The continuity-less, do-it-yourself nature of “Louie” is revolutionary, but I think creatively, there’s an even bigger story to be told about the Mike Whites and Louis C.K.s and maybe even the Lena Dunhams and the Matthew Weiners (though they are not the sole writers of “Girls” and “Mad Men” in the way White and C.K. wrote every word of their shows) who more or less give birth to a creative output and ensure it grows up to be happy and healthy, even if it means overprotectively going through everything with a fine toothed comb. When TV is full of one-man bands that can knock it out of the park week after week creatively and with good ratings, Amy Jellicoe’s portrait will hang on a “Wall of Martyrs” in whatever weird clubhouse the future Louis C.K.s and Mike Whites meet in. (Just let me have this fantasy, okay?)

Next week: Forty-three men have figured out how to get there. Meet number 51.