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Now and Then: 'Enlightened' and the Perfect TV Ending

Photo of Matt Brennan By Matt Brennan | Thompson on Hollywood! March 5, 2013 at 12:29PM

Saying farewell to a beloved series is tough going, so I was gratified to have "Enlightened" do it for me. Even if its cancellation isn't yet assured, "Agent of Change," the second season's finale, felt like a goodbye nonetheless -- and a perfect one at that.
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Laura Dern, star of HBO's "Enlightened"
Laura Dern, star of HBO's "Enlightened"
Saying farewell to a beloved series is tough going, so I was gratified to have "Enlightened" do it for me. Even if its cancellation isn't yet assured, "Agent of Change," the second season's finale, felt like a goodbye nonetheless -- and a perfect one at that.  

As Salon television writer Willa Paskin noted yesterday, the series' most ardent fans have taken to the Internet to save the show, replicating not only the new millennium’s foremost form of viewer engagement (see under-watched, much-praised comedies like "Arrested Development," "Happy Endings," and "Community"), but also the crazed idealism of protagonist Amy Jellicoe (Laura Dern). "It’s sweet that 'Enlightened,'" Paskin writes, "a show all about the cost of caring too much, should inspire such dedication."

Yet this season, almost a mirror image of the first, convinced me that "Enlightened" has reached a stopping point worth savoring. I almost want to argue that it should end here -- a kind of heartbreak as rich as Amy's own. Committed to exposing corrupt practices at the corporation where she works, Amy hacks e-mails, opens a Twitter account, blows the whistle to Jeff (Dermot Mulroney), an investigative reporter at the L.A. Times, and begins climbing out of her pit of rage. The aphorisms of her enlightenment become actions, and her new life takes shape.

The climax arrives in the sixth episode, "All I've Ever Wanted," written by co-creator and co-star Mike White, and directed by aesthetic savant Todd Haynes. As Amy's professional relationship with Jeff becomes a personal one, as her ethical crusade pans out, her ex-husband Levi (Luke Wilson) returns from his stint in rehab, arriving on her doorstep with the dreams of her past in hand. As the California light nears the gloaming, its singular magic conjuring up their kayak trip from Season 1, Amy and Levi press against all the promises they've made and broken, their afterglow of regret. Amassing all the series' emotional strands, its journey toward "hope" and "change" amid the reality of disappointment and failure, "All I've Ever Wanted" emerges as one of the most moving, gorgeous works of episodic television I can remember. No comedy has a right to make me cry this much.

I should say here that I am no less an "Enlightened" devout than Paskin, New Yorker television critic Emily Nussbaum, or the minds behind the @EnlightenedFans Twitter feed -- "For fans who want a third season. The revolution starts here." But even as I pine for more, I realize that "Enlightened" becomes, in the Season 2 finale, as "beautiful and upsetting" as the world it creates, its 18 installments of serial storytelling rivaling the best collections of short fiction: wide-ranging, affecting, lyrical, cohesive.

Amy ends where she began, on one of Abaddon's top floors, only now the tables have turned. Confronted with the wrath of CEO Charles Szidon, her own anger melts away. "I'm just a woman who's over it," she says. "I tried to take a little power back." When she leaves the meeting, Szidon chases her into the elevator lobby as she chased her disdainful boss in the series premiere, and unleashes just as miserly a tirade. Impervious, Amy returns to Levi, who -- as always -- understands her better than she understands herself:

AMY: Am I crazy?

 LEVI: No, you're just full of hope. You have more hope than most people do.

If "Agent of Change" proves wrong my prior assessment of "Enlightened" -- in January, before the Season 2 premiere, I called it a "symphony of regret" -- it reaffirms my musical conceit. Echoing almost exactly the pilot's key monologue, whose themes reverberate through "Enlightened," Amy reflects on the transformations she's undergone, and those she's yet to achieve. "You can be patient and you can be kind," she tells us. "You can be wise, and almost whole... You don't have to run away from life your whole life. You can really live. And you can change. And you can be an agent of change." 

And so "Enlightened" does indeed come to resemble a symphony, its chords reflected and refracted across its movements, its final notes resolving into a perfect whole. "The only thing I feel right now is satisfaction," Amy says to Szidon near the end of their meeting. "It's done," she tells Jeff.

Perhaps it is, or will be. Closing the circle opened by the pilot, suturing up Amy's wounds as best it can, "Enlightened" leaves me feeling as she does, satisfied and somewhere short of crazy, resolved and (almost) whole, a little wiser for the watching. Heartbroken, maybe, but hopeful nonetheless. 

This article is related to: Television, TV Reviews, HBO, Enlightened, Laura Dern


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