A shot from Enlightened. (Credit: HBO)
There’s a moment, in the hopefully-not-final episode of Enlightened, which aired this past Sunday, when you’re not sure if Laura Dern’s Amy Jellicoe is about to go through with it. Go through with the corporate whistleblowing, that is. I mean, in a way the events were already out of her control. She’d discovered incriminating corporate documents; she’d handed them off to a journalist who was buddies with Noam Chomsky and Laurie David; and lawyers were on the phone with his editors. But there was a second in there, as she’s being marched into the boardroom for a chat with the CEO about the gathering storm, where you think: She’s going to lose it. She’s not going to be able to hold her own with a bunch of lawyers. Their expensive suits and lengthy self-justifications are just going to be too much for her, a woman of no importance, as they used to say, or at least rather indeterminate level of education and corporate savvy.
But boy, did she flip the tables on them.
This week we will likely learn whether Mike White managed to do the same for his show. There’s been a flurry of commentary from virtually everyone who writes about television about it, because by the time White began doing interviews emphasizing how in danger the show was of not seeing a third season, everyone went into blind panic. For a while I thought this show was best described as an acquired taste, a critic’s show; its habit of forcing the viewer into reflecting on first reactions—say, on the supposedly “annoying” habits of Amy herself—is going to be hard for people who want something other than thinking in their entertainment. (I say that genuinely, without judgment: I like lots of things whose chief quality derives from escapism.)
But watching the reactions this week, it became clear that the love of this show was not only cerebral, about “smarts,” and the more I thought about it the more it became true that I identified with “annoying” Amy. Now, “I relate to her” can be a really crappy way of justifying some particular piece of art. But I mention that I do because I think my burning, unbelievable desire to have a season three, in spite of a finale episode that so many people agree brought them “closure,” has a really personal dimension.
A thing I don’t talk about much because I now largely write for progressive sites is that up until about three years ago, I was a practicing lawyer, and I worked for a giant corporate law firm. It is fair to say, without going into it at length, that it was not the place for me. I had actually come up as a leftist and sort of lost my way somewhere in the middle of law school; I decided all I wanted was to come to New York, and did not think very hard about the method.
In my defense, I was in my mid-20s, and I was not American and they offered a visa, and the thing is, a lot of workplaces make it very easy to walk in and just, well, snooze for a while. The world becomes very small, just you and your desk and your boss and the e-mail he wishes you had sent ten minutes ago. You pick up pro bono projects, maybe, but after a year or so, especially if you have debt staring you in the face, it becomes hard to believe that you have any choice in the matter. These places have a way of saying to their people: you are stuck. Not to give any corporate-types too much credit, but in my entirely anecdotal experience this is why some talented young people, despite having strong backgrounds in public service before they walked into the skyscraper, begin to justify their fancy benefits jobs as anything other than personal financial necessity. If you can’t see your way out of the corner you’re stuffed into, you cope by deciding that the corner isn’t such a bad habitat, after all. And soon you begin to actually cling to it.
So walking away from that, from admitting that years upon years of your life were spent in service of nothing particularly meaningful or helpful is, actually, incredibly hard. I was lucky in some ways, in that I was laid off. I didn’t force myself to make the choice to abandon practice altogether for another year. I was helped, considerably, in that decision by the fact that it’s a terrible market for lawyers now.
I don’t want to sound overly self-aggrandizing—I certainly did not blow any whistles, partially because I had none I could blow. But like Amy’s, mine was a decision about wanting to do something more meaningful with my life than these law firms promised. For me the key was leaving law altogether for journalism, and writing. And it’s certainly true that I am happier this way, but it has also been a minute-to-minute struggle to remember this—partially because freelancing is so precarious and partially just because the problem with meaning is that your personal stakes in doing well are so much higher. You agonize over every e-mail in a new and actually sort of horrible way. Because most paths to doing what you think is right are paved with self-doubt, you worry that your language isn’t inclusive, your analysis impenetrable, your information lazy. Living in this space is every bit as fraught with drama as the decision to get out of it, is my point.
Where this rejoins Enlightened is in the idea, which runs through some of those laudatory pieces about the finale, that Amy Jellicoe’s story reached an appropriate end. Perhaps I can’t offer any affirmation for this other than personal testimony, but not only is there a story in the aftermath, the uncertainty doesn’t end the second you walk out into the sunny world, having done The Right Thing. White said he wanted to give the season an upbeat ending and he did, but Amy hints at other parts of this experience when she tells her ex-husband, “I’ve been driving, and I don’t have anywhere to go.” One reason HBO ought to renew Enlightened is, of course, Mike White’s talent in executing all this. But another is that, in a very real way, Amy’s story—like mine—has a lot left to it. Everyone else can call that finale a wrap-up, but from my standpoint, it was another, subtler cliffhanger.