“If the artist isn’t going to be honest, who is going to be honest?” Mike White may have been speaking about his latest project, The White Lotus, but these words ring true for much of White’s material. Before the self-obsessed wealthy guests of The White Lotus hit our screens, we were treated to a whole host of other painfully accurate characters with 2011’s, Enlightened. This HBO critically-acclaimed series may have only run for two seasons, but it gave us plenty to ponder.
The show centers on Amy Jellicoe (Laura Dern), who we first see in the midst of a meltdown. After being fired as a result of an affair with her boss, her rage takes over as she gives him a piece of her mind. Cut to the calming surroundings of Hawaiian holistic rehab center, Open Air. This is where Amy has spent the last couple of months and is now a self-proclaimed new woman. That is until she returns home of course. She soon finds out that changing in an environment that does not welcome it is no easy feat. Faced with challenges from her close-minded loved ones and colleagues, it seems her real journey is simply beginning.
While Enlightened revolves around the ideals of change and growth, it is also very much about the opposite. The ways in which people push away any fundamental changes are thrust into the spotlight in stark contrast to Amy’s journey to enlightenment. When Amy returns from her spiritual awakening in Hawaii and goes full “hippie” back home, her mom, Helen (Diane Ladd) has more than a few concerns. With her daughter now donning carefree curls, baggy clothing, and beaded necklaces, Helen looks seconds away from her own mental breakdown. And to really kick her when she’s down, Amy lets her know that meditation is something she does now too. What White showcases so perfectly through Helen is a woman so set in her ways, that even the idea of opening her mind to anything outside her version of “normal” scares the (you know) out of her. Rather than being pleased her daughter has come back with a new lease on life, she is more wary and longs for the depressive nature she had become accustomed to. When Amy begins reading a letter she wrote to her mum at Open Air, all Helen wants to know is “how long this is going to take?” and “why on earth” she’s off her medications. White’s satirical approach to the ways in which people would rather have the straightforward nature of medication than any “new age” therapy that makes them feel uneasy is done to pure perfection.
And in Season 1, Episode 6, entitled “Sandy” we get a deeper insight into the depths of Helen’s discomfort. In this episode, Amy’s rehab friend, Sandy (Robin Wright), comes to visit. Here for an intensive yoga, this is the first time Amy’s two worlds merge. However, it is not long until she finds out that is no seamless fit. Helen is horrified by Sandy’s presence, seeing her as some sort of alien trying to entice her to her planet. But Sandy’s processed foods hating, Feng shui loving persona is not the issue, it is in fact Helen’s own fear of the unknown. In Sandy, she sees the complete unfamiliar, as opposed to her daughter, whom she can still find glimmers of familiarity and comfort.
But it is by no means just Helen that struggles with Amy’s newfound sense of enlightenment. Levi (Luke Wilson), Amy’s ex-husband, also has his fair share of reservations too. We are first introduced to Levi when Amy goes over to his house to drop off a book entitled, “Flow Through Your Rage.” What we soon learn is that, like Amy, he struggles with his own demons. Regularly turning to drugs and drink to take the edge off, his addiction issues certainly had a part to play in the breakdown of their marriage. However, Amy is determined to change this. After all, she was once brought to the extremes of mental breakdown, yelling at her boss through closing elevator doors, mascara streaming down her face. So, if her journey isn’t inspiration, what is? Or at least that’s how she sees it. However, to Levi she represents a threat to his existence. Labeling her book as “self-help, spiritual shit,” his mind is already made up, due to pre-conceived ideas.
Levi is the perfect portrayal of people’s need to run rather than listen when they can not relate. But if there’s one thing Amy won’t do, it’s give up (regardless of how irritating her efforts may be). Determined to make Levi a better man, she books a weekend camping trip for both of them. But like most attempts to heal him, it is another failed exercise, as she finds a stash of drugs in his bag. This episode, entitled “The Weekend,” sees the revelation of them having had a miscarriage, serving as further insight into their broken relationship and troubled mental states. However, while Levi has been angered by Amy’s sense of healing, a turning point comes at the end of Season 1. Eventually seeking help and letting the unknown in, he heads to the famous Open Air treatment center. As Amy says, “Everything can be transformed. If Levi can change, anything is possible. ”
Yet, while it looks like she may just be winning the battle with Levi, she faces further challenges at work. When she learns of her company, Abaddon Industries’ unethical practices, she begins to set her sights on larger scale changes. Amy tries to get her employees to see the corporate greed, as well as the harsh environmental impact that Abaddon’s products are causing. We now see a much grander version of her mom’s opposition to yoga – her colleagues’ opposition to changes for the planet. They opt instead to turn a blind eye. As the show expands and develops, so too does the fear of the unknown. We see that the central theme of staying in your bubble now has dire consequences.
Mike White’s excellent examination of all the complexities of human nature is something to which he has become strongly associated with, but his look at the strange ways we try to stunt other people’s growth for our own comfort in Enlightened is particularly fascinating.
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