Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Enlightened: Consider Helen (1.9)

The only elderly people we ever hear about are the 'sexy' elderly. You probably know the type, the ones that look relatively young for their age, dress in expensive, fashionable outfits that accentuate the bodies they're still working out in aerobics class or whatever. They're the type of elderly with an enormous disposable income, so much that they have the vacation home and the regular visits to vineyards and safari parks just because. Consider Helen, one of the greatest episodes in television history, is not about those elderly people. Instead it's about a woman in her mid-seventies who lives a very basic, un-showy and mostly solitary existence, the kind that has its own areas of happiness, but still feels mostly empty.

Helen Jellicoe has been a presence in every episode so far, but has never been granted any deeper levels than merely being Amy's mom. She's essentially wallpaper, a lady Amy lives with and somebody she can unload upon. Just watch her sole scene from last episode, asking Amy how her day went, only for Amy to respond that it was the "same ol'". There's a real block there, Helen this unmoving force of nothingness, a device designed to make Amy a deeper character. Consider Helen takes that persona and brilliantly exposes it for all to see, Diane Ladd in every scene this week, the entire episode told from her perspective and elaborating on how she spends her days.

In one of the best television scenes of the last couple of years, Helen runs into an old family friend at the grocery store, who shows off her picture-perfect family, her grandchildren, her successful pregnant daughter and the handsome lawyer she's married to, the fact that she just got back from vacation, and all the photographs on her swishy iPhone. Helen is visibly uncomfortable, nervous and embarrassed because this lady represents everything that she isn't. Helen doesn't live an exciting life, instead she sits around most of the day, tends to her garden, buys groceries and makes dinner. What Mike White does so well with this is portray that existence as sort of satisfying in of itself. There's this real expectation in society to be constantly 'doing stuff', bouncing from one thing to another, just so you can later say to somebody how busy you are. Someone like Helen, both due to her age as well as her lack of interest, just doesn't exist in that kind of stratosphere. Not that she's unhappy with that, but Ladd conveys more than a semblance of shame to it.

Where the episode really steps up and rattles you, though, is when we discover the darkest chapter of the Jellicoe family story -- Amy's father having killed himself in the garage of the family home, soon after a real estate opportunity went sour. These scenes could be described as the total antithesis of a showy, dramatic revelation, a story told mostly through the mediums of sound and still imagery. There's a stillness to a lot of Consider Helen, long shots of Helen just sitting around drinking coffee, or suddenly hearing a hush of dialogue from her past. Instead of overbearing flashback sequences, we see Helen's husband walking around in the background while she's in the kitchen, or a still shot of a car filling up with exhaust fumes -- it's all a wonderful means to convey memory, something that refuses to bash you over the head with exposition.

From a character stand-point, it's also a development that unearths additional depth to both mother and daughter. For Amy, you suddenly discover this dark genetic sadness to her, her tendency to snap and give into anger likely inherited from her late father. As for Helen, you suddenly realize how much she remains stuck in those memories, unable to claw her way out of it all. She sits alone all day surrounded by photographs of the past, in the same house in which her husband committed suicide, with little human companionship. It's such an isolated existence, and uncomfortably intimate at times -- you're so used to seeing her at the book-ends of every episode, there for Amy to bounce her frustration off of, that discovering what she does in her own time feels almost voyeuristic. She's so vulnerable and isolated, you just want to hug her.

Consider Helen as an episode is so beyond anything resembling normal television. Really, the closest thing it can be compared to is Buffy's The Body, particularly in the way so much of it focuses in on a woman drifting through a house, surrounded by death and struggling to cope with it all. I think it's how silent it all is, and the languid sense of melancholy that bursts from every corner. This is fantastic, groundbreaking work. A+

Postscript
I don't normally write notes for this show, but there's one scene that I especially loved this week that I really wanted to mention but couldn't really slot in up there: After she encounters Carol at the store, Helen is seen outside in the parking lot putting her grocery bags into the trunk of her car, and glimpses Carol being helped with her own bags by a store employee. It's another tiny moment, but I adored the implication that there are certain people out there who either find that assistance naturally gravitates towards them, or are just far more confident in actually requesting it. Helen isn't one of those people. I guess it was only another way the show reinforced Helen's isolation, but I just thought it was a spectacular aside that deserved special notice.

Credits
Writer
Mike White Director Phil Morrison

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