Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Enlightened: The Key (2.1)

Enlightened's opening year remains one of my personal favorite seasons of television. It may have just been my own personal identification with it at the time it aired, but the connection it formed between myself and the characters on screen was unlike anything that came before it. With that in mind, however, I wouldn't have been devastated if HBO decided not to renew. Not for any malicious reason, but purely because season one was just so perfectly executed that surely the only direction to head from here is down. Season two arrives with a tougher concept to navigate around, the idea of corporate espionage and whistle blowing, and parts of The Key are enough to make you a little concerned.

But, like a grand Amy Jellicoe-sized epiphany, the show then brings it back around to what made Enlightened so affecting and brutal in the first place. Before that, however, Amy is a vastly different person. She opens the episode nearly proclaiming herself a kind of missionary, talking about pulling swords from stones and kingdoms and dragons. While season one saw her debate within herself whether or not she really had a higher purpose, her discovery of Abaddonn's corruption has granted her a rush of newfound adrenaline and confidence. She's no longer a missionary without a mission, but instead a titan of good who has been given the tools she needs to make change.

These scenes breeze past, but lack the introspective sadness of so much of season one. It's a strange complaint, actively wanting a series protagonist to be a little more miserable, but seeing Amy so proactive and determined takes a while to swallow. Throw in Dermot Mulroney as an investigative journalist slash love interest for Amy, as well as some groundwork for a possible army of whistleblowers to support Amy's cause, and The Key begins to feel like a typical 'part two' of a larger story.

Until, that is, we see Amy up in bed in the middle of the night. She's unable to sleep, sitting scared and alone and seemingly terrified of the road ahead. It's suddenly Mike White returning to what Enlightened is about, making Amy's quest for change a personal journey and less of a world-shaking fight for justice. In that final scene with Tyler, Amy breaks down and examines the real crux of her mission: it's about being worth something, about being something special and removed from the banality of everyday existence and the woman she used to be. She and Tyler get in their cars and go to work and click buttons and return home again, rinse and repeat. Yet this 'mission' is something out of the ordinary, as much a personal adventure as it is a corporate blow-up.

At the same time, there's a knowing, uncompromising streak to what I imagine will be the season's main thrust: yeah, Abaddonn are terrible... but so what? Mulroney's LA Times reporter not-so-delicately informs Amy that her evidence is fine, but not terribly explosive. We live in a world where corporate greed and repetitive suppression of the little guy is the expected norm, and it hits Amy like a freight train to hear that Abaddonn are just one of many.

With that, we once again see Amy's ugliness, as well as her naivety. As long as somebody knows something, she assumes, then things will change. This person that has fallen into her lap, he'll blow this thing up for her, doing the dirty work she can't do herself. This co-worker I treat like crap and constantly demean, he'll stay. Enlightened sparkles when it examines the bigger picture, even when it's disguised by the actual bigger picture. Amy has so far to go, and episodes like this only expose how little she's actually grown. She wants to be better, and that's something, but she's so difficult a protagonist to ever truly support.

The Key eventually makes the whistle-blowing fail more of a blow for Amy, and less for her cause, and it's a plot development that salvages the episode entirely, while the lingering shot of the floating turtle (a moving call-back to the pilot) promises that this is a show that hasn't lost sight of its identity and the poetry of its initial premise. So while this is a season premiere lacking in certain areas (it's effectively a three-hander between Dern, White and Mulroney; and seems smaller in scale despite the potential jeopardy of a Abaddonn takedown and the threat of job losses), it's ultimately promising enough to inspire happiness that it's back at all. A-

Mike White Director Nicole Holofcener

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