Friday, March 1, 2013

Enlightened: All I Ever Wanted (2.6)

Every so often an episode of television makes you rattle and shake in your seat, its depth of feeling so beyond anything you're used to that you feel like you're having an out-of-body experience. Can television really do this to you? Can actors saying lines and characters experiencing heartache really hit you straight at the soul? And then you realize that it totally did, and that this is art. There's a scene here in which Amy has a rapid panic attack in front of her mother, hidden away in a bedroom while her date sits clueless outside. As Amy hyperventilates, Helen stands alert entirely at a loss about how she can help. Amy worsens, and all Helen can think to do is just grip at both of her daughter's shoulders and hold her tight. Falling onto the bed, Helen forces Amy to release into her, and Amy just wells up and breaks down in tears. It's the most vivid and painfully accurate depiction of a complete emotional unraveling that I've ever seen on television.

Before all of that, Amy is experiencing something even more dangerous than an actual mental breakdown, or scarier than everything in your life turning to shit. For the first time in years, things are actually going right. Amy has met a man she is in awe of, who inspires her, who fights for justice and is adored by others and who listens to great music and has a cool apartment, and is handsome and sophisticated and smart, and who actually damn-it-hell likes her. They sort of flirt and hang out with each other, they date, and they have sex. And everything is oddly positive, so much that Amy can't help but wonder if she herself made all of this happen -- that she manifested the feelings of joy and freedom that she's always wanted.

This is the first episode in which Amy and Jeff's relationship seems to make perfect sense. Whereas Jeff initially appeared difficult to read, his interaction with Amy this week said a lot about his character: he just slips into things, like sliding into an unexpected kiss, or casually asking if Amy wants to stay the night. He's not all about the romantic signals or flirtation, he's just this very passive yet very productive guy. And it works in spite of how different he is to Amy.

Laura Dern does some spectacular work in their scenes together, more so than usual. She's a performer who is able to do incredible things with every facet of her body, from her physicality to her voice (never used better than in Amy's frequent narration). But it's her eyes that say so much about her feelings this week, the way they dart around when grabbing dinner with Jeff, Amy careful to glance at him only when she's sure his own eyes are looking down -- always on edge, always looking and seeking, trying to spot a hidden clue or a secret part of him that she can capitalize on. But it all works. They're two adults with similar mindsets, and they've found each other.

So, naturally, enter Levi. There is no malicious intent when it comes to Levi's unexpected return from Open Air. But the way he frames his epiphany, in that Amy always believed in him and therefore they should start over again as an item, can definitely read as yet another of his co-dependencies. "Be with me, and we can fix each other". It's progress, absolutely, but the same cycle as before. Thrown together with her burgeoning feelings for Jeff, it's no surprise that Amy cries out for a new story, instead of just shuffling the cards again and returning to the same old thing she always does.

Which is why a brief line of Jeff's dialogue feels so illuminating. Talking of the potential Abaddonn article, Jeff tells Amy that the story can be seen from a variety of different angles, and that what matters is how he frames it as the architect of the story itself. And that's what Amy is tackling, too. She can see Levi as a changed man, someone just as eager to fix himself as she is. But then there are the aforementioned complications, the guilt and the pain, and the worry that this is all just a brief sojourn. So it's all about how you frame it, and that's going to majorly impact on where Amy goes from here.

I should also mention that All I Ever Wanted is directed by none other than Todd fuckin' Haynes of all people, the iconic auteur responsible for films like Safe and Velvet Goldmine and Far From Heaven -- one of the most beautiful, inspiring movies of the 21st century. Haynes lends this episode his own visual flourishes, not entirely removed from the everyday photography of this show in general, but different enough to stand out on its own. There are so many beautiful shots here, from the lingering close-up of the satchel that opens the half hour, to the way Amy is frequently captured in far-away crane shots, so small in such a vast, strangely still world. It's also a testament both to this show's genius that they managed to get him, as well as how entirely ignored the show is that his work here didn't arrive with more fanfare. I did a simple Google news search right after this aired, and literally no media outlet was talking about it. I just can't with that. Enlightened is beyond ordinary television, but I've probably reiterated that enough at this point. A+

Mike White Director Todd Haynes

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