In a generous twist, the penultimate episode of this season of Enlightened takes us outside Amy’s head and inside her mother Helen’s. It’s an extraordinary thing. Switching perspectives from our self-involved heroine is a useful way to, among other things, remember how self-involved our heroine is. But this shift in point of view does a lot more, actually changing the whole pace and atmosphere of the show. We’ve seen glimpses of Helen’s world before — the quiet, the loneliness, the rose garden, the sunsets. But these glimpses have almost always been interrupted by Amy, by a reaction from Amy, or by Amy’s sudden arrival home from work. And they’ve also been interrupted by Helen’s reactions to Amy, who often elicits some pretty sharp, impatient, and cold words from her mother. The two live like an old married couple, so used to each other that respect has been replaced with impatience, exchanges limited to sharp questions and quibbles. Helen’s dog, it goes without saying, gets more love than Amy does.
But something changes this time. Is it because Helen is trying harder, or because the camera is finally hovering long enough to let us see that Helen does actually care deeply about her daughter, and always has? At the start of the episode, Amy is leaving for work, and Helen is harassing her about a cough she has — she’s sick, she shouldn’t cough all over the food, the usual. Amy lets her mother know that Levi might be coming by to drop off some photo albums. Amy sent Levi an e-mail late the previous night telling him she doesn’t want him in her life anymore, and can she please have her photo albums back. While telling her mother this, Amy can’t help but throw in some barbs about how this should make Helen so happy because she never liked Levi anyway. Surprisingly, Helen strives here to be understood. She continues talking to Amy even as Amy is leaving the house. She follows Amy out to her car. The camera moves hurriedly along with Helen. It takes its time with this scene, and it takes its time in every scene this episode. This should have happened more before.
Without Amy, the wordless void that seems to fill most of Helen’s days is replaced with something far quieter but more upsetting than her daughter’s voice-overs — the distant (as in decades-old) sound of her children laughing by the pool, her birds twittering in their cage. Her days consist of meditation on the past, on her youth, on her husband, on her children before they became adults. We get the sense that she is too busy inside her own head to make an effort with other people, too consumed by long-ago events.
In the supermarket, Helen runs into an old friend, and in this excellent and long three-minute scene, we can kind of understand why Helen doesn’t want to hang out with people (or certain people). Helen has trouble even remembering who Carol is, though the women’s children grew up together and their husbands worked together. Carol is talkative, busy, nosy, content to fill all of Helen’s surprised silence with chitchat about her children, her grandchildren. But Carol wants to know something; she’s not leaving without information, without something useful and interesting about Helen. When she asks Helen what she’s been up to, Helen says she’s “buying some groceries.” Carol is impatient. “Well, yes, yes, right, but — ,” she laughs impatiently, “What else?” The talk quickly turns to Amy’s divorce from Levi, and it becomes impossible for Helen to not just tell Carol everything about it: that Levi had “a problem,” that he was an alcoholic, that Amy has been at Abaddonn for fifteen years but lost her position because she “took off for a couple of months.” Carol is pretty much horrified. “So … no grandkids?”
Here we learn for the first time that Amy has a sister, Bethenny, and that Bethenny has “a daughter — three!” Helen says, and we start to feel sorry for Bethenny, wherever she is, however many daughters she actually has. Then another bomb drops, but rather gradually. It turns out there is a concrete reason why Helen and Carol lost touch. Carol’s husband had been friends with Helen’s late husband Jim, and they’d even almost gone into business together. Helen asks Carol why her husband pulled out of "the deal" with Jim, and Carol kind of blows her off. All this happened twenty years before, after all, and she doesn’t remember the specifics. Helen cuts the meeting short and says good-bye to Carol for what she intends to be the last time ever.
Back home, as Helen has more visions of the past, we learn that Jim committed suicide in the garage, and it appears that it was shortly after the business deal with Carol’s husband fell through. We hear Helen talking to Jim, trying to console him about the deal. “What’s the worst thing that can happen?” she asks repeatedly, having not realized that "the worst thing" was unimaginable and not something that "happened" to Jim.
In the midst of this endless grief, Levi comes over with the photo albums. He had intended to just leave them on the front step, but Helen catches him, and it’s clear that her guilt about her husband’s death is influencing her feelings about Levi: she wants to talk to him, wants to make time for him. Maybe Levi is the one for her daughter, maybe he can change. But they end up arguing, and we learn that (not surprisingly), Amy has written so many cease-and-desist-type e-mails and letters to Levi that he could “wallpaper my apartment with them.” We also learn that Amy has some big issues with her mother, bigger than they seemed, and that Levi spent vast portions of his marriage to Amy consoling her about her mother.
There are hints of this strained relationship everywhere, of course, but knowing that Amy’s father committed suicide in his forties, when his daughters were not even teenagers, we suddenly have more of an understanding about Helen’s actions, how she tries to touch Amy’s back later that night when Amy is poring over the photo albums but is unable to, as if the death of Jim froze her forever. Hearing Levi’s side, we see how Amy has written the story of herself and her mother: how the loss of her father transformed into a disappointment with her mother, how Levi feels like a risk to her, as if in staying with him she might wind up in the same fate as her mother.
But this episode remains the story of Helen, chiefly. Later, Amy comes home from work and is complaining about Abaddonn at the dinner table, and we see from Helen’s perspective how different Amy is, how loud, how modern. She is on a different plane of reality; it’s almost as if she’s speaking another language. It’s a shock to the system. Not surprisingly, 25 minutes with Helen say more to us about Amy than many of the things Amy has tried to tell us. But it’s suddenly harder to say where we’ll go from here.