Vulture

Skip to content, or skip to search.

save this show

Enlightened’s Amy Jellicoe: TV’s Most Tragic Heroine

Critics and the passionate fans of HBO's little-watched Enlightened are clogging Twitter and blogs pleading with it to be renewed for a third season, for more stories of Amy Jellicoe (Laura Dern), et al, and her dreamy, mesmerizing process of spiritual, social, and political awakening. The show's co-creator, co-star, and sole writer, Mike White, does not seem overly optimistic that it will come back. I will say that if this Sunday's episode of Enlightened winds up being the show's finale, I'm going to cry.

If it winds up being the season and not series finale — ¡Ojalá! — I'm going to cry anyway, because I cry at every episode of Enlightened, because it is a beautiful little tragedy that tricks you into thinking it's a comedy but is actually this haunting fable of the limits of good intentions. Once upon a time, there was a woman named Amy, and she really tried. But it didn't matter at all. Weep.

With a description like that, I can't believe more people aren't watching this show! Seriously, though — we love characters who suffer. Don Draper will never be satisfied, and that's what makes Mad Men tick. Louis C.K. sees the world through sad-colored glasses, which fuels every episode of Louie. The Office was its best when Jim was pining for Pam. The more frustrated Liz Lemon got, the better. George Costanza is the most tragic figure American art has ever produced. But Enlightened's resonant sadness isn't that its characters themselves are sad — not like how George is sad, or Louie is lonely. (Though of course they are sad and lonely in their own real ways.) Enlightened's powerful sadness comes from the audience. We know how the world treats people like Amy and Tyler and Levi and even that crappy jerk Dougie, and it's not well. Enlightened invites us into the rich, mesmerizing interior lives of the downtrodden, and once we're in there, it's pretty clear that being downtrodden is, you know, the worst.

And Amy is not always easy to root for. She can be manipulative and short-sighted, and for someone who talks a big talk about her ideals, she doesn't always live up to them. Obviously that just makes me cry more — that's what struggle is! If it were easy to be a good person, everyone would do it. (I hope. Maybe that's naive.) Sometimes I feel jealous of Amy's wisdom, her self-possession. "We can be free of our sad stories. And what's left is pure life. Life is the gift," she said, and I cried because that is a really beautiful idea. But more often, I'm relieved not to be as open as Amy is, as willing. I might not be taking blissful strokes as I paddle my canoe in the river of self-understanding and compassion, but I'm not taking my ex-husband to buy drugs, either. Maybe this is a tradeoff.

I was told at Sunday school that they who hunger and thirst after justice were blessed, and that they shall have their fill. That has not been my experience. But every time I watch Enlightened, after every sage monologue and exquisite deconstruction of heartache, after Tyler describes being a ghost and Levi searches for a turtle, I wonder.

Photo: LACEY TERRELL/HBO