The hero of most American stories is usually an underdog who’s been cast off from society as a result of his or her nonconformist behavior and attitude. Enlightened reverses that axiom, positing that corporate lackey Amy Jellico (Laura Dern) refuses to conform mainly as a result of being cast off. The message is considerably more radical, but no less inspiring: Each time Amy’s co-workers upstairs ostracize her, they’re transforming a so-called “nobody” into a revolutionary. The question that consumes the second season, in which Amy takes on Abaddon Industries’s heinous exploitation of labor and the environment, is whether her uprising can truly be enlightened even as it remains rooted in her own abjection.
Amy’s attempts to appear relaxed and spontaneous are theatrical to the point where they offend those around her; she violates the social code by inadvertently exposing its artifice. When she leaves a voicemail message for a journalist (Dermot Mulroney) who she hopes will expose Abaddon’s corruption, every pause and slurred phrase is performed with consummate musicality. He co-worker, Tyler (Mike White), remarks, “Good message,” the implication being that voicemails aren’t supposed to merit such a compliment. Wry observations like these hinge on Dern’s intricate performance, and she subtly challenges us every step of the way to revise and reconsider our take on Amy’s heroism; the series would be exhausting were it not for its 30-minute format.
Whereas Tyler acknowledges and thereby diffuses Amy’s social missteps, much of the “shunning” that takes place in the series stems from others’ attempts to save face for Amy by casually ignoring her. A great deal of what Amy finds intolerable about Abaddon Industries is fairly common to most work environments—perhaps even to all social situations. It’s Amy’s thin skin—her boredom, interpersonal insecurity, and resentment at being downgraded to her current position—that provokes her to take unprecedented action in the political sphere by hacking into private company emails, which gets especially serious when she’s enlisted by Mulroney’s journo to find evidence of CEOs bribing elected officials. Her allies are similarly triggered by such social slights: Tyler is demeaningly called an “albino” by a co-worker, while the hairstyle of Amy’s boss, Dougie (Timm Sharp), is mocked in company emails. Both seek vengeance in their participation in Amy’s idealistic quest, and despite the fact that the only thing that sets her apart from them is her faith in her own moral goodness, she tolerates their petty motives because she requires their computer-hacking skills.
The virtue of Amy’s mission isn’t just complicated by her need for vengeance; her desire to climb the social ladder is equally problematic given her populist posturing. Her attempts to ingratiate herself into activist circles are embarrassing on the most visceral level: She flatters whoever she believes to be a person of import, but in so doing reveals how poorly she grasps their role in current affairs. She insists via narration, “I will be welcomed. This will be my home.” Worse still, when a server at an upscale party hosted by the liberal elite recognizes Amy from his job at Chili’s, Amy shuns him the same way she herself has been shunned. The second season doesn’t leave many threads hanging to warrant a continuation of the story, but if Amy has simply traded one petty pecking order for another, as seems to be the case, we’ll certainly have more righteous outbursts to look forward to.
The thrust of Amy’s critique of corporate America has little to do with unfair tax codes or unsustainable environmental policies. “We give them the best years of our lives,” she opines, filled with zest for a life of beauty and substance; her critique is spiritual more often than it is policy-driven. Only when Dougie’s department gets shut down and he and his workers are forced out of the office does the series make a modest attempt at political theory. When Dougie remarks to Amy that she’s the worst employee he’s ever had, she responds that he’s the worst employer she’s ever had, and the two make plans to “hang out sometime.” It might not be what anarchist Emma Goldman had in mind, but in series creators Dern and White’s world, such are the consequences of dismantling hierarchical authority. That Enlightened’s propagandist and activist message is tinged with irony only makes it more perfectly tooled to our times.