TV Club

Enlightened Season 2 premiere, The Key, recapped.

Is Enlightened a corporate thriller now?

Dermot Mulroney as Jeff Flender.
Dermot Mulroney as Jeff Flender

Lacey Terrell/HBO.

Every week in Slate’s Enlightened TV club, Jeffrey Bloomer will have an IM conversation with a different fan of the show. This week, he rehashes episode 2.1 with Matthew Dessem, a Slate contributor. 

Jeff Bloomer: Thanks for joining me, Matthew! Everyone I know who gave Enlightened a real shot hasn’t been disappointed, but the ratings suggest many viewers remain wary. Are you surprised to be returning to Riverside?

Matthew Dessem: Thanks for having me! I’ll admit I was pleasantly surprised that HBO picked up Enlightened for a second season. I’m glad they can afford to play the long game, because I think it’s one of the most interesting things on television. I was part of the problem—it just sat on my DVR until Matt Zoller Seitz’s piece about the show convinced me to start watching. I don’t usually have much patience for self-help, but Mike White and Laura Dern manage to show what’s good about the impulse to improve without indulging the narcissism that often accompanies it.

Jeff: Yes, that strident narcissism you mention makes a full comeback in the second-season premiere, as Amy’s revelation about Abaddon begins to play out. As usual, she quickly makes it all about her. It was so satisfying to meet investigative journalist Jeff Flender (Dermot Mulroney), who is the first person we’ve met in this series who tells Amy to pipe down and focus on the prize. Still, she also brought us back to her side by the end of the episode: Her speech about how she didn’t want to “feel small anymore” was touching, and it seemed to tap into a malaise that’s much bigger than just hers.

Matthew: Yeah, and Tyler’s response—that he’s never known anything else—was heartbreaking, and the best moment of the episode, I thought. (A close second would be Flender telling someone on the phone, “I can’t in November, I’m in Dubai.”) But I’m a little wary of Dermot Mulroney, Shirtless Reporter—although he’s calling Amy on her narcissism, what he really wants her to focus on is getting him a story he can use.

Jeff: Ha, yes, perhaps a vaguely sexy reporter who poses with Noam Chomsky and jets off to Dubai is the last thing Amy needs, though the show did seem to be gently satirizing his smugness.

Matthew: I’m also a little wary of what his character will mean for the series. This was a more plot-heavy episode than anything since the pilot, and I don’t think anybody wants this to turn into a corporate thriller. I hope they find space for episodes where Amy’s bullshit whirlwind is just vaguely present on the periphery.

Jeff: There was at least one hint of the show’s more impressionistic side: the sweeping voice-overs about a wayward “kingdom” needing to come down. What did you make of that final image of the sea turtle, which I believe is a holdover from the pilot episode? The shot almost suggested an apocalyptic world of Los Angeles under water, perhaps the ultimate extreme of Amy’s vision for change.

Matthew: It’s definitely the turtle from the first episode—Amy sees it while scuba diving during her stint in rehab in Hawaii and later tells her ex-husband that it gave her this amazing sense of peace. It was interesting to have it reappear here, amid, as you say, an apocalyptic vision of the fall of at least capitalism (but maybe civilization, too). Before, it seemed to symbolize to her the kind of inner peace she was trying to find and bring back with her from Hawaii. Now it’s about burning it all down. Ominous!

Jeff: Indeed. And it sounds as if bringing down Abaddon is really her new therapy—not only is the company sick, Amy suggests, but its continued reign is part of her illness too. What about Tyler, though? It finally seems that Amy has convinced him to be more than a reluctant accomplice, since he knows what Abaddon plans for him. Please tell me he still doesn’t have delusions of running away with Amy—a couple of his searching glances this week worried me.

Matthew: Well, you don’t drive someone from Riverside to downtown Los Angeles if they’re just your friend. I’ve never disliked Amy more than I did when she asked him to wait in the car. Besides basic cruelty, it’s a really stupid move tactically. The entire reason Tyler is working with the rest of the literal bottom-dwellers on the Cogentiva project is because a female coworker manipulated him into doing all her work. So I’m expecting a pretty big meltdown at some point this season.

Jeff: Alas, I fear you’re right. But we’re making this episode sound so gloomy! The show remains very funny, and there were several gems in the premiere, both from dude boss Dougie (“Stay anal, guys”) and that sublime moment with Helen early in the episode. “Mom, do you believe in fate?” “No.”

Matthew: Diane Ladd is really amazing in that scene. I don’t know another actor who can convey so much with just her eyes. (And Amy, of course, breezes right past Helen’s answer as though she’d said “yes.”) I’d watch a show that was just a static close-up of Helen’s face while Amy reads to her from The Secret. I also enjoyed Amy promising Tyler he’d be Time Person of the Year if he helped her. I love that Amy’s crusade is entirely motivated by her desire to feel like she’s been chosen, that she has a destiny.

Jeff: By the end of the last season, I got the sense that while Amy’s mission is hopelessly self-involved, she may also be the right person to bring on the change she seeks. Any great hopes for the next seven weeks to share before we sign off?

Matthew: Right, the great thing is that she just might be correct. My greatest hope for the show is that it inspires someone in the IT department at Goldman Sachs to get in touch with Anonymous.