As Amy walked calmly out of a coffee shop and slid onto a tree-lined Riverside street in Sunday’s season finale of Enlightened, it was easy to imagine that series co-creator Mike White was doing the same. As my colleague June and others have pointed out, the episode could easily have doubled as a series finale—something White himself acknowledged in an interview, saying that he was “hedging” in case the show was not renewed for a third season by HBO. “Last season, I was like, we’ve got to end this with as big of a cliffhanger as we possibly can, just so that people will want to see how it all plays out,” White told Entertainment Weekly. “And I wanted to do that again this year. But I did feel like, if we don’t build our audience and there is a chance that this show won’t come back, I wanted it to feel complete.”
At the same time, White has thrown himself into the campaign to have the show return, a Twitter-born movement that has sprouted up among TV writers and fans in the past several weeks. The sudden focus on Enlightened has given way to heartfelt and clever pitches for the show’s future and at least one canonizing critical theory (which I loved, even if I didn’t completely buy it). But if White’s season-forcing cliffhanger theory holds, Sunday’s generous, moving finale did his fans zero favors: There was an undeniable sense of closure. As Amy told Abaddonn’s pale-faced CEO with pleasing smugness, “The only thing I feel right now is satisfaction.”
Would it be so bad if this were the end? As David Haglund pointed out on last week’s Culture Gabfest podcast, if HBO really wants to offer a television experience no one else has, this show is the best it’s got. Truth. And as a devoted student of these characters—many of whom are yet to get their full due—I also want to return to their world. But after watching and rewatching (and rewatching) Sunday’s finale, I wonder if we aren’t better off left with this unassailable season.
I’ve argued before that the show has unfolded like a mini-series, which White’s cliffhanger confession seems to support: We were essentially experiencing one long arc, beginning with Amy’s early gridlock in the first season and ending with her eventual conviction that she has done what is right. That makes this feel like one complete story—an almost perfect narrative of personal reinvention, with both the catharsis and messy debris it leaves behind. Does it make sense to take it further, and if so, where?
White, ever ingenious, has already offered a potential premise for a third season: Abaddonn’s legal action against Amy for stealing the work documents. The idea sounds a little labored at first, but then imagine Dougie on the stand, and you begin to get a sense of the riotous possibilities White could have in store. But with a journey as perfect as the one we’ve just taken, I question if I’m ready to go down another long road of trials (of all kinds) and eventual triumphs.
At least one other person shares my trepidation: Luke Wilson. In that same EW piece, he had this to say:
“As they talk about a third season, I’ve found myself wondering, where do you go with it? I just don’t know. I don’t know that I’d want to see what happens. In a protective way, I don’t want to see Amy getting burned out, or getting back together with Levi and seeing them both get burned out together. I don’t see Levi really changing that much. But hey, I hope I’m wrong.”
White doesn’t need Wilson (or me) to protect Enlightened from itself. And I hope I’m wrong, too, that our appetite for a third season has more to do with loving this show than with honoring what it’s really about. I just can’t escape the sense that Amy marching down that Riverside street is the most indelible ending it could ever really have.