Darkness of “Enlightened”

Just as I was modishly repeating Red Scare-induced pieties that truly great pop culture is dead, the White Lotus hit HBO.

Nuanced and openhearted as truly great satire should be, it brought back hope that there can be incisive social commentary that does not want to be didactic, but leaves the viewer to assess and re-assess their views of class and personal relationships. This of course means that White has to say he “accepts criticism” in interviews, however thankfully the show achieved acclaim it deserves and will be renewed.  

However, the show, great as it is, is too short and too exuberant to develop the depth present in Mike Whites 2011 masterpiece: Enlightened.  

The two-season show explores what happens after Amy Jellicoe, an A-type female executive in a heartless capitalist conglomerate, burns out and goes a personal transformation in Hawaii only to return to her shattered life. Thematically similar and sharing SoCal vibe with another surprising hit, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Enlightened has subdued humour and can go deep into inner vacuity (darkness) of its characters as much as it revels in satirising foibles of a corporate dweller. Although Amy, played by Laura Dern, is certainty the protagonist, the wider cast is very much fleshed out and shown with sympathy, even if they are less than well behaved.

The best thing about the show, however, is that it tackles what a lot of bad self-improvement evades: that even once you think you have achieved spiritual peace, accepted yourself and realised that love is all around and that you can only get what you want once you stop grasping… that there is not only the real world that is still somewhat indifferent to you, but scarier still, that there is something inside of you that is pushing you forward, that is hungry and that wants, and that THAT might not be a pacific presence, but actually chaotic if different from your usual drama.

 Unlike the common perception, especially on the left, that self-improvement is reactionary and pacifying, Enlightened shows that it can be radical and chaotic (if not outright destructive) to many around you. This also gets left out from the contemporary interpretations of spirituality and religion – which all paint it as limp wristed acceptance and passivity – of course forgetting that almost all epitomes of enlightenment from ancient religious figures, to contemporary secular saints like Ghandi and Mandela, engaged in very radical social projects and had chaotic lives, rather than settled in asceticism and quietism.

The best thing Mike White and Laura Dern do is that they open this story of up turning the world after a spiritual experience to both an earnest and cynical interpretation. The earnest, hopeful one, is that Amy has indeed changed, seen the light and is acting as a somewhat destructive vehicle of something greater than her, or that she is still unrepentant narcissist but now using her “enlightenment” to pursue vengeance on her environment in her old Type-A style. Did she just find a better a way to blow up the life of her former boss, punish with her disloyal work-friends and continue a complicated and controlling her relationship with her ex-husband while manipulating the weaker and heedy around her? Or is it her fate and calling to do what she does and thereby make the World (and not just her own world) a better place?

Whenever the old Amy breaks the societal mould of the enlightened, hippy, lovey-dovey new one – but is it dysfunction or essence that we see? This is left ambiguous as we see her impulses still being wrong and selfish (like wanting to peek into her retreat friend’s diary) but also achieving something good, at least for herself by seeing her life as meaningful and not only rejecting, but fighting against what the world perceives her as: a rejected ill-fitting cog-wheel in the society (like her friends in the IT department), a crazy person without any real functional relationship, a 40-something, declining damaged “nothing”.

Indeed, real faith in something differs from pieties repeated to get forward in life, precisely in its potential to bring about chaos… from which only faith in a purpose can get you through as you are using all of you capabilities to do what you believe is right.

No wonder that our conformist, faithless age treats it with greatest suspicion and cynicism, always trying to steer away from it and channel into philistinism disguised as brave activism.

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