Burn It Down

Enlightened

Laura Dern in HBO's Enlightened
HBO

“IT ALL HAS TO BURN, IT’S GOING TO BLAZE. IT IS FILTHY AND CAN’T BE SAVED. A COUPLE OF GOOD THINGS WILL BURN WITH THE REST BUT IT’S O.K., EVERY PIECE IS PART OF THE UGLY WHOLE.”

– Jenny Holzer, Inflammatory Essays

In the first season finale of HBO’s Enlightened, Amy Jellicoe (Laura Dern), still at work long after the last of her coworkers have left, hacks into the company’s email system to discover ugly confirmations of her worst theories about corruption within Abaddon Industries, a place she once loved deeply enough to devote herself to for 15 years, forsaking personal relationships and a full life outside its walls. Things are much worse than she thought. It’s not just that the company does business with some of the world’s worst polluters or that they sell beauty products made with harmful chemicals. It’s that they know they’re guilty of it all—and that those at the top have rigged the system to get kickbacks while they continue their misconduct.

These aren’t the kinds of problems that can be fixed by the internal boards or staff meetings she once pushed for. The solution will not come from an HR department whose priority is protecting the bottom line at the expense of the worker, or from executives who know their employees will accept exploitative working conditions as simply the American way. The place is too sick to heal itself. “There’s another way to make change,” she says. In a fantasy sequence, Amy slicks the aisles of Cogentiva with gasoline and flicks a match.

*

I wasn’t ready for Enlightened the first time I watched it. Few were, or it would have had better ratings and lasted longer than its scant 18 episode run. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it. What’s not to enjoy about watching beloved character actress Laura Dern completely melt down? I appreciated her performance, the masterful way her elastic face contorted into rage or eager hopefulness within moments, the pockets of empathy she found in the often unlikeable Amy Jellicoe. Still, the setting and deeper meaning were too foreign to me to relate to enough to care. I was a senior at New York University at the time of its unceremonious cancellation, interning at the media company of my dreams while hustling for postgrad employment in the same industry. Enlightened’s people weren’t my people, and they never would be. If I was going to really love something so drastically unrelated to my own experience, I wanted it to be shiny and aspirational, a show like Sex and the City or—I’m not at all sorry for saying this—The Newsroom, not something as bleak as showrunner Mike White’s vision of corporate America. 

As a kid, the business parks of glass castles like the ones that house Enlightened’s Abaddon, ubiquitous to greater metropolitan suburbs, were anathema to me. They looked the same no matter where you saw them, the newer models especially shiny and full of false grandeur, but all of them cold and soulless. Whenever I overheard people talking excitedly about the cafeterias or gyms or coffeeshops built into their office spaces, I was simultaneously fascinated and horrified. Love a place like that so much that I’d willingly spend a minute more than the requisite 40 hours a week there? Me? Thank you, but no. I had made up my mind early on that a life bearing any resemblance to that was the last thing I wanted. Instead, I deluded myself into thinking the glass skyscrapers of an urban corporate media world were somehow different—better—than those places. A double standard: I pitied workaholics with average, glamour-less marketing or finance jobs while romanticizing the snobbish idea of someday being married to my job because, by virtue of profession or location, it somehow mattered more. Of course, Hollywood helped. The portrayal of New York media in film and television was always more enticing than that of “real” work; even when it looked shitty (see: The Devil Wears Prada), it still seemed more desirable to be unhappy there than happy somewhere ordinary. I, too, was convinced that the big media companies were the good kinds of corporations, the kind where, within them, people could really make a difference.

But there is no such thing as a good corporation. It’s like Orwell’s Animal Farm commandment: all corporations are bad, but some are more bad than others. Power and leadership transfer hands; entire industries are built off the backs of rank and file workers like Amy who believe they still have a chance of getting ahead when all evidence shows they’re on a never-ending treadmill. The fluorescent overhead office lights are harsh and unforgiving wherever you go.  

Despite its short run, Enlightened has not only lived on as a cult classic, but has reasserted itself in the public consciousness repeatedly, particularly in the past four years. It’s with this newly added context that I’ve returned to the show again and again. Maybe we weren’t ready in 2013 for the ways it spoke to corporate greed and power, or the ways it depicted a woman punished for speaking up about it. After all, it was the height of Obama’s America, when it seemed like maybe things were actually good, like maybe the American dream was going to work out for us. In recent years, as things have gone from bad to worse, we’ve woken up to its prescience. A gif of Amy lighting up her office has become shorthand for a myriad of frustrations, an image that manages to hit no matter how often I share it in Slacks and Signals and DMs. This summer was no exception.

*

Laura Dern as Amy Jellicoe in Enlightened | HBO

Amy creates a Twitter account. It’s 2013; not the platform’s earliest days, but a time when the site held far fewer toxic qualities than it does now. “Aspiring agent of change,” her bio reads. “The revolution starts here,” she tweets. She has zero followers. 

I’ve thought about this scene often this summer, wondering what Amy Jellicoe would look like today. Would she be extremely online, too, clutching a smartphone that would lend itself to refreshing her feed every three minutes instead of twice a day, unable to stop her thumb from doomscrolling? Would she have shared links and resources and calls to action in her posts, or would she just post a black square to Instagram once and spend the rest of the day telling anyone within earshot how much she stands with Black lives? Most of all, I wonder: Would Amy even need the LA Times to eventually take down her company when she could just do it herself with a snarky tweet and image attachment?

*

“I do not know why Adam Rapoport simply doesn’t write about Puerto Rican food for @bonappetit himself!!!” freelance food and drinks writer Tammie Teclemariam tweeted this past June, captioning an Instagram screenshot of then-editor-in-chief of Bon Appétit, Adam Rapoport, and his wife in brownface Halloween costumes; just days prior, food writer Illyanna Maisonet had shared his dismissive rejection of her pitch about Puerto Rican cuisine. As companies around the country faced racial reckonings, it was a match waiting to be lit, one tossed onto a longstanding fire hazard in the height of drought season. With a single tweet, Teclemarian not only set in motion Rapoport’s resignation, but sparked a conversation that would unveil more and more ways the media industry, including Bon Appétit’s parent company, Condé Nast,1 was perpetuating racist and classist behavior. Teclemariam’s Twitter account has since become a hub for whistleblowers, “the Page Six of food media,” airing not only Bon Appétit’s dirty laundry, but moving on to take down more figures in media, including Condé’s VP of video and the editor of the Los Angeles Times food section. If you work in media, you either love Teclemariam’s bravado or loathe it; more often than not, your opinion depends on how much power you have.

Could Enlightened, a series existing at the precipice of digital activism, have predicted it would come to this? In an era where we all have the power to become whistleblowers, when justice is carried out on social media, at what point do our intentions and motivations come into question? As members of the media utilize platforms like Twitter to expose wrongdoings within their own industries, using self-publishing capabilities with just as much efficacy as the traditional routes, at what point do we question if media remains capable of being a tool to create lasting change in other areas without first changing itself? Is there a right and a wrong way to seek justice?

It’s a murky question, one that Enlightened doesn’t present us with solid answers for so much as it poses them in varying forms, allowing us to seek the answers in the ambiguous complexities of our own lives. And when I say words like we and us, I mean us, the audience, broadly, but I also mean us on a much smaller scale, us like Amy and me. Because I, like Amy, am a corporate employee coming to terms with the system and my place within it, and all the complicated feelings—disillusionment, frustration, fury, sorrow, righteousness—that enlightenment, and a subsequent search for a better future, bring. 

*

“Am I an agent of change or an agent of chaos?”

Over its run, Enlightened follows Amy’s recovery from a company woman who experiences a very public nervous breakdown to a justice-seeking corporate vigilante. In the first season, we find Amy still in the honeymoon glow of a New Age recovery program, hanging on tightly to her new zenned-out persona while floundering to find fulfillment in her life and an outlet for her newly held values. Headlines catch her—a mother’s deportation, a teacher’s strike—and she latches on with earnest, but naive, interest. “It seemed like everybody was having fun!” she says of a protest she happens upon on the way to work one day. She’s just a spectator in these worlds. These issues, much as she may empathize with them, don’t really mean anything to her. They don’t affect her personally, so it’s difficult for them to hold her sustained attention. But over the course of the first season or so, her focus narrows. Though corruption exists everywhere, there’s something she can do about the kind that exists in a community in which she is an active member: Abaddon Industries.2 Slowly, the relentlessly chirpy post-rehab persona melts away. It’s not that the old Amy returns, or that her newfound vigilantism is just like her early optimism, a strip of duct tape trying to hold together a crumbling house. Instead, as Amy’s rage bubbles back up to the surface, it can now lay tempered in a newly found middle ground, wielded as a source of power instead of source of self-destruction. If Amy hadn’t had a breakdown, would she be trying so fiercely to turn Abaddon around? Would she be trying at all?

No one on Enlightened is easy to love, especially not Amy. She can be manipulative and inauthentic, pushy and self-involved, severely lacking the ability to read the room. While the series met critical acclaim in its time, some reviews (mostly written by men) latched onto this, singling her out as an antihero who they just couldn’t sympathize with, but I don’t buy it. Amy isn’t an antihero so much as she’s just a flawed human like the rest of us, neither saint nor sinner. We’ve all either been Amy at some point or known someone like her; few of us are always our best selves. Our actions don’t always reflect our inner values, much as we may think they do. Is it too much for entertainment to ask us to sit through the discomfort of watching our own reflections, to ask ourselves to consider how we would behave or have behaved in similar situations?  

Watching Amy’s behavior is often painful, doubly so if you recognize actions you’ve been guilty of yourself. The nature of growth is messy and imperfect and anything but linear; one trip to rehab and a few good deeds will not automatically erase Amy’s past, will not automatically make her the clear-headed, confident, idealized version of herself that exists only in voiceover. So we are forced to watch, forced to cringe and squirm as Amy tries and messes up and tries again. She often gets it wrong, but she sometimes gets it right.   

It’s this small, imperfect personal growth that unlocks the rest of the challenge for Amy and advances her closer to creating change on a macro level. The same thing goes for us: as the greater whole is forced to reckon with wrongdoings, the only way forward is to look first at ourselves. We can be angry at institutions that uphold systemic injustices, we can be saddened and infuriated by the pain it causes, but we also have to admit the ways in which we are complicit, the ways in which we’ve benefited from this very system at the expense of others. We have to look at our own privilege, and remember that, though it’s all relative, it’s still on us to do better. 

*

A year or two ago I took an Enneagram test, one of those personality tests that, like Myers-Briggs, is probably, maybe, easily swayable bullshit. But in the middle of a “why am I like this?!” spiral (whomst among us), I took one anyway, hoping it would give me some sort of answer to the unanswerable. It didn’t, at least, not really, though it did confirm a few things I suspected to be true, among which was the complicated nature of my relationship to authority. And sure, you might argue that this is more psychologically related to my upbringing than to some random number that a multiple choice test on the internet gave me, but the point is that I know enough about myself by now to know that I am always looking for something or someone to believe in. I am always trying desperately to be an agreeable “good” girl—though in my heart I know I’m more difficult than that—while I wait for the other shoe to drop; I will obey your rules until you give me a reason to not.

This, when coupled with an acid tongue lying hungrily in wait, fucks things up for me. Looking back, the only trouble I ever seemed to get into, whether punishable by grounding or detention or, on one occasion, near-arrest, was directly related to my inability to bite it without letting a sardonic quip out first. As I’ve gotten older, I have learned to close my mouth more than open it, to fold into a version of myself that can navigate the world of corporate America, one in which the language is stilted and unnatural, living in streams of toxic positivity. To critique is to be negative: executives don’t want to hear what it is they’re doing wrong. Even when I thought I was doing it right, carefully policing the ways in which I delivered my otherwise strong opinions, sometimes doing it at all meant that I was still doing it wrong. 

In the corporate world, junior level employees—especially women—are not given the luxury to call things like they see them, no matter how much evidence or experience from being in the thick of things day to day they have to back them up. Your opinion doesn’t matter until you reach a certain pay grade. Your humanity begins to slip away from you. You’re just another worker. 

This summer I took up long walks in an attempt to, if not deal with it all, then at least not think about it for a little bit. Working from home ushered in a much-needed break from the kind of all-seeing eyes that kept me chained to my desk during office hours (and often much later) for the sake of appearances. As long as I got my work done, showed up to virtual meetings, and answered messages in a timely fashion, no one really seemed to care if I did it from my bedroom floor, Riverside Drive, or a bench in Central Park. This kind of relief from near-burnout, I realized, was much more effective than my usual habit of blocking out time on my Google Calendar to silently cry tears of frustration for 10 minutes in a cramped office bathroom stall. (Who would have guessed!) When well-publicized but, for the sake of not getting sued here, bad news about work began to mount, I needed these walks even more. As my self-control waned in response, my walks grew longer, becoming a physical distraction that pried my eyes away from my newsfeed and away from tweeting and engaging with mildly spicy takes that landed me in a Zoom version of a principal’s office more than once. 

Any time that I was reprimanded, no matter how gently, I would cry. Crying at work in ordinary circumstances is awkward enough to make me want to crawl out of my skin, but doing it over Zoom exponentially more so. Whatever shred of dignity you thought you were hanging onto disappears the moment you notice the reflection of yourself in the corner. I cried both because I was in trouble and because I didn’t know what rule I had broken to get myself in trouble. I cried because I felt like I was “bad” and because I was infuriated that, by simply telling the truth, I was made to feel like I was bad. Like Amy, I was expected to stay silent, keep my head down, do my work, and wait for things to fix themselves. 

But why was I running my mouth to begin with? It’s a question I have had to ask myself over and over. Was Twitter a platform on which I was finally heard after feeling powerless for so long? Maybe I got off on the serotonin drip of likes and retweets. But wasn’t that the same sort of serotonin drip I got before, whenever bosses bestowed empty praise—just another feedback loop that, absent any actions, isn’t actually real? Perhaps I wanted to deflect the feelings of the deep humiliation that came with knowing I once so naively put my faith in toxic systems despite the blatant warning signs. Was it vengeful, retribution for the years I spent being and seeing others taken advantage of? Or was I just virtue signalling, yelling out to the internet that I was not on The Man’s side, no matter what employer was at-tagged in my bio? Did I actually want to call out the very real issues I had a problem with, use my platform not for myself but to advocate for others? If I wasn’t just looking out for myself, why did I start playing it safe, afraid to risk my own employment to speak out in support of others?

I wish I could say I reached a solid resolution, but the truth is that the answer varies from day to day. Lately, though, as I seek ways to work towards a more productive path forward than simply rejecting blindly appeasing authority, it’s been ebbing away from the more narcissistic areas. The revolution might start on Twitter, but it certainly doesn’t end there.

*

“I’m just tired of feeling small. You know, for two minutes there, I felt worth something, like I was doing something—something real. And I was alive. That might sound pathetic, but it felt good to feel alive for once, and not just dead and plastic and numb.” 

Enlightened existed just as social media began to play an increasingly larger role in activism, before we had to question who was in it for the clout or a grift. Entire careers have been built out of online acts of social justice, the power of influencers like Shaun King growing to astronomical heights with few checks before the shady side of their altruism is revealed. As the chorus of voices demanding change grows louder, more people jump in—sometimes just because it doesn’t always look good to sit a movement out. While social media has made it easier than ever for people to participate, it also asks us to more frequently pause and ask why.

What drives Amy to expose Abaddon’s wrongdoings (the extent of which are kept relatively vague, giving the audience the same hazy understanding of them that Amy possesses, until the second season), really? Enlightened always keeps us guessing. The Amy we meet at the start of the series, the one who still earnestly believes she can create change within the company, seems to be driven by ego, often fantasizing about scenarios in which her words and passion alone urge company leaders to change their ways, winning her applause from her peers, their chants of her name ringing with admiration. When she attempts to persuade her nervous coworker Tyler (Mike White) to aid her cause, she suggests that “we can be whistleblowers, or maybe even heroes” or end up as Time’s People of the Year. Amy’s earliest ideas of justice do entail doing good, but they go hand in hand with delusions of grandeur, visions of the savior she wishes to be instead of the ordinary person she really is. 

Mike White and Laura Dern in Enlightened | HBO

Surely this isn’t what Amy dreamed she’d grow up to do when she was a child. Surely this isn’t exactly the path I dreamed my life would take, either. Part of growing up is acknowledging that, even when we do come close to achieving long held goals, the final picture rarely looks just the way we thought it would, that reality is bound to be more disappointing than the dream. Some well-adjusted people get to a point of acceptance easily; some people need something to numb them to the pain.

Workplace humiliation alerts Amy up to the fact that, outside its walls, her life is much more lonely and empty than she thought it would be. When we are frustrated and trapped by our own limitations, the idea of pursuing justice can be enticing. A fight with seemingly tangible black and white results—things will either change or they will not—it’s a way to fill up the emptiness, something to give some higher meaning to the daily slog. 

Amy’s motivations are constantly called into question by those around her seeking clear answers. Jeff, the glory-driven LA Times reporter (Dermot Mulroney) salivating over the scoop within company documents she’s leaked to him, questions if she’s out for revenge; she argues that it’s solely about justice. “So you’re an idealist,” he assesses. “Or a do gooder, or maybe you’re just somebody who likes to see your name in the paper.”

Tyler sees it another way, pleading not to make him collateral damage “because you’re pissed about your life” and even though she protests, he has a point: she’s a woman in her 40s in debt, still emotionally attached to her addict ex, living at home with her mother, and demoted from a senior position to meaningless data entry hell. Even Abaddon’s CEO Charles Szidon asks her whether she really wants to do something good, or if she’s just tired of feeling powerless. Her answer lies in the gray area. In a rare moment of self-awareness, she answers: “I guess both.” 

Therein lies the genius of Enlightened’s framing of justice: there is no “or,” it’s “and.” When Amy torches that office, it’s an act of revenge, of idealism, of frustration. It is both burning something rotten to make way for something good—and a saging of a personal space. Fantasy sequence or not, she’s setting fire to a place she committed much of her life to, a place that was once home until it nearly broke her. She’s burning that part of herself. In allowing room for all the angles that motivate Amy, the show asks us to consider the things that drive us, and ask ourselves: Do they make our fight any less valid if our hearts are in the right place?  

*

Laura Dern in Enlightened | HBO

Although Enlightened leaves that knot to the viewer to untangle, it does take a firm stance on two things: that corporate change cannot happen internally, and that it cannot be won by just one person. 

From the start, all Amy wanted was to make an internal watchdog program or a women’s organization network, or maybe even some public changes to some of the best-selling, but environmentally hazardous, products they make—all things that many corporations have implemented in recent years (though it’s often easy to see they’re progressive in name only). But Abaddon HR isn’t interested. They’re not trying to fix things that are fundamentally broken, or even make it look like they are; they’re just trying to get Amy back to work so they can avoid a wrongful termination suit. Productivity and profits come first; it’s down in the depths of Cogentiva, where her new role entails monitoring other workers to ensure this, that she comes to this realization. If she really wants things to change, she has no choice but to take a risk: go public and make a scene. Hold people accountable. 

Late in the series, as her actions are about to come to light, Amy is granted a private meeting with a still in the dark Szidon. When he offers her the watchdog role she had asked for all along, she can’t help but consider it. For a moment, he seems human, less like a cartoon of a villainish corporate executive. When her allegations hit––if they hit––her life will change, probably not for the better. Playing the game the corporate way is the safe option, the last exit off the road of self-destruction. But Szidon’s words, reminding her that keeping the company afloat is imperative or “the king will be killed,” snap her back to the reality of the situation. She knows the only real people affected by a company in trouble are those at the bottom. “You’re not gonna be killed,” she says plainly. “You’re gonna get a $50 million parachute and move to Pebble Beach or something. You’ll be good.” 

But change, and thereby justice, cannot be achieved alone. Even as Amy wants to be an agent of change, she comes to accept that she is not the agent of change in charge of taking down Abaddon. David and Goliath is just a myth, just a story we tell ourselves to feel more powerful individually than we actually are. It takes organizing and collective action to bring down a giant, not one person with a stone. In workers movements, the word comrade is used to describe your allied partners, but the root meaning of it ultimately gets back to “friend.” That’s what Amy finds in Tyler and Jeff, and even, to a certain extent, Cogentiva boss Dougie, even though these friendships are imperfect and often manipulative. She may be looking out for herself at first, but she realizes that she can’t do this on her own. 

*

This summer, as I Slacked and Signaled and Facetimed frustrations and concerns with friends and coworkers, I couldn’t help but think of Amy, who had none of these things. Enlightened brought about the importance of camaraderie, but in hindsight, the ways in which Amy is largely alone and disconnected from her coworkers, save for a small few, is jarring. It’s easy to question now how much more could have been done if Amy organized instead of taking it on herself, but corporate America has changed in the years since. Organizing wouldn’t occur to her as an option; over the course of Enlightened’s run, the union membership rate hovered around 11.3% of American workers, a rate only now beginning to be changed by millennials who came of age in the Great Recession and are expanding union presence in white-collar professions. Without the whisper networks modern messaging systems have given rise to, how would she be able to know who was on her side in the sea of cubicles?

What Enlightened showed us instead was the painful reality of a woman out of place in the “grateful to be here” workforce, surrounded by people too scared to rock the boat lest they lose what little they have. Even her own mother echoes this sentiment, expressing incredulity at Amy’s reveal that she’s become a whistleblower, telling her it’s none of her business what the company does: “They brought you back after all that you did and this is how you repay them?” Too many people think they owe their employers, that they should be thankful for the scraps they get and not ask for more. And I did too, drunk on the “a million girls would kill for this job” juice. Doing good doesn’t give us a paycheck or put a roof over our heads, but we have to choose to do it anyway, and hope we’re not alone in that decision.  

*

By the end of the series, Amy doesn’t get all the credit and glory she initially envisioned. She doesn’t get any of it. Instead, it’s hate and blame and probably a lawsuit. In a confrontation with executives and lawyers after her actions have come to light, she doesn’t look as powerful as she did in her fantasies. She just looks tired, and she says so. Caring about something other than money, she’s come to understand, will not make her the hero, at least not there, just “a fucking moron.” Mirroring the first episode, Amy leaves the office not on a rage-fueled, sputtering tear—that’s Szidon—but cool and calm. When she walks out of the building, Dern’s face flows through a range of emotions—joy, disbelief, fear—all at once as Amy seemingly thinks “what the fuck did I just do?” 

Our stories don’t end up the way we think they will. Even fictionalized ones follow this narrative. Amy doesn’t take down Abaddon with a heroic swing. It’s a fumbled whimper. It’s a small step forward. It’s not change overnight. And isn’t that the very nature of modern day justice? When she walks out of a coffee shop later, catching her photo on the front page of the LA Times, she doesn’t really look proud or satisfied or triumphant like we thought she would. It’s a look of quiet acceptance.

Enlightened was originally envisioned as a three season arc, but, knowing the threat their sophomore ratings slump posed, White crafted the second season finale to work as an unofficial series finale as well. In the end, it’s fitting that we don’t know what happens next, whether Amy’s actions will be just another blip in the 24-hour news cycle or actually spark a movement. Without a third season to round things out, Enlightened’s ambiguous ending is just like life. I don’t know what’s to come in the days and weeks and months ahead; neither does Amy. But we have to hold onto our faith that change will come, however imperfectly achieved, to keep going. Our last glimpse of Amy is as she walks back into the world, not a hero but just another woman, another face in the crowd, another aspiring agent of change.

So maybe we’re not perfect activists. Maybe our motivations are muddy, no matter how good our intentions might be. But what Enlightened gave us was the courage to at least go ahead and try, to seek justice no matter how messy it is, to be willing to fuck up and try again in the name of some greater good. We don’t have time to sit around waiting to be perfect activists; the fumbled attempts have to count for something. 

  1. Full disclosure, I’m an employee of said media company.
  2. Which, named after a biblical demon, might be the *chef’s kiss* of Easter eggs.