As Enlightened begins, Amy Jellicoe (Laura Dern) loses it.
A buyer for mega-conglomerate Abaddonn Industries, she learns she’s being transferred out of her coveted position in Health & Beauty to the far less glitzy Cleaning Supplies, thanks to a not-so-secret affair with her married boss (Charles Eston). Her response is an epic, enraged, and elevator-door-prying meltdown that precipitates a three-month stint at a rehab center in Hawaii to deal with her “issues.” Here she discovers her own “true voice” as well as the voice of God, collects seashells and a treasure trove of New Agey platitudes. She returns to Riverside changed and ready to be an agent of change.
Her first step is to try to get her old job back. Amy sees the irony that her so-called change includes returning to the same, but what she really wants is to change how the past played out. She wants to be in Health & Beauty, a mature and amicable end to her relationship, and an untarnished professional reputation. She drift through her old stomping grounds in a bright yellow dress, returning scornful glares with enthusiastic hellos and oblivious smiles, as odd a performance as her breakdown before.
Amy soon learns it’s a lot easier to revel in her newfound serenity at a beach bonfire than it is to maintain it in the day-to-day grind. Abaddonn has no intention of putting Amy back in her old job of course, regardless of how much she claims to have evolved. When the HR types realize they can’t fire her, they do the next best thing, moving her to a mindless data processing position in the bowels of the building.
Amy’s new department is a veritable Island of Misfit Toys. Here she works on a software program called Cogentiva with sweet sad sack Tyler (Mike White, who also executive produces) and for the perpetually inappropriate Dougie (Timm Sharp). Aware that her talent is being wasted here, Amy is still clueless about her role in her own self-destruction, continually blaming others and trying to restore herself professionally.
Her frustration leads her to research the company, whereupon she learns it’s responsible for al manner of environmental and human rights horrors (Abaddon is “the king of the Abyss” or “The Destroyer” in the Book of Revelation). “I feel compelled to be of service,” she proclaims, missing both the point of her transformative experience and an opportunity: she is only interested in contributing to an idealized “community,” not the one where she lives.
Thankfully, Enlightened doesn’t belabor Amy’s cluelessness beyond the first few episodes. Instead, it offers a complex portrait of her of working out belief and self-understanding—past that first moment of seeming transformation. In so doing, it reveals Amy’s own history a little at a time, as she reconsiders it. Amy’s relationship with her mother, Helen (Dern’s mother, Diane Ladd) is fraught with tension. Amy craves connection with her, but Helen hardly knows what to do with Amy’s gushing. When Amy tries to read her a letter she wrote in rehab, Helen’s discomfort is visceral: “Why do you have to read it to me.”
Abandoned by the few friends she had prior to her breakdown, Amy turns to her druggie ex-husband Levi (Luke Wilson), imagining she will “help” him. Though he surely could use some help, he doesn’t want it from her and no wonder. She wants to satisfy her urge to “be of service” and he’s a conveniently nearby wreck. But she is no more concerned with the “why” of his situation than she is with the “why” of her own. Each episode moves her closer to some sort of insight, demonstrating that enlightenment is a moving spot on the horizon.