Enlightened’s Amy Jellicoe and the surprising liberation that comes from always being on
"Facial expression is the most subjective manifestation of man, more subjective than speech. The language of the face cannot be suppressed or controlled." - Béla Balázs
We hear Amy Jellicoe’s meltdown before we see it. Hectic, shrill sobbing against a bright white background, and then the revelation that this is Laura Dern, mascara running down her face. Her sobbing soon transforms into wailing, which transforms into pure rage when she overhears two co-workers bitching about her in the bathroom¬. "Don’t let the door hit you on the way out," one of them says, oblivious to the fact she’s in the same room. "Fuck off Cheryl," comes the reply from Amy, who storms out of the bathroom. She then proceeds to have a very public meltdown at work. "Health and Beauty was my department." Amy repeats this phrase over and over, a desperate attempt at delaying the inevitable realisation that precedes the American workplace meltdown: none of this really matters. Healthy and Beauty was Amy’s department. So what.
We hear the emotional register of Amy Jellicoe’s recovery before we see it. Mark Mothersbaugh’s soothing piano meanders onto the soundtrack, temporarily subsumed by the sound of birds singing and then this from Amy- "I’m speaking with my true voice now." We see Amy on the beach, her face embodying what can only be described as strained contentment. Amy in support group. Amy walking through trees. Amy meditating. Amy reacting with the necessary awe at a sea turtle. The soundtrack becomes more and more prominent, its angelic voices reaching a crescendo and then-
The messy synthesis of these two states- the full blown existential meltdown which can only come from being fucked over by the boss you had an affair with, the strained attempt at a blissful existence that can only come from going to a Californian spiritual retreat- forms the motor driving the bulk of Enlightened’s two seasons. These two seasons are remarkable for many reasons, all cohering into a single observation- this is the zenith of American cable dramedy. The genre’s obsession with it’s-okay-to-be-flawed characters progressing episode by episode through a humanistic liberal cultural narcissism is refined to precision in Enlightened and particularly the show’s protagonist, Amy Jellicoe.
Laura Dern gives a performance that can only be described as the exception to Balázs’ rule. She controls the language of her face absolutely in Enlightened, banishing all pretenses to spontaneity. Indeed we are never unaware that she is performing the character of Amy Jellicoe. Or rather we begin to merge character and actor, projecting Jellicoe onto Dern and vice versa, in that way really only possible when watching a recognisable star performing in the hyperreal Hollywood tradition of capital A Acting. Yet what has the capacity to detract in other programs in Enlightened is curiously affecting. Dern’s precision, her "too perfect" performance, is a highly accurate representation of a character whose emotional state mirrors this acting process.
And so we arrive at the moment above, an office party at the local club. After seven episodes of Amy repeating superficial spiritual mantras and struggling to fake any kind of emotional investment in her job, her makeover in this episode is almost painfully endearing. "I love your hair!" Her boss Doug exclaims as she arrives. And of course we love her hair as viewers. We recognise the paradox that she’s letting her hair down by doing it up.
The ostensibly cruel lesson at the heart of this scene, at the heart of Enlightened, is that even at this nightclub Amy just can’t let go. Thanks in no small part to Dern’s capital A Acting, her dancing here comes across as painfully inauthentic, a desperate attempt at feigning the act of letting loose. Even here, the first time in months the show suggests she’s been given the opportunity to escape her inner monologue, she cannot. Amy’s not dancing spontaneously for the hell of it, she’s thinking that she should be dancing and so is.
In Enlightened Laura Dern gives a performance that suggests she never once abandons her script, never once loses sights of Amy’s beats or her perfectly planned arc or the "emotional resonance" of each scene. Amy’s not "letting go of everything" so much as holding onto everything, feigning inner peace when the moment requires it. But unlike Robin Wright’s character Sandy, whose ostensibly profound scribblings in her journal are revealed just to be meaningless drawings, Amy’s crisis enables her to recognise this small truth. In consciously fighting against the uncontrolled language of the face, Amy Jellicoe is truly liberated.