‘Enlightened’: The Dark Side of Spiritual Awakening

Laura Dern Enlightened

Before I launch into an appraisal of Enlightened—part of my on-going series about HBO dramas while we wait for cinemas to recover from the summer crap fest and play something worthy of reviewing—let me say a few words about the season finale of another show of theirs I reviewed a few weeks back, Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom.  In an ideal world—the sort of upright, conscientious world Republicans dream of and fancy they can create if, like characters in an Ayn Rand novel, they stubbornly resist the misperceived evils of liberalism for long enough, but which in reality is a world that will forever elude them if they keep up these shenanigans—the last episode would be mandatory viewing at the RNC this week.  It would be just an hour taken away from all of the tacky hoopla while conventioneers turn their sights from willfully deluding themselves that Romney is worthy of being the President and focus on what that episode has to say about who they have become as a tribe, spoken from the point of view of Republican In Name Only (RINO) Will McAvoy.

Of course, few conventioneers will watch it, and only RINOs among the GOP like David Frum will agree with the message, I hope with wistful tears of remorse for where their party has gone, although I suspect they will be more like the tears my father shed when Richard Nixon resigned.  As I commented on HuffPo today with regard to the “Jewish” Hurricane Isaac upsetting the convention: “This has gone from a traveling clown show, to a farce with duplicity as its core theme, to a classic Greek tragedy complete with Athena and Poseidon making a pact at the beginning to teach the Republicans a lesson for their crimes against reason and for denying global warming.”

Yes, I see everything in terms of entertainment.  I’d go bonkers otherwise.

Whirling DervishLet’s talk about another willful disregard of reason, which is the quest for enlightenment; as any master of an esoteric path will tell you, reason is the enemy of spiritual awakening.  In other words,you must stop thinking and feeeeel, open your heart, believe, breathe, love.  And that’s not bad advice because from time to time it is a good thing to shut the mind down and stop it from scratching itself raw, to paraphrase David Mitchell in Cloud Atlas.  I am a hearty advocate of meditation, provided it is the Zen/Sufi kind where the goal is to empty the mind completely, and that includes fluffy-duffy New Age practices like visualizing passing clouds of joy and harmony and positivity, or whatever other techniques that western interpreters of eastern traditions encourage their followers to pursue.

For someone like me, who was for years on a rigorous esoteric spiritual path, albeit one undiluted by western interpretation, Enlightened should be tough viewing.  I should be squirming with recognition at protagonist Laura Dern’s every misstep and embarrassing proclamation; I have been there and done that.  But I don’t squirm, maybe because it is hard to identify completely with someone as brilliantly quirky and wriggly as Dern, or because, almost twenty years after embarking on my rigorous esoteric spiritual path, I have come full circle and am now the same person I was when I began, except I’m endowed with the tools and knowledge of that path.  It is a full circle that was, of course, predicted when I was an initiate into the Sufi order to which I still belong.  (A traditional Sufi path like Hotel California: you can check out but never leave.  Even denouncing spiritual practice and turning your back on the master and the path is part of your particular journey, so you’d might as well surrender, have a cup of tea and empty your mind.)

Just like I was at the time I began meditation and Sufi practice, Dern’s character, Amy, has hit rock bottom with a breakdown of her personal life and career.  This seems to be fairy common: people who join the cult of AA, those Friends of Bill who surrender to a higher power, must also have hit rock bottom first before they can embark on their twelve-step path.  Like a true rock-bottomer, I found myself trapped with no exits around me, and the Sufis offered me solace, direction, and showed me how to get out of my own way without ever actually articulating anything quite so platitudinous.

Diane Ladd and Laura Dern

Diane Ladd and Laura Dern: A family that plays together, stays together.

The first season of Enlightened focuses on what spiritual folk call “the honeymoon,” that period just after your awakening/initiation when you want the whole world to experience the ecstasy and insight that are rolling at you in waves; the Sufi comparison of divine unity to an ocean is apt because you feel like you’re gleefully drowning in happiness.  However, much as you would prefer not to, you are forced to live in the world around you, a world that has never seemed more out of whack.  In Amy’s case, having lost her home and marriage, she is now living with a dour, loveless, judgmental mother, and she hasn’t just slid down the corporate ladder, she has ended up crunching numbers literally in the basement of her company, in a meaningless, demeaning job HR has given her to avoid a lawsuit.  But it is more of a punishment and an indictment of who she is as a hysterical loose canon than it is a proper position that she is qualified for within the soulless pharmaceutical company to which she has devoted the better portion of her adult life.

The same thing happened to me, more or less.  Having lost my shirt on the development of a film, I was forced to get a “real job,” which is tough enough for normal people, but living hell for those of us who have true vocations in other careers, a daily soul-crushing reminder that you have failed at what you set out to do.  I made a mistake many adherents to a spiritual path wander into in the beginning, which was to listen to the advice of another seeker rather than ask the master himself directly what I should do.  “All jobs are the same,” I was told.  “As long as you are working.”  Yes, but not everyone is suitable for all jobs, which would take me the next five years to figure out.

Citibank One Court Square

My tower of despair in Long Island City

I joined Citibank in internal communications, and my bosses proved to be all the clichés about bankers and more: they were a bunch of paranoid, morally corrupt, senselessly Machiavellian halfwits with such gnawing New York accents that they seemed to me, a native New Yorker, to be some sort of sitcom parody of themselves.  At the risk of sounding like a snob—but, who cares, they brought it out of me like blood gushing from a severe head wound—I would not have imagined having lunch with people like that a month before I got the job, much less work for them.  (I make the distinction between my supervisors and my co-workers, who were the opposite of our supposed superiors.)

In a scene reminiscent of Amy’s confrontations with HR in Enlightened, they tried to fire me because I was doing my job so well that I’d been noticed by the head of my department’s boss, so the department head wanted me out because she thought I was spying on her.  Or some such rubbish.  Fortunately, I’d anticipated something like this happening a year and a half before—if I can’t smell evil the minute I shake its hand, it won’t take me long thereafter—and had found a little-known corporate HR department to advise me and they’d been tracking my supervisors’ various picayune abuses the whole time.  I had to do this because I rightly assumed the Catbert character in charge of my department’s HR wasn’t to be trusted.  It didn’t end well for my bosses that time around—I was so well prepared they very nearly wandered into a lawsuit—but eventually they got rid of me legitimately in a re-org of the division, handed me a ridiculously handsome severance package, and they outsourced most of my functions to me as an independent contractor, which I did from my new job working for a hotel and casino company in San Juan, PR.  Amy’s showdowns with management and HR in Enlightened are a little less calculated than mine were, but they are similar and have the same effect.  The main difference is I couldn’t wait to get out of there— I was so elated, I even bought a new suit to wear on the day they announced they were laying me off—whereas she is clinging to her place in that toxic empire like a barnacle, and does everything to make amends and get back to where she was before.


Never met an HR person who wasn’t just like Catbert

“Ask not, ‘Who is this person to call himself a Sufi?’ Ask what he would be like if he didn’t,” were some of my late master’s wiser words (the enjoinders to abandon reason were among his less wise).  Indeed, Amy is unhinged even when she comes back from an extended spiritual retreat in Hawaii, where she patched herself together after her breakdown in the very first episode, in a scene that acts as a prologue.  She is so whacky, so much the opposite of the tranquil, centered being everyone imagines spiritual people to be that you ask how she could possibly consider herself enlightened.  It seems on the surface that co-creators Dern and Mike White (the geeky gay Buck from the painfully wonderful Chuck & Buck) are making fun of new-age seekers in general, especially in the episode when Amy’s best friend from the Hawaiian retreat, played by Robin Wright (looking handsomer and handsomer, bless her), shows up to add even more dizzy granola hugs-and-more-hugs juju to the mix.  But that’s not what Dern and White are doing.  Quite the opposite.  They are showing the lonely, struggle-full process the esoteric spiritual path really is, especially in the beginning when the same old battles are raging internally and externally, but with the added strife-slash-panacea that your perspective is changing with the aforementioned crashing waves of self-realization, but nobody else’s is.  It’s unbalancing and stabilizing at the same time.

As Tilda Swinton says, acting is autobiography, you only play versions of yourself, and Dern has never been allowed to be more herself than in Enlightened.  Her particular brand of mischievous, goofy pathos, which made her so enjoyable in Citizen Ruth, is in full galumph as she slams through people and situations like a blind UFC fighter trying to find her opponent and never quite understanding that it is herself.

Her co-creator Mike White, who has written the majority of episodes and directed a few of them, too (with an admirably light touch), is a complete revelation.  The writing throughout is at a level you come to expect from HBO and Showtime; however, in a singular way it might be superior.  I’ve already written glowingly about both The Newsroom and Veep, created and penned by veterans Aaron Sorkin and Armando Ianucci respectively.  But those shows are pretty much one person’s voice spoken by different actors in as many varied ages, genders and races as they could realistically cram in there.  White’s writing, on the other hand, is far more nuanced; his characters each have distinct voices and personalities.  And they don’t just do different things for the sake of that action propelling the plot.  The action comes out of who they are as people.

Mike White

Mike White’s sleepy face masks a ferocious talent.

I’m inclined to believe this is because White is also an actor, and therefore understands how to build character in a way that cerebral writers like Sorkin and Ianucci don’t.  And what a fine performer he is, a worthy male complement to Dern—he plays her hapless office mate who is in love with her but doesn’t stand a chance.

In some ways, Enlightened feels like HBO’s answer to Showtime’s The Big C: two middle-aged suburban blondes struggle with their own particular debilitating challenges, one mental the other physical.  If you like the latter, as I do, you’ll love the former, as I do.  If nothing else, it is a rare treat to see Diane Ladd on screen playing mother to her real daughter, more delightful and believable here than when they teamed up in David Lynch’s ridiculous Wild at Heart.  Ladd’s is probably the most nuanced and layered of all the performances in this piece.

Oh, and Luke Wilson as the junkie ex-husband is also worth mentioning.  Wilson has always been an afterthought to his brother Owen, but he’s also in his own here, very moving.  Even though I should identify with Dern’s character because she is the spiritual seeker trapped in the corporate salt mines, as I was, it is he I empathize with the most, for some reason I must ponder further.

The next season of Enlightened begins January 2013 on HBO.

Comment: 1

  • Gil Alan August 29, 201212:18 pm

    Excellent review – and I love this show! My favorite line from this post is: “This has gone from a traveling clown show, to a farce with duplicity as its core theme.” Good stuff.

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