In his “newbies” review of The Wire’s series première, critic Alan Sepinwall observes that the show’s approach to narrative is unique in that it “essentially had to teach you how to watch it.” And while the simple story that Enlightened tells is a far cry from the massive tangle of characters and storylines that made up The Wire, I think Sepinwall’s observation similarly applies to Mike White and Laura Dern’s weird, singular series. You can come to Enlightened knowing the kind of movies and TV shows on which White usually works or the type of films which star Dern; you can bring with you knowledge of how other low-key dramedies and workplace satires operate—but you can still end up flummoxed by the languid pace and perceived lack of momentum of Enlightened’s first few episodes.
But much in the way that Enlightened is about its main character relearning to live her life, the series seems partially concerned with reorienting the way we engage with a television series. Each episode of the show is a self-contained piece of television, yes, but it’s also a piece of a larger whole—a whole that comes into sharper and sharper focus with each successive episode. In some respects, putting the space of a week between every new chapter of Enlightened may be doing the series a disservice. We’re only at the halfway point of the first season, but I think it’s safe to say that this will be the type of TV show that viewers more fully embrace on DVD, where they’re free to watch three or four episodes back-to-back, a more effective method for appreciating the way episode endings and beginnings seem to flow in and out of one another.
But no matter if you’re watching Enlightened in real-time or in some binge-watching spree in the future (In which case, I extend a greeting to you, future reader—I hope things are no more fucked-up than they are today), you’ll notice a marked change from “Not Good Enough Mothers.” First of all, time appears to be accelerating in the universe of the series. Whereas the first four episodes covered one or two days in Amy’s life, “Not Good Enough Mothers” captures a good week or so in our protagonist’s journey. Though it probably feels like longer for her: Saddled with undiagnosed car problems, Amy is forced to take public transportation to and from work. But quicker than you can say “First world problems, huh?” the bus begins to factor into Amy’s recovery. Tapping into a line of thinking most famously advocated by Tracey Walter in Repo Man, Amy discovers you can do a lot of good thinking on the bus. And it’s there that her thoughts turn to the reason she’s on the bus: her mother. You see, Helen has a car, and it’s in perfect working order (though her homebound ways suggest she never really uses it outside of trips to the grocery store or the nursery), but due to insurance concerns, she won’t let her daughter drive the thing. To Helen, it’s a perfectly practical perspective; to Amy, it’s another in a long line of insulting decrees handed down from her mother.
I don’t know much about Diane Ladd and Laura Dern’s relationship as real-life mother and daughter; given the fact that Ladd agreed to play one of the least motherly television moms this side of Lucille Bluth in a series co-created by Dern, I have to assume it’s pretty solid. Enlightened hasn’t given us much evidence that Helen still feels any affection for Amy, and her actions toward Amy indicate that Helen’s interests in Amy finding her own place originate less from a desire to see her offspring find stability and move on from personal defeat, and more from a desire to get the house back to herself. Helen’s life is one of contentment and routine—putter around the house during the morning, do some gardening in the afternoon, then watch some Rockford Files reruns and fall asleep on the couch. (She couldn’t even bring herself to get rid of the TV she used to watch Rockford on—it sits beneath a smaller set which appears to have some years on it as well.) Having Amy around to whine about the car and scream at the news disrupts an equilibrium that Helen spent years cultivating. She’s the immovable object to Amy’s irresistible force, and “Not Good Enough Mothers” is the first episode of Enlightened to draw most of its momentum from their constant collisions. It’s a relationship that’s always hung over Amy, and it’s a constant presence in this episode, as Amy’s self-help book of the week—the very real Ask And It Is Given—advises her to “meditate and look upon every person as having once been my mother.” Probably not the best advice for someone with such deeply ingrained mom issues—but it makes for a good episode of television.
There’s a lot to unpack from “Not Good Enough Mothers”—though that might be due to the fact that previous episodes have taught us expect more minimal plot advancements from 30 minutes of Enlightened. It’s all incited by Amy’s “connection” to another mother: Rosa Muñoz, an illegal immigrant whose pending deportation—and subsequent separation from her two daughters, both born in the U.S.—is the top story in local news. The Muñoz case becomes a temporary fixation for Amy—though stormy weather prevents her and Tyler from attending a rally in support of Muñoz, and the Women’s Association of Abaddon Amy subsequently founds really wouldn’t help a woman in Muñoz’s position. Amy’s shortsightedness is the source for much of the episode’s humor, from the awkward dinner she shares with the head of Abaddon HR in order to pitch her women’s association (because the head of HR is a lesbian, which obviously makes her more interested in women’s issues than most) or the way she hijacks Krista’s baby shower to talk about Muñoz, the women’s association, and herself—but really, it’s all about herself. Given the way Amy’s priorities are constantly in flux—and the way Enlightened is designed to shift its priorities as well—it completely makes sense for “Not Good Enough Mothers” to feel so dense, and yet it never feels like it’s taking on too much.
The same probably can’t be said of Amy, who, after a tremendous dressing-down from Krista—during which Krista shows that Amy is still mapping Helen’s face on everyone she encounters by declaring, “I feel like you’re always disappointed in me”—decides that she’s going to reverse all that’s wrong in her relationship with her mom by “being the mother” she wished Helen was. The voiceover here is directed at Helen, though the implication is that Amy intends to extend that treatment to the world at large. And while that’s more or less setting herself up for future discouragement, the end of “Not Good Enough Mothers” has Amy setting her sights reasonably and realistically, shopping for what appears to be a gift for Krista’s unborn child—before it’s revealed that she was actually picking up some toys for Rosa Muñoz’s daughters. It’s a surprisingly selfless and practical act in the wake of Amy’s other actions throughout the episode—but if Enlightened has taught us anything, it’s to expect Amy to have made a small amount of progress by the end of each episode. The end of the rain which refuses to let up throughout “Not Good Enough Mothers” signals some positive developments on Amy’s horizons, an indication that she’s growing more comfortable with the small amount of change she can actually affect. Of course, if Enlightened is tied to any conventional sense of narrative, the dark clouds might begin to gather again before the season finale.
- Paul Simon’s “Mother And Child Reunion” is an obvious choice for a musical cue at the end of the episode, but who can argue with a melody that jaunty?
- In a series that’s already seen its share of cringe-inducing moments, the dinner with Judy took things to a whole other level of discomfort. It’s also incredibly funny, with much of the credit going to Amy Hill and her ability to fully commit to Judy’s lobster-happy indifference to the Women’s Association of Abaddon.
- Great visual touch: Amy’s arrival to Krista’s baby shower, shot from a crane, and contrasting her mode of transportation (on foot) with that of everyone else (minivans and crossover vehicles).
- Amy encounters the abundant humanity public transportation instills in its regular passengers: “You don’t have an umbrella either, huh?” “Fuck off.”
- It seems like Dougie’s trying to curb the profanity in his dealings with Amy: “I am in charge here, so it’s my butt. My. Butt!”