Editor’s Note: The TV landscape is filled with male antiheroes, from Nicholas Brody to Walter White, but what about the women? This is part four of a series of five articles exploring flawed female protagonists and how their bad behavior makes them so interesting to watch. It’s presented in partnership with Netflix and its new original series “Orange is the New Black” (all episodes available July 11th, only on Netflix).
The great thing about Amy Jellicoe is that she’s not going to kill you. Television is littered with male antiheroes playing with their guns, or knives in the case of Al Swearengen from “Deadwood.” Even “Mad Men” can’t escape a whiff of sex and violence, especially as the ’60s heat up. Now there are plenty of women kicking ass, from “Revenge” to “The Americans” — which is a sort of progress. But HBO’s “Enlightened” is just about a woman in a bad job in a bad relationship in a bad living situation trying to change for the better.
Played by Laura Dern with all the filter of a reality TV star, Amy is the protagonist of a difficult show. After an interoffice affair leads to her public breakdown, Amy goes on an extended wellness retreat in Hawaii. “Enlightened” details her progress, pushing her toward self-improvement and testing her to see how much she’s actually changed. She works at a disreputable drug store company called Abaddonn monitoring worker efficiency in a basement lab out of Orwell’s nightmares, and she lives alone with her mother. The first season lays out her path from disgraced executive to corporate whistle-blower and the second follows her whistle-blowing journey itself.
All of which sounds positively heroic. An underdog working toward social justice? What’s not to like?
But that’s just Amy’s cover story, the sweet little Hamptons girl disguising a murderous avenger. After all, “Enlightened” depends on plausible deniability. The truth is Amy’s a tough nut to crack, and much of the mystery derives from how sincere she is. She’s constantly going off on these New Agey inner monologues about connection and enlightenment, and in the next breath she’s manipulating her co-workers with a loaded smile or a ditz routine, whichever works.
There’s not really an answer to the question of Amy’s authenticity. She wants to save the world, and she wants to make a name for herself while doing so. Don Draper wants the best for his employees as long as he can be the conquering hero. Until then, entitled Amy rages all over Riverside. She wants to personally detox her alcoholic ex (Luke Wilson) so that he can be the man she wants him to be. She whines at her mother (Diane Ladd) and stomps off to her room. Sometimes her outburts happen to coincide with moral, or at least legal, good, as when she kind of blackmails her company into giving her a job back after her rehabilitation. But more often Amy impulsively reacts with the same wrath as in that first, explosive scene. The whole reason she gets into the whistle-blowing racket is out of short-term vengeance and long-term delusions of glory after discovering her department is about to be replaced by a computer.
Amy’s most villainous moment though comes after a season and a half of ostensible progress. In a memorable scene in the episode “Lonely Ghosts” late in season one, Amy’s co-worker Tyler (series creator Mike White) confesses a crush on her, which Amy politely rebuffs. Tyler has a point-of-view episode in season two called “The Ghost Is Seen,” in which the ghost theme becomes literal: He thinks of himself as a ghost, in third-person no less, an invisible outcast floating through the cracks.
He’s shy, awkward, and lonely, and he hasn’t made a human connection in years. Amy tries to set Tyler up with their CEO’s administrative assistant, Eileen (Molly Shannon), because she could come in handy. But Tyler’s date with Eileen is an awakening for the ghost. He ends the episode with one of the most moving speeches on the show, a celebration of connection that contrasts with Amy’s self-aggrandizing mantras because the proof is right there in the pudding. “The ghost is seen,” he says. Tyler’s not invisible anymore. But Amy still needs to hack into Eileen’s computer for her cause, and she sacrifices Tyler’s high without batting an eye. As long as it doesn’t affect Amy, it’s all for the greater good.
But perhaps the biggest difference between Amy Jellicoe and male antiheroes, even guys like Don Draper who are likely capable of genuine self-knowledge, is that Amy doesn’t have much room for self-loathing. Even the happiest male drama antiheroes — say, Vic Mackey on “The Shield” or Walter White on “Breaking Bad” — find plenty of time to revel in their anxieties. Not Amy. She questions herself and has doubts, most notably in “All I Ever Wanted,” which forces her to confront the consequences of her actions once and for all. But her self-help shtick actually keeps the demons at bay, at least superficially, so “Enlightened” soars over that particular sand trap.
And then there’s the fact that, ultimately, Amy Jellicoe is more hero than villain. She spends most of the series an unbearable trainwreck, but by the end she and others are actually capable of changing their lives, each other, hell, the world for the better. Genuine change has been hard to come by on television since Dr. Melfi finally read up on sociopaths. After the moodiest season of “Mad Men” yet, Don Draper might be headed in that direction, but time will tell. “Rescue Me” protagonist Tommy Gavin was on a years-long course of self-improvement but fell off his various wagons so many times it’s hard to say how much he’s actually learned by the end. On “Game of Thrones” selflessness is the first step toward losing a limb, but then, personal bodily sacrifice is the key to redemption for two of the biggest male antiheroes.
Amy Jellicoe, on the other hand, learns all on her own, albeit accidentally. She forges relationships with marks and then gets attached. She discovers it hurts to see her friends suffer. And she grows. But it’s not for nothing that her big victory comes moments after she chews out a friend on her hospital bed because of an assumption that turns out to be false. One act of self-sacrifice doesn’t transform an antihero into a hero. Life isn’t black and white. That’s the whole point.
Indiewire has partnered with Netflix and its new original series “Orange is the New Black” (all episodes available July 11th, only on Netflix). From the creator of “Weeds” comes a heartbreaking and hilarious new series set in a women’s prison. Piper Chapman’s wild past comes back to haunt her, resulting in her arrest and detention in a federal penitentiary. To pay her debt to society, Piper trades her comfortable New York life for an orange prison jumpsuit and finds unexpected conflict and camaraderie amidst an eccentric group of inmates. For more visit here.