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Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Three Weekends

One of my most treasured television discoveries this year has been Enlightened. Well, a discovery in that I feel as if I discovered it, in all its brilliant, short-lived glory. It actually debuted in fall 2011, but did you know that Homeland debuted then, too? It ate up a lot of press and buzz and attention. It took a complete hiatus in 2012 and then came back at the beginning of 2013 for an eight-episode season. Did you know that Girls' second season also aired then, too? It ate up a lot of press and buzz and attention.

Meanwhile, Enlightened was left in the proverbial dust. But there was a small circle of TV critics, many of whom I follow on Twitter, who kept beating their drum for this show. They tossed around words you don't toss around lightly. Phenomenal. Brilliant. Amazing. Excellent. Perfect. Every hyperbolic congratulatory adjective you can think of, it was used. Except they weren't hyperbolic here.

Because I watched it. I watched all eighteen half-hour episodes and felt overcome. Are you ever moved to tears by how beautiful something is? I felt that way after watching this show. I just sat there and prayed that someday I would have something as revelatory and transcendentally beautiful to my name. There is a quietness to it. It's gentle. One of my favorite season two episodes is called "The Ghost Is Seen." This is how I feel about Enlightened, this ghost of a show, so unnoticed and unseen. And then you watch it, you see it, really see it, and you're overcome. It's a triumph in every way I can explain, and many more I can't.

It's one of those brilliant, short-run series, the kind that doesn't get the attention it deserves. We'll look back on it in five, ten, twenty years and think, that was something. How did we let it slip away, right through our fingers? Remember My So-Called Life? It was the same thing. Did you know it debuted in the fall of 1994 alongside Friends, which ate up a lot of press and buzz and attention? It lasted only nineteen episodes, and then it was over. It came and went before we realized how special it was. 

One of Enlightened's first season episodes is called "The Weekend." As I prepared to watch it, I thought to myself, Hey, that's funny, one of Homeland's first season episodes is called "The Weekend." (Remember how they aired at the same time?) I looked up their air dates and realized they aired within two weeks of each other. What are the odds? And then the final piece of the puzzle: "Weekend," the penultimate episode of My So-Called Life's first and only season. Together they formed a curious triumvirate of Claire Danes and one-season wonders and weekend adventures, and hey, maybe I should explore this further?*

Apart from their respective titles (and blonde and/or Claire Danes heroines), I didn't expect to find so many similarities between the episodes. All three operate on basically the same narrative framework: a supposedly relaxing weekend away goes horribly wrong (note: spoilers from here on out). On My So-Called Life, Angela's parents, Patty and Graham, go away for the weekend to a ski resort with Graham's brother and his girlfriend of the week. At home, hijinks ensue when Rayanne, Angela's crazy (ex-)best friend, handcuffs herself to the bed (oh, the handcuffs are Patty's, too, so... that's awkward) and the key is nowhere to be found. On Enlightened, our main character Amy Jellicoe, in her first weekend back since returning from a clean living rehab facility, books a rafting/camping adventure with her ex-husband Levi, who's struggling with addiction and a whole slew of other problems. On Homeland (for real with the spoilers now, y'all), Carrie and Brody escape to a cabin in the woods and screw with each other's heads (and each other) for a few days on varying levels of sobriety.
The divide between Amy and Levi here is clear. Amy is the ecstatic, enthusiastic one. Levi is hardened and annoyed.

These shows are all markedly different in tone; their universes couldn't be more different (don't try to tell me that Carrie Mathison is Angela Chase all grown up, because I will not have it). But as I re-watched the episodes I was struck by how alarmingly similar some of the themes in these episodes were. In all three, these weekends away are presented as idyllic locales, escapes. Amy and Levi head up to the Kern and as they raft down the river, the sunlight sparkling off the water, the mountains behind them, it's hard to imagine something more peaceful, more heaven-like.

Carrie and Brody retreat to this cabin on the lake, completely removed from the outside world. It's just them; finally they are removed from the suffocating presences of the bureaucratic CIA, the military brass, even the heavy demands placed on them by their families. Carrie calls her sister when they arrive to ask where the key to the cabin is. True to character her sister pesters her with questions and demands ("What's going on?", "You sound drunk", "You were supposed to come over tonight to get your meds") and Carrie responds (drunkenly), off-hand ("No one, I'm all alone, I'm meditating", "I have enough pills, I'm fine!"). She hangs up and that's the last outside contact they have. For a relationship previously built on artificial closeness, Carrie privately surveilling Brody for a month, watching him through cameras and screens, they're now precariously stripped of any pretense. The closeness is no longer artificial; it's as real as they let it be. The cabin they stay in is "old school," and it fits within the outdoor setting, the chirping birds and trees overhead. The fire they light at night glows intensely orange, illuminating them in a soft, rich glow. It's in great contrast to the cold John le Carré greys that pervade the rest of the series. Here, the edges have been softened.
 Top: the typical cool greys and blacks that define the series (here in "Pilot"); 
Bottom: warmer yellows and oranges indicate that this weekend is different.

Patty and Graham retreat to the mountains in an attempt to rekindle some lost fire in their own relationship. Back at home, Angela's break from her parents ("what could possibly go wrong?" she asks her worrying mother, which is TV for "shit's about to go down") is interrupted by the arrival of Rayanne, whom Angela isn't speaking to, and then all of Angela's friends trickle in, one by one. Chaos.

At the center of these episodes is the pairing of two volatile, firecracker characters. Amy and Levi, a pair of first loves and first heartbreaks. Carrie and Brody, damaged and reckless together, unable to connect with the outside world. They've had pieces within them shifted, broken, or else completely missing. Only together can they match up. Rayanne and Angela, together forming the kind of friendship you look back on and see as a "phase," but at the time it was consuming, an obsession, a first love of sorts. But Rayanne betrays Angela when she sleeps with Angela's ex-boyfriend Jordan Catalano, and it's never the same again. In all these relationships, the dynamics are constantly at risk of exploding, deteriorating in spectacular fashion before our very eyes. Even though Angela and Rayanne's estrangement has taken place in the previous episode ("Betrayal"), Rayanne's abrupt arrival at Angela's home threatens to boil over the building tension between the two.

In one of her voiceovers (the voiceovers on Enlightened are a thing of beauty), Amy details the destruction of her marriage: "You can try to escape the story of your life, but you can't. It happened. The baby died. The dog died. Heart broke. I knew you when you were young. I knew your heart broke, too." It's an accelerated tailspin into addiction and depression. The loss of control. A deep dive into a black ocean. You never know when you'll be able to come up for air.

Angela and Rayanne, too, have a roller coaster ride of a friendship. Angela, the quiet, contemplative one, eager to be seen as an adult but unwilling to give away the naïve conceptions of her youth. Rayanne, the wild and crazy one, the slut, taking Angela under her wing. She loves Angela so much at times you think she wants to be her. It's the precarious push-pill of teenage female friendship. I'm reminded of the first and only line of Hannah Horvath's novel on Girls: "A friendship between college girls is grander and more dramatic than any romance." This is Angela and Rayanne, but they're not in college, they're still navigating the rough waters of high school, and in that sense the drama is richer and rockier.
Angela's frustration is palpable as she attempts to fix the situation. Rayanne is typically unfazed.

For Carrie and Brody, the balance is even trickier. Never before have two people been so mired in contradictions. At once they are so terrible for each other and maybe, just maybe, so terribly perfect for each other. They simultaneously know nothing about each other but exactly everything, too. As their relationship progresses, it becomes clear that one would die for the other--and also kill the other, if it came down to it. The slightest glitch, the briefest slip-up, and everything goes to hell. Their connection is a high-wire act but they're not easing across it carefully. They're sprinting across it. While doing cartwheels. In the dark. With their eyes closed. In this way, it's not that unlike the bipolar disorder that Carrie suffers from: manic and depressive, high and lows, a tricky cocktail to maintain balance and order. But the plateaus are boring. Riding those highs is essential. It's thrilling to watch but also sort of makes you want to pull your hair out. Within their own world, you can say the same about these two characters. To be with the other is to play with fire. It's majestic, mesmerizing, but so profoundly dangerous. More than that, it's clear that, ironically, these two are never more comfortable than when they're running away together, escaping. It's a cat and mouse game. But who's the cat and who's the mouse?

This is what we're dealing with. A collection of volatile and unstable characters. Put them together--force them together--shake, and observe. The lines between friends and enemies and lovers become so blurred they might as well not exist at all. And as these characters alternately put up walls and boundaries, around themselves and around each other, together, they only threaten to disrupt the order--or the disorder--they've been previously occupying.

Amy attempts to thaw the brokenness that's come to marr her relationship with Levi, but it only serves to alienate him further. "My first love, my husband, my heartbreak, my pain, feels so easy now, here," Amy begins in a voiceover. "You're not the cheat and the liar. I'm not the nag and the shrew. And we're not old or young. There's no bitterness or illusions. No need for fear or hope.... We can be free of our sad stories. They float away 'til they're like memories of a dream from the night before. Shadows under the water. And what's left is pure life. Life is the gift."

But then? Heaven becomes hell. When she discovers a bag of cocaine and pills in his overnight bag she becomes furious. "This isn't a disco!" she tells him. She dumps them in the river without a second thought; she doesn't realize these drugs are the only reason he's able to be there with her at all. In their high-wire act, Amy is pushing him eagerly across, and the pills and powder are his safety net. He pleads with her not to try to save him, because it feels too shitty. She acquiesces to his demands, but she doesn't let go. She's an optimistic person, almost too optimistic, some would say. It's this easy optimism that is so unsettling (especially since it's usually mixed with self-absorption). "I knew your heart broke, too," she says in a final voiceover. "I will know you when we are both old, and maybe wise. I hope wise. I know you now, your story. Mine isn't the one I would have chosen in the beginning, but I'll take it. It is my story. It's only mine. And it's not over. There's time. There is time. There's so much time." That kernel of hope remains in her, as much as she says she doesn't need it. It allows her to let him go, for now, back to the drugs, back to the hell he's built for himself but that he doesn't know any way out of, back to her fight for peace. It is all she wants: peace.
Amy dumps Levi's drugs in the river without a second thought.

For Angela, she's putting up a wall around herself, keeping Rayanne out. But Rayanne literally chains herself down. It's a fitting metaphor for their friendship as a whole: an artificial attachment, but self-destructive all the same. Everyone in Angela's life--from dopey Brian Krakow to the best friend Angela dumped for Rayanne, Sharon, to Rickie, who's caught in between these two girls--looks on and attempts in vain to break Rayanne free, to break Angela free, too. To save Angela from Rayanne.
Angela's friends try desperately to free Rayanne from the handcuffs and Angela from Rayanne.

Like Carrie and Brody, Angela and Rayanne's connection is a toxic one. At least, that's what it seems like in retrospect and to anyone with a different perspective. But for them, standing at the center, it seems grander than any other. Without the walls separating them, it's difficult to see things clearly and objectively.

And even though Angela's not the one in handcuffs, it's clear she is the one who feels trapped--in this friendship, in her own house, in this nightmare of a situation. It's fitting, too, that the only way to remove the handcuffs is to physically disassemble the bed until it's a complete mess, only pieces, fractions.

Carrie and Brody, though, spend the weekend letting the walls down around them. Letting the other in, weakening their own defenses. Carrie tells Brody about her nightmarish experiences in Iraq, and it's obvious he's one of the few--if not the only one--she's ever revealed this to. She tells him also of her childhood trips to this very cabin. "My sister and I would hike to [the waterfall] every day in the summer," she tells him. "We'd take our compasses and notebooks. Play Lewis and Clark," she says, laughing at herself. The moment would seem insignificant if she didn't reveal it to him so easily. She's sharing parts of herself, exposing herself to him. Again, they're only as close as they allow themselves to be, and she's saying to him, "You can be close to me. I will let you."

Brody, in his own right, lets Carrie in, too. As they hike to that same waterfall, Brody tells her how hard adjusting back to normal life has been. He can't talk to his wife, he tells her. "It's like she doesn't know who I actually am now. I can't be with her. I just can't. But I can with you. It's different with you, it's free." Carrie deflects his sentiments: they were drinking heavily (well they were). "It's the first time I've been back that I've found some fucking peace," he persists. "Me too, actually," Carrie admits. "That's pretty rare for me."
Brody and Carrie hike to the waterfall in their first meaningful sober interaction.

Peace. It's all they want. They are damaged and tortured souls, to be sure, and here is where you think, yes, maybe they really do belong together. If anything, they can be damaged and tortured together, achieve peace and a wholeness together that they could not apart. Later, when Brody has a nightmare and wakes up screaming and sweating, Carrie comforts him: "You're with me, you're safe, everything's fine."

While Levi protests to Amy not to try to save him, Brody seems to subconsciously plead for it. And if Carrie can save him, it's only because he might also be able to save her. Maybe they can save each other. Months later, as their lives threaten to collapse around them, Carrie tells Brody, "I think this might be a way out for both of us. You said you're all alone. You're not." Are they alone if they have only each other?

One of my favorite metaphors for their relationship comes from Grantland's Andy Greenwald, who posits that Brody doesn't love Carrie "any more than a drowning man loves a slowly leaking life preserver." Overwhelmingly they are both drowning, Carrie from her debilitating disease and her inability to properly manage it and her obsessions, Brody from severe post-traumatic stress and also a rather traumatic secret. But for just a moment, as they cling to each other and stay afloat, haven't they also survived, haven't they also saved each other?

The next morning when Carrie slips Brody's favorite tea into conversation, he pounces: "How do you know the tea I drink?" Strangely, Carrie is a horrible liar (truly, she is unable to think of a convincing lie on the spot) and he figures it out. The ruse is over, her lies exposed, the entire thing unravels. When she admits to him that she believes he's a sleeper agent working for Al Qaeda he challenges her to ask him anything she wants so he can show her how wrong she is. They're falling now, both of them, off the high wire, a long dive, clinging to each other as they fall further... further. (At this point I'm also clinging to my hair. "Noooo, it's ruined!" I sob.) The dynamic is now shifted irrevocably; now Carrie has wronged him, accused him of something so atrocious and betrayed him so profoundly that the last thing he says to her as he leaves, abandons her there, is "Fuck you."

The interesting element of this shifted dynamic is that it at once has nothing to do with this weekend and exactly everything to do with it. Because the basis of their relationship relies so heavily on everything that's not "Carrie the CIA officer and Brody the turned POW" and everything that is "Carrie and Brody, damaged and adrift souls," in a way, Carrie's revelation that she had been spying on him and suspects him to be a traitor doesn't really affect everything that weekend had solidifed--as Carrie says, "the important parts": finding peace, finding each other. Because Carrie had let Brody in, had let those walls down in spite of her conviction, in spite of herself.  Has she forgotten who she believes Brody is or just decided that it doesn't matter?

As Amy holds a kernel of hope at the center of her existence--for Levi, for herself--so, too, does Carrie hold a kernel of hope for her and Brody. Indeed, she spends the next few weeks attempting to gain his trust back. For her part, Angela seems to have abandoned any kernel of hope for reconciliation. "The truth is that it happened," Angela tells Rayanne, referring to Rayanne's decision to sleep with Jordan. Amy reflects a similar sentiment: "You can try to escape the story of your life, but you can't. It happened."

How much these characters wish it hadn't happened. Levi hadn't cheated. Amy hadn't fallen apart. Rayanne hadn't had sex with Jordan. Brody hadn't let Carrie in, close enough to hurt. But they all happened.

This motif of salvation--of these characters saving each other from themselves--hinges greatly on another recurring motif that weaves itself throughout these weekends: sobriety. For Amy, she wants badly to show Levi a new way, to "enlighten" him. When he discovers she's dumped his drugs in the river, gone forever, he freaks out and leaves. Amy follows him--she wanted to spend the weekend with him after all. Drugs or no drugs, she'll be there. And she is. She's there as Levi buys cocaine and snorts it right next to her, chasing it with a half dozen beers, in a seedy motel room. She's there as his demeanor seems to change almost immediately in his high. He talks mile-a-minute of their dead dog and their adventures together in the wilderness so many years ago. Amy looks on dejectedly at this man. She could cry. Instead she hugs a pillow and falls asleep. This is the hell she's built for herself -- stuck in the past with this man, this addict, stuck with these memories. "We can be free of our sad stories," she says before everything unravels. But is she? Later Levi tells her that when he's high is the only time he doesn't feel completely consumed by Amy's shame for him. For him, sobriety is the hell, sobriety is the prison. The drugs are the reprieve.
Levi comes down from cocaine- and beer-fueled high.

At the ski resort, Patty, ever the high-strung and uptight mother and wife, lets loose at dinner and gets slobbering drunk. It's the most unbuttoned she's ever been, even if it is fueled by Dr. Allen's Ginger-Flavored Brandy. She doesn't have to be "the nag and the shrew" just like Amy doesn't have to be. It's a truly liberating moment, masked somewhat by the physical comedy infused into the situation. Patty leaves behind the handcuffs that were supposed to liberate her and Graham from the rut and funk they'd entered. Instead, she liberates herself and removes that wall she'd always put up around her.
Patty lets loose.

Back at home, Rayanne, whose overarching storyline throughout the season deals greatly with her struggle with alcoholism and drugs, and who suffers the consequences of her struggle with sobriety often (she was drunk when she made the decision to sleep with Jordan), asks Angela's little sister Danielle to get her a drink from the family liquor cabinet after everyone's gone to bed. Rayanne treats alcohol and drugs the same way Levi does: as an escape from the prison of just being her. Rayanne is smart and beautiful and funny and kind, and she's a good friend, but her self-image is distorted. In her mind, she'd rather be like Angela: delicate and sweet, with an angelic beauty and a present and committed family. The alcohol, at least, allows her a reprieve from the reality of who she is and who she will never truly be.

For Carrie and Brody, the weekend is spent first getting ridiculously drunk (as in, provoke a neo-Nazi drunk) and then getting dead sober. Their relationship is established drunkenly. Indeed, the first two times they have sex it's with the cloak of alcohol clouding their decisions, weakening their inhibitions. When they wake on Saturday morning with massive hangovers, they swear off the stuff. "I overdid it," Brody says. "No more booze." Suddenly the prism through which they see each other, through which we see them together, has altered. The drunk goggles come off, the walls come down.

It's only when they're sober that their connection begins to deepen, begins to become something more than superficial. Later that night, they have sex for the first time while sober. Carrie looks at Brody's scars for the first time, traces them with her fingers. It's the first time she's really seen them. The following morning, after everything's gone to hell and Brody climbs in his car to leave, Carrie pleads with him to stay and tells him profusely how sorry she is. "I was wrong, I made a terrible mistake," she tells him, referencing her misconception that he was a turned POW. "This weekend, this time that we spent together, it was real. The parts, that... that we both... the important parts." She means the sober parts.
Carrie really sees Brody's scars for the first time.

But he drives off anyway, leaving her cold. When he returns to his house later that night, he weeps into his hands. She got as close as he let her and she left him cold, weakened, destroyed. As adulterous and illicit as their affair was, ironically it contained an element of purity. Pure connection. It was dirty but it was also untainted, for a brief moment anyway. There in that cabin, they are untouched by anyone and anything else. When Carrie's boss Saul calls at the end of the episode and reveals to Carrie that Brody wasn't in fact the turned POW, that she was wrong, he breaks the spell that had bound them together for so brief a time. And they can never return to that. They can never return to that paradoxical innocence. From then on out, the betrayal hangs in the air over them, heavy and unmoving. It happened. 
It happened: The dynamic shifts. Brody confronts Carrie after she reveals he's been secretly surveilling him. 

Likewise, as Amy and Levi return to Riverside after their weekend, there is a similar sense of resignation. Back to normal life. Back to real life. Amy's innocence is marred by Levi's request not to save him. She thinks that, as much as she has cleaned herself up, she can remove the tar from Levi and from their relationship. But she can't. He won't let her. He kisses her softly and the kiss hangs there, too, dead and rotten. It's all their relationship could have been, infused into everything it had actually become. They return to their homes, resigned. They do not find peace but rather a stalemate, an armistice.

For Angela, after her parents have returned home, Rayanne has been uncuffed, the house has been cleaned, everything returns back to normal, and the last of her unwanted guests leaves, she closes the door and sighs. It's probably the first easy breath she's had all weekend. "Weekend from hell," Angela says to no one in particular. "That was the best weekend of my entire life," Angela's sister thinks to herself.

And that is life. That is pure life. Levi and Amy return to a life apart. This weekend has not brought them closer, as Amy hoped it would. Angela breathes a sigh of relief but nothing is necessarily patched or fixed. It just hasn't gotten any worse. Carrie and Brody, meanwhile, once each other's guideposts, each other's life preservers, however faulty, now stand on their own, abandoned. They weep together but alone for what they have lost.

*If you've gotten this far, I applaud you and thank you for allowing me to explore this further, aka be self-indulgent and write about my favorite TV shows. 

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