Sunday, June 23, 2013

Serial Monogamist (har har har)

There was a really great post on Vulture the other day about TV shows you've divorced this past year. Shows that you once really loved but finally quit this year for one reason or another -- declining quality, not enough time, whatever.

It got me thinking about all the TV shows I watch (or have watched) and my relationships with them. Here's the inventory, accompanied by appropriate GIFs because I can't help myself:

Mad Men: That guy you started dating because he dresses really well and has a good reputation and is intelligent but lately you've started realizing he's kind of a pretentious d-bag who says #dafuq-tastic things. You still like him, you'll keep dating him, but you talk bad about him to all your friends meanwhile.

The good times...
But now whenever you hang out it's like...

Homeland: Your one true love, you're made for each other. You're in this for the long haul, there is no turning back now. He did something bad recently but made up for it but everyone was like you need to break up with him, he's a horrible person, and you were like, hey, people make mistakes. Still, every night you pray that he's gotten his act together. It's complicated but it's not. Which means it's complicated... I guess.

It was love at first sight...
 And he loved you, too...
 Bliss and happiness, everything was perfect...
But then...
But as long as there's this, everything will be okay...

Breaking Bad: He's so fun! You went on a crazy weekend trip together and were inseparable for a while there but then started to drift apart and now you haven't spoken in like six months even though you keep meaning to call him.

Hannibal: You think he might be suicidal and you worry for his sanity but he's so beautiful and says really intelligent and thought-provoking things all the time. Every time you see him he looks like he badly needs a hug.

All the time with this guy...
And you're just like...
Scandal: So fun to hang out with but he's pretty shallow. Not much under the hood if you catch my drift.

SO fun in the beginning...
But then you're like, wait what?

The OC: High school boyfriend you look back on now and smile at how much fun you had but thank God you realized there were so many other fish in the sea.

Friends: Best friend for life. Always makes you laugh.

Grey's Anatomy: A really abusive relationship that started out great and awesome and then slowly decayed into something sordid and horrible. You finally cut it off a year ago and have never felt better. But you keep a box of stuff that reminds you of him and look at it every night because the good times really were good.

 Your get-a-grip friend was onto him from the beginning...
So you were like...

Girls: Hilarious hipster guy that you were really into and then his OCD relapsed and he started acting really erratically and shoving Q-tips in his ears and you were like, whoa dude I don't know if I can handle that. Still waiting to see if he recovers...

It was a lot like this...

My So-Called Life: You want to marry him because he's so perfect but he died young. So basically you want to marry a dead person.

Rapturous love...

Enlightened: You want to marry him because he's so perfect but he died young. So basically you want to marry a dead person.

Shameless: He's kind of bipolar and goes through lots of mood swings. One time he did this really unexpected thing and it was so moving. Then five minutes later he streaked through the streets and everything was back to normal.

Happy Endings: Casually dated and then fell madly in love and then he died. RIP.

First it was like...
And then he died and you were like...

Gilmore Girls: Quirky high school boyfriend you still really like and every time you go home you hang out. But it could never work out because you still get ragey when you think of that thing he did toward the end of your relationship. Ugh.

He just... got you...

Orphan Black: You had a very brief fling and it was fun but now everyone won't quit talking about it and you just want to crawl in a hole.

You're just like...

The Americans: Friend set you up and said you'd really hit it off but you went on three dates and realized it just was not gonna happen. So you stopped returning his phone calls, even though you feel kind of guilty about it.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Such great hypes (or, The Thin Line Between Love and Hate)

In my magnum opus a few months ago about the "state of television, the state of me" I went on and on about how I'd like to stop drinking the haterade and be less overtly critical of the television shows I watch.

Oh, how the mighty have fallen. How's that working out for me? Well, how much time do you have?

A few weeks after I wrote that, Mad Men's sixth season debuted to a hype and buzz so large and overwhelming it almost made me nauseous. Even if the premiere had been OMG AMAZING it would have been overkill. But the two hour season premiere was just pretty meh. B-grade, nothing special.

Some critics bought into that hype, hailing it as a fine mini-movie of sorts, an existential rumination on the nature of life and love and death. Others were less enthusiastic. This was a gloomy season premiere, and it would turn out to foreshadow just how depressing and blah this season (which ends Sunday night) has been.

As the weeks went by, I found my eyes hurting so badly from how hard they rolled at the anvillicious dialogue (a photographer to Don: "just be yourself"); or the truly wtf-eriffic drug trip episode "The Crash"; or the Grapes of Wrath-esque, overly defined and symlolic flashbacks to Don's brothel beginnings; or Don's rumination that "every time this company gets a car account it turns into a whorehouse." Like, okay, Matt Weiner, we all went to high school, we get it.

This season was the first of Mad Men that I'd ever watched in real time, as it aired, actually able to engage in the conversation surrounding the show. And boy is there conversation. Twitter Sunday nights is basically just one giant #MadMen party. Then come the recaps (how many do you want? how many do you really need?). Then the GIFs. Then the recap of the recaps (I kid you not). Then the recap of the comments on the recaps. Then the think-pieces.Then the think-pieces on the think-pieces ("What our theories about Megan Draper being Sharon Tate say about us"). It's Mad Men-ception. Then it all starts over again.


Oh my God, after three days I was about ready to just disengage from it all. Maybe I wouldn't have minded it so much if the season had actually been season one-level terrific (and season one is absolutely terrific, which I rediscovered when I rewatched a few weeks ago; the differences are stark from this season's mediocre outing). Or just not so very average. Maybe if I was a Mad Men superfan I actually would have loved it.

(I read something really insightful a few days ago that posited that some people love a show and its characters and its world so much that just the episodes are enough for them. Others watch to see good (or, occasionally, great) TV. So just inhabiting that world is not enough. I think everyone has that one show where we're not exactly oblivious to the criticism but we just don't see it. There's something in our head and our hearts that subconsciously blocks it out. If you've ever read Tom & Lorenzo's Mad Men content you'll know that their show is Mad Men. (Coincidentally, mine is Homeland.))

Alas, Mad Men is not my show. Or at least not this season. It's true that a lot of my disdain from the season has come from its mediocre narrative direction, misuse of characters, eyeroll-worthy dialogue, and overall staleness. It was the feeling that I had seen all this before but done so much better. Every year showrunner Matt Weiner says he just puts everything on the table, all his ideas, and holds nothing back. After watching this season all I can say is "Really? This is the best you got?" (And also some of my disdain comes straight from my disdain for this man, whose ego wouldn't even fit through all the doorways mentioned this season.)

But a lot of my disdain for the season was just intensified by its omnipresence. It was everywhere. I could not escape it. And the hype for the season was completely disproportional to how good it actually was.

Tatiana Maslany, the lead actress of the new BBC America series Orphan Black, has also been fed and re-fed into this hype machine. She plays several different characters on this show about clones and makes it look pretty easy actually. I binge-watched the whole thing in one weekend because I'd heard such great things about her performance and I was not disappointed. It's a breakthrough role and a wonderful performance.

So for two days I was like, cool, a new show that I can watch that has a kickass female character (well, actually several characters) at its center.

And then, like the beast it is, the hype came in. Coinciding with the beginning of Emmy season, suddenly Maslany was all over Twitter, Tumblr, blogs, you name it. Then people started tossing around words like "perfect" and "incredible" and "the best thing on television in years" and... wait for it... "best actress alive."

Which, I mean... I cannot with that. After a few days' distance from the series I began to become a bit more disenchanted with the debut season, which was great but by no means spectacular, or really even close.

Add in a few weeks' distance and some great hype and now I'm just plain annoyed at how overhyped this performance is. It is a great performance, but I've seen better. I've seen better in the last six months even (*ahem* Emmy Rossum, supremely underrated on Shameless).

It's incredibly frustrating for me to see these pieces online, to see these critics and journalists exaggerating the brilliance of any one show or actor. Because no show, no actor can ever be that good. Prop something up on a pedestal, hype it to the moon and back, and inevitably it will fall, inevitably someone will feel the need to take it down a few (or a few thousand) notches. It's our way. It's our vicious cycle. This is how backlashes are born.

It's a very thin line between love and hate. Between bringing attention to something or someone worthy and saturating the medium so entirely with their image that we scoff and turn away. And critics wonder why people hate Lena Dunham so much.

For a performance as career-making as Maslany's (make no mistake, this is a career-making performance, and the focus on getting her Emmy recognition is grossly misplaced, because that seems kind of inconsequential in the grand scheme of things; I'd posit that her not winning or getting nominated for an Emmy would actually raise her cult status more, and cult status in 2013 is nothing to scoff at), it troubles me to see what should be a wholly appreciated performance so overhyped and worked up that nothing could possibly live up to it. "Best actress alive"? Seriously?

Perhaps the most troubling is that these things are of course cyclical. If Maslany is not nominated for an Emmy next month rabid fanboys and fangirls with curse the day voters were born and then forget about it in a day and a half. When the Next Big Thing comes along (remember Jennifer Lawrence mania a few months ago?) we'll forget about Maslany, too. I can see the headlines now: "Greatest actor to ever breathe in the history of the world and why you're a moron if you don't think so." Meanwhile, Mad Men's season ends this week and we'll be treated to a few dozen meta think-pieces before we stow away our Don Draper shrugs for ten months (although Breaking Bad's final season debuts in August, and while I'm told the hype isn't as deafening for that series, never say never for a final season of a fanboy-crazed series).

Eventually we'll come down from these lofty heights, either by force or just through sheer indifference. What will the next shiny thing be? What new thing will we be capture our ADD attention spans for twelves weeks? What will be our next obsession, our next love/hate?

I would say I'm waiting with bated breath but I'll beat everyone else to it.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Autopsy of a Female Television Character

First, a few basics. For fear of venturing too far into "the Oxford English Dictionary's definition of [blank] is..." you should know that "autopsy" means "see for yourself." This is actually quite significant, for this autopsy today will demonstrate what years of relative progress have obscured in leagues of female television characters. If you wish to deny the evidence, just see for yourself.

An autopsy is performed with respect and the pathologists here today take their task, and the body present, seriously. They are not vultures picking over the dead. You might say they stand in stark contrast to the female's male contemporaries, but that's neither here nor there.

Pathologists wish primarily to gain answers about the body they are investigating. Curiosity and satisfaction at learning the truth, at getting some answers, prevail.

We begin by inspecting the outside of the body, noting the following characteristics:
  • Race: the overwhelming majority are Caucasian; minorities are precariously rare.
  • Sex: yes, she should be sexy.
  • Hair color and length: usually long so as to show she's a woman and differentiate her from her contemporaries. If it's short, she's probably proving a point and its length has been a minor plot point at some juncture.
  • Facial features: will usually be wearing makeup, even though she's dead. A woman is rarely seen without makeup, even if she's just woken up. If she's not wearing makeup, then Something Is Up. She might be having an emotional and/or mental breakdown, and someone will always mention that she "doesn't look like herself" or "looks tired" (see exhibit A below).
  • Approximate age: no older than 45, unless she is on TV Land or is named Meryl Streep. (Just kidding, Meryl would never do TV.)
  • Any identifying features: possible examples include a mole or less-than-perfect teeth (exhibit B). These marks are important as they are usually the woman's trademark (e.g. "Megan Draper and her hideous teeth").
Homeland's Carrie Mathison looks rough.
Google suggestions for Mad Men's Megan Draper say it all: see for yourself.

After superficial examination (which is about as far as most of her contemporaries ever cared to go), begin by making a Y-shaped incision, starting at the shoulders, meeting at mid-chest, and going down below the waist. Cut the cartilages that join the ribs to the breastbone to open the chest cavity. Note the size of the women's breasts: this is a good indicator of her physical desirability and therefore overall worth to her contemporaries (exhibit C).
On Mad Men, Joan Holloway struggles to be seen as more than just a well-endowed secretary, 
but she recognizes their ability to get her attention, whether positive or negative.

Once the chest cavity is open, examine the lungs and then the heart. The lungs often show signs of damage--they may be black or shriveled--from the woman's chronic trouble breathing due to persistent scrutiny from her male counterparts (exhibit D).
Breathe, Carrie, breathe.

Now examine the heart. First, if necessary, take a sample of blood from the heart to test for specific bacterial infections. Possible bacteria that may have infected her blood include chickificicus, which causes a strong and independent female to be stripped of her own power and assertiveness when she shows a morsel of femininity; or careermanoccus, in which a woman is forced to choose between her career and her man (very infrequently does she choose the former; when she does, there have been extraordinary circumstances, such as a massive terrorist attack; see exhibit E). There is often disease languishing in the heart, unbeknownst to the woman.
The point at which Carrie, having "chosen" Brody, realizes she must return to her job.

Examining the heart is tremendously useful in discovering more about the woman's love life (often her most interesting attribute, and often her primary focus, if not her sole reason for existence; see exhibit F). It is important to weigh organs, especially the heart. Large hearts indicate the woman was loving and compassionate and therefore viewed as weak by her male counterparts (exhibit G). Smaller hearts suggest the woman was a bit rough around the edges, not as compassionate, and probably not as receptive to male suitors and therefore viewed as a lesbian, raging feminazi, or else a heartless bitch (exhibit H).
On The Mindy Project, Mindy Lahiri's life seems to revolve around her romantic (mis)adventures.
Enlightened's Amy Jellicoe is loving, hopeful, compassionate, and "emotional": code for "weak."
Elizabeth Jennings on The Americans is a kickass spy but she's ruthless and distant. What a bitch!

An average-sized heart suggests a combination of these traits and is the most common among female protagonists. These woman usually were empathic, sometimes but not always career-oriented, and frequently faced various trials in their romantic lives (exhibit I). They still might have been viewed as weak, heartless bitches, unreasonable feminists, nags, shrews, or all of the above.
On Mad Men, everywoman Peggy Olson is fighting the good fight in a man's world.

Now we explore the abdominal cavity, first freeing up the large intestine. This will allow for the gradual removal and examination of other organs in the woman's body. Once the intestine is removed, we examine the bile ducts. They'll hardly ever contain any actual bile, because when was the last time you saw a woman eat on TV? If she is, it's usually played for comedy (exhibit J).
On Girls, Hannah Horvath's eating habits are the butt of many a joke.

Moving on, we dissect the liver. If the woman's liver is fatty, she was probably a heavy drinker (exhibit K). The woman's liver will often be deformed and degraded from overwork from detoxification. After all, a woman can only take so much of and filter out the toxins from her contemporaries. Occasionally residual toxins will still be in the liver. These toxins are often contagious in that, in close proximity (e.g., for a husband and wife), they will leech from one spouse to the other. Amazingly, these toxins show virtually no symptoms or signs in the male spouse but are horiffically noticeable in the female spouse. If these toxins are found, the woman was often ridiculed and overwhelmingly despised (see exhibit L, although many more examples exist).
 The OC's Marissa Cooper, the teenage alcoholic. See also: Rayanne Graff, most everyone on Gossip Girl, etc.
Skyler White on Breaking Bad is a prime example of a wife and woman reviled for daring to ask to be treated like a human being by her monstrous husband (see also: Betty Draper, Megan Draper, Jessica Brody, Carmela Soprano). For further proof, check out the Skyler White meme (brace yourself for the idiocy).

Dissection continues with the removal of the spleen, stomach, pancreas, esophagus, and duodenum. It is important to open these and check for poisons. Just as toxins in the liver are passed from man to woman (or sometimes woman to woman), so, too, are the poisons leeched. These poisons are slow-working but effective and, over time, kill any shred of dignity the woman once possessed.

We also dissect the kidneys, ureters, and bladder. The small intestine and colon are rarely ever opened.

Exploration of the woman's reproductive region is vital. Here are her ovaries, often seen as her most significant asset and the source of much contention in her life. If her ovaries are dead or dying, her "biological clock" had started to tick or else stopped ticking entirely. If her ovaries are abnormally large, she was desperate for children, and this became the single most important thing about her. Because all women want children. Even the women who don't want children secretly want children. They just haven't realized it yet. Don't worry, they'll come around. Women who don't want children are constantly reminded that they will change their minds, because eventually, they will (exhibit M). Occasionally, a woman will have average-sized ovaries, signifying that she doesn't want children that badly or is not ready to have them; she will have children anyway (exhibit N). Nevertheless, small ovaries, signifying absolutely zero interest in children, are incredibly rare, and their existence is only speculative.
Kickass surgeon Cristina Yang, on Grey's Anatomy, doesn't want children but "it's only a phase"/"you'll grow out of it"/every other inane excuse you can think of, says her husband Owen.
So Mad Men's Betty Draper probably shouldn't have had kids...

The woman's sex organs are also an important signifier of the woman's general worth. In fact, most women come to become completely defined by the state of these organs and the frequency with which they were used. For unmarried women, if they were seldom used, she was a prude. If they were sometimes used, she was a slut. Curiously, there is no middle ground. If the woman was married, frequent use suggests she was crude and horny (exhibit O); if they were seldom used, then her husband was very likely cheating on her with someone else because she drove him away.
On Happy Endings, Jane's healthy sex life with her husband Brad is frequently mocked ("played for laughs").

Now we replace the organs and close up the abdominal and chest cavities carefully.

Examination of the brain is also a vital step in exploring the woman's pathology. Begin by making an incision across the forehead, cutting across the scalp and past the ears. Carefully open the skin flap and, using a vibrating saw, open the skull. Carefully remove the brain and bisect it into its right and left halves. An enlarged left side signifies the woman was highly logical and adept at analytical thinking. She might have made exceptional connections and realizations and then been profoundly marginalized by her male counterparts. If the right side of the brain is enlarged the woman was particularly skilled at the creative arts and at reading emotions. Most likely she used these talents in service of a man: to show him The Way, how to live his life, how to be a Real Man (exhibit P).
On The OC, Anna Stern serves to show Seth Cohen how to win Summer over and be a Real Man.

In brains in which neither side is particularly developed, this woman was "cognitively challenged." Check her hair; it is usually blonde (exhibit Q), although it is still unclear whether the repressed brain development caused the hair color or vice versa.
Happy Endings' Alex is the stereotypical dumb blonde. How original! ("I'm not as dumb as I am.")

Sometimes, a woman will have advanced development in both sides of the brain. She was especially intuitive and logical, able to speak many languages, may have organized her thoughts visually via color, and had excellent reasoning skills. No one ever listened to her (exhibit R).
Carrie Mathison is the ultimate Cassandra character. She speaks the truth but no one listens. 

Dissection of the hippocampus, which controls short- and long-term memory, is also important. A woman whose hippocampus is plump and healthy-looking was, ironically, never able to let anything go; what a nag! If the hippocampus is shriveled and grey then the woman was probably forgiving or maybe optimistic, but usually she was just clueless and idiotic.

After exploration and replacement of the brain, we close the scalp and sew it carefully.

While dissection of the woman's various internal organs, as well as the superficial examination of her body, is important in learning more about who she was and how she lived, these alone will not reveal her cause of death. Instead, we look at the Achilles tendon. The tendon will reveal the woman's ultimate fatal flaw, impossible to overcome in spite of her other strengths and positive attributes. These may include horrific self-involvement (exhibit S); a profound fear of being alone her entire life (exhibit T); or a strict adherence to and reliance on traditional gender roles that are changing rapidly (exhibit U). We rarely find two Achilles tendons that are exactly alike.
 Amy Jellicoe has good intentions but is horrendously self-absorbed. Me, me, me!
Carrie Mathison: "no man is an island, but this woman is."
Joan Holloway makes the men turn their heads and loves it.

After close examination of the Achilles tendon, we note the cause of death and wash the body. Then the autopsy is complete.

It is important to approach each body with a fresh perspective. Every autopsy is unique. In recent years especially, our methodology has evolved tremendously, growing in sophistication as the bodies we investigate have, too. But there is still great progress to be made. As pathologists, we always strive to glean meaning and truth from the bodies we study. As such, you'll see the sign hanging in our mortuary that reads "Hic locus est ubi mors gaudet succurrere vitae," translated as "This is the place where death rejoices to help those who live."

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.