The tagline for HBO’s second season of Girls is “Almost getting it kind of together,” which could just as easily apply to the network’s B-side offering, Enlightened. There is a different charm and whimsicality to the latter, however, because the show’s stars/creators/writers are not precocious 26-year-olds but rather the middle-aged Laura Dern (Jurassic Park) and Mike White (School of Rock). The series to this point—which is certainly worth a watch if you are as-yet uninitiated—has centered primarily on Dern’s Amy Jellicoe, whose very public emotional breakdown and rehabilitation ushered in the first season and provides the show with a split personality that teeters between darkly comic and earnest.
The second season begins exactly where the first left off, and that’s the first episode’s main flaw: it felt entirely like a mid-season episode rather than a premiere. This certainly isn’t significant overall, but it was a disappointing follow-up to the first season’s Adele-paired fantasy arsonism finale. Notwithstanding the lack of momentum, “The Key” provided a strong return to the story and characters.
Emboldened by the treasure trove of workplace pettiness and general lack of ethics, Amy takes the ill-gotten company emails of her employer’s higher-ups to a newspaper journalist who specializes in corporate exposés in the hopes that he will assist in her quest to cleanse the world of greed and unhappiness. Her interactions with the journalist, Jeff Flender (Dermot Mulroney), are all tinged with Dern’s brilliantly hyper and awkward performance; the combination of her previously volatile emotions and new life philosophy that made her character so enjoyable in the first season also makes her seem like a bit of a loon to an unwitting stranger.
Meanwhile, Amy continues to wrangle White’s reluctant Tyler, The World’s Nicest Guy, into her scheme by unknowingly reducing his self-esteem, one casual remark at a time. As a high-achieving individual who has fallen down the corporate ladder, Jellicoe doesn’t view her predicament as permanent, but her predicament is Tyler’s life. He doesn’t mind being a mole (the furry kind); he’s comfortable with his exceedingly boring existence. Seeing Tyler develop into a vibrant human being would be life-affirming and perhaps the show’s greatest triumph, but it might not necessarily mesh with its blunt realism.
After pestering Flender regarding the state of her future front-page story, Amy meets with him to discuss how tremendously explosive her insider information is. Unfortunately for her, Shirtless Jeff explains that, although the executives in question are inconsiderate of the welfare of their fellow man, this is America, and that’s just the way it is.
Were this another series, Amy’s predictable defeat might have sent her on some new, harebrained adventure and disregarded the real emotion of her disappointment. Instead, she returns to Nice Guy Tyler’s car, where she tearfully explains that she doesn’t want to be a nobody anymore. Tyler, acknowledging that he’s been a nobody his entire life and armed with the knowledge that he and his entire department will be fired in a matter of weeks, decides to join Amy in her new sabotage: expose Abaddon’s under-the-table dealings with government officials.
“The Key” succeeds in reframing the series’ focus for a second season. Amy’s emotional recovery and attempts to regain her former status will be pushed aside in favor of her new goal and her relationships with those who will help her achieve it.