Michelle Obama returned to the political stage looking like the first lady that she was rather than the cultural celebrity that she has become. But as soon as she began to speak, it was clear that she had not come as a symbol of past political triumphs or history-making progress.

She sounded like a wounded citizen. She sounded like a woman in pain.

By the end of her speech, her voice was breathy and her eyes began to shine, and it seemed as though she might cry. That she might weep for the future of her country if its citizens couldn’t roust themselves from these unfathomable lows and claw their way up toward the light.

“Whenever we look to this White House for some leadership or consolation or any semblance of steadiness,” she said, “what we get instead is chaos, division and a total and utter lack of empathy.”

Obama appeared on screen, the final speaker on the first night of the Democratic convention, to deliver her talk in a beige-colored room that had been blurred into an impersonal mise-en-scene. A blue Biden campaign placard was propped against a far wall. The camera framed her tightly. The woman who used style to enhance most every public appearance when she was in the White House, who was keenly aware of the powerful resonance of her head-to-toe presence, was little more than a talking head balanced atop a torso swathed in a shade of brown satin that nearly disappeared against her skin.

Obama had not come to reassure a jittery country. She had come with a warning. She had come to speak her mind and to unleash a profound sorrow.

“If you take one thing from my words tonight, it is this: If you think things cannot possibly get worse, trust me, they can, and they will, if we don’t make a change in this election,” she said. “If we have any hope of ending this chaos, we have got to vote for Joe Biden like our lives depend on it.”

Four years ago, before the last presidential election, she talked about rising above a campaign full of mudslinging and misdirection. Back then, it was a matter of dignity and honor. Today, she said, it’s a matter of survival.

She did not speak like a politician with bullet points and data. Indeed, she reminded viewers that she hates politics. In her tone and her gestures, she came across more like an especially eloquent neighbor chatting over the back fence and expressing a sense of dismay at what has become of the country. The president, she said, “is in over his head. He cannot meet this moment.” And then, to use President Trump’s own words, she said, “It is what it is.”

She warned of chicanery with the voting system, while wearing a ByChari necklace that spelled out “vote.” She exhorted listeners to vote early, to request absentee ballots now and mail them immediately. She told people to be prepared to put on their comfortable shoes and a mask and go vote in person if need be. Pack a brown-bag dinner and a breakfast, too, she said, in case they had to wait and wait and wait even longer.

It was a slow, bumpy build to Obama’s moment in this virtual convention. Regular folks and brand-name politicians popped in and out on full screens and in gallery view. There were multicultural checkerboards of citizens singing the national anthem and Rep. James E. Clyburn standing in the twinkling evening light of Charleston in his home state of South Carolina, reminding all who were listening that he had resurrected Biden’s presidential campaign from its death bed with the declaration, “We know Joe, and most importantly, Joe knows us.”

The convention tugged on heartstrings with its videos, including one featuring the faces of beleaguered but undaunted Americans, with a soundtrack of Bruce Springsteen’s raspy-voiced “The Rising.” Kristin Urquiza, whose father died of covid-19, voiced her anger at Trump’s handling of the pandemic. Her father had believed the president when he downplayed the threat of the novel coronavirus. He ceased taking precautions, fell ill and died. Urquiza’s voice was steeped in anger. But anger was not the dominant emotion.

The speakers were not firebombing the audience with their rage. Their tone was more of exhaustion and exasperation.

From the Republicans who were supporting Biden to the former Trump voters who had changed their allegiance, it was as though the anger had burned off over the course of 3 ½ years and all that was left was steely determination.

Or, perhaps, it was just too difficult, too strange to stand in front of a camera yelling into the void instead of a convention hall packed with cheering citizens. Even Sen. Bernie Sanders’s tone was more urgent than angry.

People weren’t mad. They’ve been mad for years. They’ve moved beyond mad. Their voices were quieter. They were even smiling. Now, they are at their wits’ end.