Prime Video’s new animated series for adults, Undone, is a unique show that explores mind-bending themes, mental health and family drama in 8 short, 22-24 minute long episodes, making the most of its stellar cast and experienced animation team in each episode. Creators Raphael Bob-Waksberg and Kate Purdy (BoJack Horseman) used the animation technique of rotoscoping to give the series a surreal quality that takes it a step beyond magical realism.
Rotoscoping involves filming the actors in live action, then tracing over the filmed images to create a polished animated product. Undone is the first serialized TV series to be fully animated using rotoscoping. Probably its most famous previous use was in the film A Scanner Darkly. The same team, Minnow Mountain, did the rotoscoping on both that film and Undone.
Undone is the story of Alma Winograd-Diaz (Rosa Salazar), a young woman who is struggling with her goals and identity, in addition to the lingering trauma from her father Jacob’s (Bob Odenkirk) death when she was a child. Outwardly, her life seems Happy and Fine. She lives with her nice boyfriend, Sam (Siddharth Dhananjay), and has a decent job at a daycare center, working with her good friend and boss, Tunde (Daveed Diggs). (Who wouldn’t want to work with the voice of Daveed Diggs?)
She gets along okay with her widowed mother, Camila Diaz (Constance Marie) who’s never remarried and focuses her attention, hopes and dreams on her daughters’ Happy, Normal Futures. Alma is best friends with her younger sister, Becca (Angelique Cabral), who’s also all about living a Happy, Normal Life. Becca is excited about her engagement to supernormal white boy Reed Hollingsworth (Kevin Bigley). Reed is so whitebread normal that his father, Layton, is played by John Corbett, the iconic Mr Suburban Wrong from Sex and the City and his mom, Beth, is played by Jeanne Tripplehorn, All-American Mormon First Wife from Big Love.
These are Very Normal, Successful People, Living Happy, Mainstream Lives.
That’s All Everyone Who Loves Alma Wants for Her.
This is important to remember, even if it makes you want to scream. Or maybe you are a person who is also all about order, routine and waking up early every morning, in which case, you probably agree that Alma’s sense that there is something missing in her life equals mental illness. Welcome to the mid 20th century.
Personally, I felt such secondhand claustrophobia for Alma that I was ready to buy her a train ticket to anywhere before the end of the first episode. Alma finds a different solution. She gets into a serious car accident and sustains a severe head injury, leaving her in a brief coma. She wakes up having lost her memory of the last day or 2 before her accident, adding to the cognitive dissonance and dissociation she already experiences in her life.
Cue the apparition of her long dead father, Jacob (Bob Odenkirk), who says he is appearing to her now because she has grown enough as a person to develop her latent psychic powers, help him solve the mystery of his own death and possibly bring him back to life using astral time travel to change the timeline. Naturally, all psychic/time travel phenomena happen while she’s alone, except for a few minor incidents which could technically be explained away through other means. Wise ghosts are always shy.
The other potential reason for his appearance is a psychotic break, brought on by the triggering of her trauma from his death and deepened as a result of the head trauma from her accident. It is also possible that Alma is both a shaman and schizophrenic.
The technical aspects of this show are incomparable. I fully expect it to be nominated for awards in all of the major technical categories next year. In addition to the visuals, music, sound and rhythm are also used in very creative ways that enhance the storytelling.
Alma is hard of hearing and has a cochlear implant. Sometimes we hear the story from her point of view, such as when she’s not using her device and when she’s getting used to wearing it. The variations in Alma’s experiences of sound are brought into the story in metaphorical ways that subvert the audiences expectations and echo both deaf culture and the broader themes of the story. The metaphors then ripple outward through the story, broadening the themes and metaphors further to make the connections apply to everyone.
Undone is one of those shows that can be watched simply for the surface plotlines of madness vs superpowers and conformity vs breaking free of expectations, but there is more subtlety to it than that. The audience views the world from Alma’s point of view, so it can be hard to tell who the other characters besides her really are inside sometimes. There’s a sense that everyone could be hiding something. Indeed, the season is a bit of a noir with more of an homme fatale than a femme fatale.
My one complaint would be that a leading lady’s madness vs superpowers struggle, which threatens to cost her everything and often does, is an overused trope at this point. Even the related uniqueness vs mental illness struggle has been overdone. While mental illness is a valid subject to explore, these tropes aren’t really doing that. They’re just another way to punish women for being powerful, successful and/or nonconformist, and to suggest that strong women maybe should either tone it down, admit there’s something wrong with them or consider suicide, before they’re thrown in prison, an asylum or murdered. Season 1 of Undone manages to cover most of the bases. (I don’t believe physical prison was mentioned, but the trade off of a chemical prison via forced pharmaceuticals was certainly emphasized.)
And you can’t be a complex, modern female main character without at least one suicide attempt, whether it’s blatantly on purpose or accidentally on purpose. Or both.
But, if the show is a speculative fiction show, we are supposed to pretend that this is all metaphorical and the misogyny isn’t really there. After all, the main character is also involved in amazing, magical activities that could be real or could be happening only in her mind and then something hopeful is tacked onto the ending.
In addition to the misogyny of the situation, the current trend in corporate media, both in entertainment content and reviews, to view nonconformity and questioning of authority as mental illness, while worker and human rights are being strangled, is disturbing.
I have to note that Amazon, which is known for its terrible workers’ rights record, has now produced both Carnival Row and Undone within the space of about 2 weeks. Carnival Row also has an overall dubious morality which tries to have it both ways, with cutesy, adorable street urchins who live in a world plagued by misogyny, racism and classism combined with the apparent economic and moral doom of those who color outside the lines.
The episode opens on Alma crying as she drives through her hometown of San Antonio, Texas. She runs a stop sign, then is further distracted by something materializing on the side of the road. As she turns to stare at it, she’s t-boned by a pick up truck and sent spinning across the road. Her car crashes headlong into a light pole and Alma’s head hits the steering wheel since she’s not wearing her seat belt.
In voiceover, Alma tells us that she’s bored with her way too normal life. We watch her go through her daily routines of waking up next to her boyfriend, getting ready for the day, including plugging in her cochlear implant device behind her ear, going to work, shopping, etc.
When she meets her sister Becca for a drink after work, Becca says that she got engaged to her rich boyfriend and shows Alma her engagement ring. Alma teases Becca about the engagement a little, since Reed’s parents are both classist and racist. The cute bartender and Becca are clearly attracted to each other.
Alma is drunk when she gets home to Sam, and tries to get him to promise that they’ll never be as mainstream as Becca and Reed. Alma can’t stand the thought of being tied down with kids and a mortgage and everything the same everyday forever. Sam tries to go along with her, but he actually doesn’t mind some of the things that go along with the American Dream, like matching Halloween costumes.
He comes up with a slightly subversive Batman and Bruce Wayne couples’ costume that I think might actually still allow them to be cool, but just barely.
Alma isn’t having it. Sam agrees that they will be cat burglars or hot air balloonists before they have kids.
At work at the daycare center the next day, Alma sits with one of the girls in time out and tells her a story about sitting in a cave together for years, until they learn to appreciate what’s outside the cave. Then they sit under a blanket together.
After work, she visits her mother, who asks her to help pick out an engagement photo of Becca from amongst her old photos. Alma wants to pick a funny childhood photo, but Camila chooses a traditionally posed adult photo. Alma asks Camila about her father’s mother, Geraldine, who had 3 kids and schizophrenia. Camila says only that she was Jacob’s mother and she died.
Camila prefers to put a pretty front on things and never, ever look below the surface with anyone.
She tells Alma that there’s a new priest at church, Father Miguel (Tyler Posey), who’s into studying indigenous cultures. She moves on to suggest that Alma bleach her upper lip before Becca’s engagement dinner, because it’ll make her look much prettier. Alma decides it’s time to leave.
Before she goes, Alma spots a photo of her dad smoking, which surprises her. Camila says that Jacob smoked occasionally, but he didn’t want her to know.
Later, Alma shares that information with Sam. He tells her that his father is his mother’s second husband. Her first husband had a sports car, 2 dogs and physically abused her. She didn’t tell him about it until he graduated from college. She waited to tell him until she thought he was old enough to handle it.
Alma brings up their conversation from the night before. Sam says he understands now that the Bruce Wayne-Batman costumes wouldn’t have been cool enough. But Alma is serious about their differences, and tells him she doesn’t want to waste his time if she can’t give him what he wants out of life.
Sam is a guy, so he doesn’t have a biological baby clock that’s ticking. He wants to stay together and live in the moment, as long as their relationship is good.
They get dressed up for Becca’s engagement party, but Alma wears pants instead of a dress. Instead of bleaching her upper lip, she draws a thin mustache on it with eyeliner.
In case you’re keeping score, the points toward crazy are: Might have seen an apparition just before the car crashed, doesn’t want kids, refuses to wear a dress or bleach her upper lip, though she is wearing makeup and a nice outfit, and suggested an unconventional engagement photo to her uptight mother. She’s definitely off the deep end, if you’re living in a Tennessee Williams play.
Camilla comes outside to say hello (and review Alma’s outfit, like Alma knew she would). She is upset and tells Alma that the mustache will ruin Becca’s special night. Alma doesn’t think Becca will care, that only Camila cares.
I think Camila pushes some of her stress onto Alma, and gets her to act it out. Camila doesn’t approve of this marriage, but she won’t show it openly, since she doesn’t want to ruin it for Becca. So she’s taking it out on Alma, subconsciously knowing just how far she can go before Alma will act out. When Alma acts out, Camila gets to have it both ways. She gets to have her feelings about the wedding aired, but she gets to retain the moral high ground.
And she gets the bonus of saying that Alma takes after her father and grandmother. This is how the supposedly sane person in a family is sometimes the most dysfunctional one, who is controlling the dysfunction of the others through backhanded, petty insults and manipulation that they say are because of their great concern and love. I believe Camila loves her daughter, but she’s become dependent on some bad, dangerous coping mechanisms.
Camila greets Sam warmly before she goes inside. He enjoys the way Camila plays them against each other.
Once inside, the rest of the family joins them. They joke about the ‘stache. Then Reed makes an awkward toast to his fiance. Sam is warmed by the toast and gives Alma heart eyes. She has giant walls around her. On the drive home, she tells Sam that they need to talk.
The next morning, Alma is feeling especially dissociative: “Do you ever feel like you’re in a play? Except you’re the only one that knows it’s a play?And everyone else is just playing the role they think they’re supposed to play, because that’s what you do? And you’re like, ‘Hey, this is just a play. We don’t have to do this.’ And maybe we shouldn’t.”
She continues to go through the repetitive, humdrum aspects of her days as she speaks.
She meets Becca at their favorite bar and tells her that she broke up with Sam. When Becca asks why Alma broke up with him, Alma explains that their grandmother was schizophrenic. Geraldine had to have shock therapy and take lithium and she still put a broom handle through the TV while her kids were watching TV. Alma doesn’t want to do that to her family
Okay, first, the treatments for schizophrenia are much better than they used to be. Second, maybe the problem was the broom. As in, maybe it was the endless repetitive housework and being cooped up in the house that exacerbated her illness and she needed a more creative outlet or a different type of job from housewife. I’m not sure why Alma works in daycare when she’s so against the idea of having kids. Or is this supposed to point out that she’s obviously crazy?
Becca decides it’s tough love time, which is code for deciding that Alma’s issues are really about her. In Becca’s world, Alma really wants everything that Becca has, and always has, and has ruined every special moment of Becca’s life, on purpose, because she couldn’t stand to see Becca be the center of attention. Becca thinks Alma is jealous of Reed, and realized Sam isn’t good enough for her so she broke up with him. And that she always makes the losing choice, like working in daycare instead of getting a degree and a better job. Becca tells Alma that she doesn’t have to be afraid to move forward.
That last part is probably the one correct thing Becca said.
But Alma is fired up with resentment now. She borrows Becca’s ring and pretends that she’s the engaged one, ordering a round of shots. Becca protests, because they’re supposed to go to church with Camila in the morning, but Alma insists, mirroring Becca’s behavior. Tomas, the bartender, does shots with them. They get wasted and eventually move to playing strip truth or dare in Alma’s near empty house. (Sam took most of the furniture when he moved out.)
Alma is still pretending she’s the one who’s engaged and wearing Becca’s ring. She dares Tomas to kiss Becca, then goads them into making it a passionate make out session. Her work done, Alma goes to the bathroom to vomit and pass out.
At church the next morning, Father Miguel tells the parable of the birds who trust the Lord to provide for them. Then he discusses the indigenous groups he’s worked with and how they feel Western culture has lost touch with nature, and even the fact that humans are part of nature. “It is in rhythm with nature that we are provided for. Through our not taking selfishly more than we need, but instead recognizing… than our small fearful desires. We are able to step into this natural balance and live freely, just like the birds.”
Becca arrives during the service, with a giant hangover. Alma teases her a little. Becca walks out again, with Alma following, trying to calm Becca down, but Becca isn’t having it. Alma tells Becca that she didn’t make Becca do whatever she did with Tomas, while Becca is telling Alma that she ruined Beca’s beautiful relationship.
Alma confesses that she’s trying to help Becca, because she knows that deep down Becca doesn’t want to marry Reed. They are too broken for someone like him. Becca would crush him. Becca insists that she’s not broken, but she says that Alma is so broken that she doesn’t even know how broken she is.
Alma gives Becca her ring back and tells her that yes, she does know how badly broken she is.
We return to the beginning of the episode, with Alma drive recklessly, on the way to an accident. Her father, as he appeared in the photo when he was smoking, appears outside the car just before she crashes.
Alma is the scapegoat in the Winograd-Diaz dysfunctional family dynamic and Becca is the hero child. All problems are twisted until they are somehow Alma’s fault. Becca lists her many achievements for us, which were sure to have gained parental approval, but it wasn’t enough. She views Alma as having wrecked every one of her special times in a bid for more attention.
Alma believes this herself. Accidental self-destructiveness is a common means of escape from untenable situations in families where open communication isn’t acceptable and the truth is outright denied. We saw all three women deny the truth of their situations at least once. Camila keeps a tight lid on information and behavior. But Camila also set Alma up for failure at the engagement dinner, which took the pressure off of herself and Becca.
Alma is an agent of chaos when things aren’t right in her life or the lives of her loved ones. She did set Becca up for a fall with the bartender. But she was only acting on what she could see was already there. On the other hand, it wasn’t her place to get Becca drunk and shove her into the arms of another man, even if she knew Becca’s marriage would be a mistake.
If you aren’t the kind of person who’s meant for marriage, kids and a 9-5 job, don’t force yourself into it. That will surely cause you to develop a mental illness. You don’t owe your life to anyone but yourself, not even your mom or your nice boyfriend (or girlfriend) that everyone thinks you should marry.
Just get out before you have kids. Abandoning your kids because you’ve realized you’re not meant for the life you’re currently living is a different story. Not okay.
In the background of the church scene, Father Miguel argues for following your heart and dreams, rather than living a cookie cutter, classist, materialistic lifestyle.
Shows that explore similar themes of identity confusion, mental illness, the nature of reality and our place in it, grief and loss, alternate identities and personalities, existentially appropriate punishment for wrongdoing, generational pain, and love through tragedy and flaws:
Next to Normal (Broadway show, try Youtube)
Hedwig (Broadway show, try Youtube)
A Clockwork Orange
Fun House (Broadway show, try Youtube)
A Scanner Darkly
Image courtesy of Amazon Prime Video.