Undone Review: A Rich, Complicated Character Piece About Mental Illness

The series is both beautiful and inventive, even if it uses the mental health of its protagonist as a story hook.

Undone
Photo: Amazon

Rotoscope animation gives Amazon’s Undone an appropriately in-between feel, its not-quite-animated yet not-quite-live-action style a metaphor for protagonist Alma’s (Rosa Salazar) state of mind. Following a car crash, she becomes unmoored in time, seeming to travel to the past and go through life events out of order. Whether due to schizophrenia or because she’s some sort of time wizard, the point is that Alma isn’t in total control. The series, the brainchild of Bojack Horseman writers Kate Purdy and Raphael Bob-Waksberg, is certainly complicated, but it makes for an unexpectedly rich character piece about processing mental illness and the way it affects those around us.

Alma is, at turns, playfully sarcastic and pessimistic or withdrawn, if not a little self-destructive. Her family’s history of mental illness naturally scares the young woman; she wears a cochlear implant and views her deafness and other facets of what she calls her “broken brain” as potential warning signs that she, too, may develop schizophrenia one day. All these factors complicate Alma’s relationships with her devoutly religious mother, Camila (Constance Marie), and her buttoned-up sister, Becca (Angelique Cabral).

The newest entry in Alma’s network of relationships is her long-dead father, Jacob (Bob Odenkirk), who manifests alongside his daughter’s apparent time-jumping powers. Much of the series is dedicated to Alma developing her abilities under his tutelage and investigating his untimely demise, sliding in and out of oil-painted dreamscapes and memories. At one point, father and daughter levitate within an enlarged version of the hand-drawn meadow of a Get Well Soon card from her boyfriend, Sam (Siddharth Dhananjay). Then, at another, a person ages into a skeleton only for a baby to sprout from the pile like the skull is an egg.

But there’s always a lingering question mark over the whole experience, of whether her powers and newfound special-ness are real or whether they’re the imagined result of Alma’s desire for control and self-actualization, her rebellion against her mundane life and general lack of agency. Undone slyly keeps itself from answering this question, or even if Jacob’s teachings are healthy; when he’s not nudging her in the direction of becoming some kind of emotionless time monk, he’s warning her about how harmful it is to have relationships at all.

The series breaks up what can feel like long stretches of semi-scientific explanations with frequent comedic asides or images of Alma simply living her life, which is inevitably affected by her abilities. Sometimes Undone’s tonal balance can feel off, jokey to a point that undercuts the seriousness of Alma’s investigation into her father’s death. But such interludes are mostly a welcome relief, as when Jacob stops one particular explanation dead in order to incredulously focus on how his daughter was never taught to drive stick-shift.

Rather than simply giving Alma a “superpower,” Purdy and Bob-Waksberg structure the series in such a way that makes the grounded relationships uniformly more engrossing than the mystery of Jacob’s death. A common refrain is that “ordinary life” is just as appealing as the powers that reframe Alma’s perception of reality, and the series takes great pains to depict the way others react to her behavior. On some level, it doesn’t matter whether she’s schizophrenic or a time-traveler so much as the fact that she and her loved ones are affected all the same.

Even so, the show’s sporadic claims to the appeal of “ordinary life” ring a bit hollow, particularly in the midst of lavish animation meant to aid the depiction of its time-travel conceit. The is-she-or-isn’t-she-crazy premise creates an inherent division where time travel is the ideal option and schizophrenia is the tragic alternative. While it’s certainly possible that this dichotomy merely reflects Alma’s current perception of mental illness, Undone asks the viewer to take it on faith that it’s approaching the topic with sensitivity.

There are no mentally ill characters to offer an alternate perspective, nor are there any significant indigenous characters to flesh out the way the series uses such cultures’ beliefs, particularly shamanism, as essentially wallpaper for time travel lore. Undone can be beautiful and inventive, but rather than directly confront such concerns, it mostly just kicks each can of worms a little further down the road, to perhaps be addressed in a future season while it continues to use the question of Alma’s sanity as a story hook.

Score: 
 Cast: Rosa Salazar, Bob Odenkirk, Angelique Cabral, Constance Marie, Siddharth Dhananjay, Daveed Diggs, Luna-Marie Katich, Kevin Bigley  Network: Amazon  Buy: Amazon

Steven Scaife

Steven Nguyen Scaife is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Buzzfeed News, Fanbyte, Polygon, The Awl, Rock Paper Shotgun, EGM, and others. He is reluctantly based in the Midwest.

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