* Minor spoilers ahead!
Undone is about a lot of things. It’s about time travel and manipulation, it’s about relationships, it’s about culture, it’s about understanding oneself, it’s about mental illness, it’s about grief, it’s about figuring about the truth, it’s about a mystery.
Above all though, to me this show was about duality.
Duality (one of my favorite topics and themes in media), is the idea that something is not one thing or the other, but both, and that by being both it becomes something of its own.
OK, that’s a lot to break down, but I promise it makes a lot more sense in context. Let’s break it down, and discuss how Amazon Prime’s new series Undone is both a captivating sci-fi mystery and a pseudo-deep lecture on the subjugation personal and cultural identity. It’s both.
The basic premise of Undone begins when 28 year old Alma survives a car crash and wakes up from a coma with the ability to manipulate time and communicate with her dead father, who died in car crash himself. Her father explains that the crash caused her mind to be opened in the way that it is when you die, except that because she’s not dead, she has one foot in the linear reality of the living and one foot in malleable existence of the dead. Thus kicking off our theme of duality. But Alma’s father (played by Bob Odenkirk) has a secret — the car accident that killed him was no accident. He believes that he was killed, and with Alma’s newfound abilities, she can uncover the truth and go back in time to save him.
The first thing I’ll say about the surface level mystery is that the rules of the time travel and Alma’s abilities are loose at best and incomprehensible at worst. So if it’s really important to you that there’s a sound metaphysical system, this show is going to frustrate you. But I’m not going to get into the specifics, because there are far more important issues here to discuss.
Continuing on our theme of duality, Alma and her family are Latinx, with her mother being Chicana (of Mexican decent) and her father being white. Alma and her sister belongs to both cultures. They also live in Southern Texas, at the edge of the Alamo, which symbolically represents the physical space between Mexican and American identity. The show furthers this discussion with the inclusion of indigenous culture and spiritually, which sounds grand and wonderful, except that it’s presented by Alma’s father — the only one in the family to have no blood relation to the Mesoamerican people which he reveres. It turns out that her father’s obsession with indigenous culture is a result of his mother’s Schizophrenia diagnosis (which we’ll get back to), and his resulting research on the disease. He believes that Schizophrenia is not the creation of illusions in the mind, but the result of one being able to see outside of reality, much in the way that indigenous cultures speak of spiritual leaders.
Though the way the show connects Schizophrenia to Mesoamerican cultures doesn’t sit perfectly right with me, to the show’s credit, I do think that they way it depicts Schizophrenia is one of the most comprehensive and interesting that I’ve ever seen on screen. It never demonizes it, and I feel that having seen this series I have a better understanding of how people with this disorder interact with the world — even if it is just one of the infinite possible ways. I also loved how it depicted how mental illness affects relationships, and how it creates feelings of isolation for both those suffering and their families.
Undone is quite sensitive to the issue of inclusivity. It features a Latinx family, a main character who uses a Cochlear implant and speaks American Sign Language, and her boyfriend, who immigrated from India (played by Siddharth Dhananjay). What I liked about all of this was that these things really informed the characters, and were consequential to the plot. They didn’t just sit there as ways to check off boxes, they actually impacted the narrative.
However, there are many times in this series where I felt that they were preaching some ideas a bit too much. I could be nitpicking here, but I’m really not a fan of social discussions that are so on the nose, especially when the show already lost some credit for me because of the white man’s obsession with indigenous people and also because honestly Alma is not very likable.
In fact, she’s downright intolerable at times. In the first few episodes I found her cynical for cynicism’s sake, someone who manifests her own problems just to have them. And yes, this is the point of the character, but the reasoning never felt justified to me. Even when they do try to present a reason, it feels half-hearted and doesn’t come nearly close enough to explaining her behavior. I felt very little sympathy for her throughout, and spent a lot of time wishing one of the other characters would slap her. Sorry, but it’s true. She does some seriously unforgivable stuff. And honestly Fleabag did this whole idea a lot better.
The other thing that was a bit of hurdle for me was the animation style, which is a visual representation of our duality theme. They used Rotoscope, which makes it look as if they filmed the show in live action, and then animators drew over the top of it, making it both live action and animation. It’s a cool idea, but frankly I’m not a fan of the finished product. Some of the animation sequences are really gorgeous, but all the reality-based stuff is…unsettling.
The visual style is not the only way in which the form of this series reflects its content themes. Undone is a limited series — something that’s rapidly rising in popularity — and at 8 episodes it feels like a very contained story, but has a lot of space to touch on its many themes and issues. It is truly a blend between movie and television show. It doesn’t feel like it can really go anywhere else, but it also feels like something that would have severely suffered from a 2 hour run time. However, for all the time it was given, Undone still felt rushed at times. On its many social issues, I felt like it just wanted to throw them out there, but not really dig into them. On its handful of theoretical science issues, I feel like it didn’t even want to try and explain.
Throughout its 8 episodes, I kept expecting it to pull together and end with a grand explanation of it all, but it never really gets there. I won’t say the ending is unsatisfying, because it’s not, but it did leave me wondering what the point was in the end.
I can’t decide what I really think about this series, because it did about an even amount of things really great as it did things not so great. It’s both really inventive and really derivative. It’s both surprisingly deep and absurdly shallow. It’s both progressive and antiquated.
At the end of the day, it’s not perfect or completely revolutionary, but I do think it has merit. There are ideas and discussions in there that are important and need to be brought to light. The concept was great, even if the execution wasn’t always. And that’s the thing about media — it’s rarely only good or only bad. That grey space is where we develop as a society, where we expand on our existing ideas and challenge what our future ones will be. Plus, it’s a quick watch. I binged it easily in one sitting, and I didn’t think it was a total waste of time.
I couldn’t exactly make up my mind on this one, but I would say if any of the ideas or issues in here interest you, give this show a try, because it does push boundaries, and the only way we will continue to get media that does that is if people watch.
FINAL SCORE: B+
Undone is now streaming on Amazon Prime.