Very early on in Undone, Alma (Alita: Battle Angel’s Rosa Salazar) grumbles over the mundanity of her life: her commute to work, her ho-hum job, the choice between two types of beans at the grocery store.
Then she sees a vision of her dead father, crashes her car, and manifests time travel powers. But this isn’t a superhero origin story. The “adventure” she finds herself entangled in isn’t something she asked for — nor is it something she’s willing to take up.
She’s powerless. Every action is beyond Alma’s control, every decision made by someone who is not her, a theme in her life that extends beyond her newfound powers and abilities.
This lack of control is the crux of Undone, which uses psychedelic rotoscoping animation to illustrate a story of this world and outside it.
[Ed. note: This post contains spoilers for the first five episodes of Undone.]
The new Amazon series, from Bojack Horseman writer Kate Purdy and creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg, walks a fine line between attributing Alma’s visions to newfound powers or her deteriorating mental state. Undone is refreshingly open about Alma’s mental health struggle, which is not a surprise given the showrunners’ previous work. (Mental health is a common thread in Bojack Horseman.)
Early on, we learn that Alma’s grandmother was schizophrenic. A fear of predestined challenges is the big reason Alma doesn’t want a family — unlike her sister Becca (Angelique Cabral), who’s introduced shortly after getting engaged. Alma’s friends and family move on with their lives, content with “normalcy,” while Alma feels the status quo is a crushing weight.
She’s not alright — and pretending otherwise takes its toll.
So, as I said, it’s unclear whether or not Alma’s time powers are literal, or a fabrication inside Alma’s mind. Or if that even matters.
Actually, one other person feels these time powers: her dead father, who similarly may or may not be a hallucination. Regardless of his status, Jacob (Bob Odenkirk) enlists Alma to find the truth behind his death.
Jacob repeats over and over again that Alma is “special” and has the ability to experience time from a detached perspective, slipping in and out of certain moments. In theory, if she gains full control of her powers, she can go back to the moment Jacob was killed to find out the culprit. But detaching from time means detaching from her regular life, with her boyfriend, her sister, her mother, and the friends looking out for her.
The people in Alma’s life are all broken and messy, albeit well-intentioned. Alma’s mother invites her stubborn daughters to church, insistent that religion is the answer, and Alma, guided by her father’s more scientific leanings, is cynical about a faith-based approach. Alma’s boyfriend Sam insists that he’s fine never getting married, but she still breaks up with him because intimacy terrifies her. Alma’s sister is marrying a bland, Texan man with a bland, Texan family and Alma struggles to be happy for her, because she can’t understand wanting such a mundane life.
Alma’s relationships have the friction of sandpaper and the emotional rawness is, at times, nerve-tingling to watch. Right before Alma’s crash, the two sisters get into a bitter fight. Becca blames Alma for her own moment of infidelity, while Alma insults her sister’s fiance. Each calls the other selfish, each thinks their way of thinking is the right way, and each refuses to compromise.
In the second episode, Becca sits by the ailing Alma’s side, chiding her for getting into an accident right before the wedding. Alma relives the conversation multiple times, as her out-of-control powers keep tugging her through time. Each successive iteration gets worse and worse. Alma blows up at Becca for being selfish, Becca counters that Alma’s self-destructive behavior alienates the rest of the family.
As the fights intensify in each version of the conversation, the world cracks and shatters, jerking Alma through time. She has lost control of the situation and, subsequently, her powers are taking control of her. In the final version — the one where Alma finally sees Becca’s perspective — the background is a quiet, stable, and beautiful oil-painting rendition of a mundane hospital room.
Like a hyperactive Christmas Carol, Alma must repeat moments before her choices lead to a satisfying path. She recognizes that Becca’s chiding doesn’t come out of selfishness, but that it is her way of expressing love and concern.
As Alma learns to control her powers — or as she sinks further and further into a mental spiral, depending on what’s really going on — it becomes clear she’s never been in full control of her own life. When she was a girl, her mother guilted her into getting surgery to restore her hearing, despite her father resisting the procedure, as Alma was happy at her school for Deaf students. In the visions of Alma’s past, we see that her father was often her biggest advocate, which is why she doesn’t think twice of following his instruction — even after his death.
The malleable rotoscope animation emphasizes Alma’s relationship with time and reality. Even in Alma’s regular life, the dreamlike quality indicates that she’s not always present, the detached, floaty visuals echoing Alma’s relationship with the real world.
Humdrum sites, like the bar the sisters frequent and the road Alma takes to work, are rendered like an oil painting. When the show shifts into the dream sequences, the time travel, the painting-like background that Alma slips through gorgeously illustrates her newfound ability and detachment from space and time.
As the show progresses, I began to have a sneaking suspicion that something is off, be it Jacob’s insistence at cutting off all human contact (when was the last time cutting off relationships actually worked out for a protagonist?) or the fact that the more control Alma gains over her powers with time, the less control she has on her reality. Everything in her personal life is unraveling, but she’s able to slip in and out of time to manipulate a set of keys into her hands without touching them.
Of course only she can see the full extent of the gorgeous, time-bending world she floats through. The rest of the characters are rooted in their own reality. While it is easy for Alma to detach and drift away, she has to figure out if this is something she actually wants. Does she want this grandiose quest? Does she want to disconnect herself from her friends and family in pursuit of something that might not even be real?
While the crux of the show’s plot revolves around the question of control, the emotional core revolves around whether or not Alma will turn towards her friends and family or away from them — and likewise, whether the people in her life will make the choice to be there for her, even if they can’t possibly understand what she’s going through. The mind-bending animated sequences are stunning, but the show’s biggest payoffs come from quiet moments between Alma and the people she’s closest to. Sometimes the magic is hidden in the mundane.