Undone Undoes Traditional Schizophrenia Narratives. By Brandon Topp.
We all shit our pants when Edward Norton’s narrator revealed himself as Tyler Durden in Fight Club. Several years and several ripoffs later, Mr. Robot managed to fool many of us in a similar way for its entire first season.
In Noah Hawley’s show Legion on FX, the first season tracks the confusion of main character David Haller’s ability to distinguish between what some told him were schizophrenic episodes, and what others told him were super powers.
Many storytellers have walked the narrative line of, in this fictional universe—will delusions be the key to the greater mysteries of life and existence, or will they simply be delusions? So, how has the new series Undone on Amazon broached this in an original, compelling, and emotionally vibrant sort of way?
The Heart Of Undone Is The Balance of Surreality and Reality
So, in Mr. Robot and in Fight Club, the protagonist begins the story fully deluded, and then has an awakening from which they realize and accept they’re mentally ill. In Undone, the main character Alma questions the visions she has of her dead father immediately. Throughout the whole season, the audience is back and forth with Alma on whether she’s a shaman or a schizophrenic.
The only other examples I know of a narrative like this, where the protagonist is aware that they can’t really, fully know what’s real and what isn’t are Legion, and the film A Beautiful Mind. Undone sits right in the middle of these two in an interesting way. See, Legion never touches reality, because it’s a superhero show and there are powers, so while the main character’s struggle to get in touch with reality are interesting, the show is total fantasy. On the flip side, A Beautiful Mind is based on a true story, so we never consider the protagonist’s delusions at all.
Undone taps us into the reality of our everyday world, and the reality of Alma’s mind in an even-keeled way to help us feel her anxiety, confusion, and wonder. This approach is original, and true to a universal human truth.
We Don’t Know Shit
Experts who study the universe, experts who study the ocean, and experts who study the mind all agree that there’s far more about existence that we don’t know, than what we do know. None of us can be totally certain if the reality we share is the primary reality of our existence, and not one of us has any idea what happens when we die. That same confusion feeds Alma’s limbo.
As of now, I don’t think the show has taken a stance on which reality is real. That could all change with a second season. But for now, the ambiguity is both frustrating and the exact thing that helped Undone undo traditional schizophrenia narratives.
By staying in the space of, I don’t know what’s real, the show stands apart from other stories that approach this subject by choosing a particular reality for a particular universe. Undone stays on the side of our reality, because its story, like us can never really say for sure what’s real and what isn’t in life.
I think if the show ended here, there’s something interesting about the idea that we can each choose the reality that we feel is real. It’s an interesting statement on how to view life. At the same time, it’d feel sort of like a cop out from a writing perspective. It’d be an immense challenge to keep this story going for another season while keeping it as compelling, which makes the prospect of another season compelling.
Sometimes, We Just Want Things To Be Different
Throughout the whole season, it’s easy to root for Alma’s mission to travel in time and save her dad’s life. While we know very little about the father himself, and how bringing him back would alter* the lives of the family, we still hope that she can be successful. Part of that feeling is the character’s charm, and wanting to see our protagonist succeed, while the other part is this seemingly universal desire for a new reality.
*For those who don’t know, Dark is an excellent German show on Netflix, and maybe the best thing I’ve seen about time travel and the philosophies of altering timelines.
Alma says things throughout the season along the lines of, Don’t worry, this reality will be totally gone soon, and, Don’t you want things to just be different? I think if any of us could pull this invisible curtain from hanging over our realities to discover a true existence that comes without all of the bullshit sadness, boredom, and depression so prevalent in this life, we would. That’s really what Alma seems to want in this show.
She’s not only trying to bring back her father. She’s trying to escape her relationship*, and her family, and the monotony of day-to-day life. She’s looking for something that makes sense, and doesn’t conjure the feelings of lonesomeness that haunt most of us.
*Forever on Amazon is a show that beautifully explores similar ideas in terms of day-to-day monotony versus the afterlife and great beyond.
Undone Is Good For The Soul
Undone is cinematically fun for a number of reasons: the music is enticing, curious, and energetic; the rotoscope* animation complements the trans-dimensional nature of the show; and of course head-trip, time travel fantasy has a broad potential to be awesome. In addition to all of that, it circles back to real human moments, connections, regrets, and broad philosophies to put everything else in its rightful perspective.
When Alma painstakingly tries to let go of the reality of her father’s storyline at the end of the season, we see the deep struggle of going back to our “reality.” And then it ends, and we realize we’ve been sitting on the couch watching this fantastic show for four straight hours, escaping, and now it’s time to get up, and get back to our “reality.” And seeing Alma, connecting to her and relating to her, makes that inevitability a bit easier.
*The first rotoscope film I ever saw was Richard Linklater’s Waking Life. It also uses the animation technique to put a surreal lense over human conversations, interactions, and dreams.
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