The world as seen through a kaleidoscope is not exactly real, but it’s not not real, either. It is a marvel of physics, filtering reality into dozens of refracted shapes and creating a world that belongs only to you, if only for a moment, in which the utterly ordinary is suddenly anything but.
Created by BoJack Horseman alum Kate Purdy and BoJack creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg, Amazon’s new animated series Undone follows Alma (Rosa Salazar, magnetic), a young woman whose mundane existence is one day, for lack of a more precise word, kaleidoscoped. Following a car accident, Alma unlocks an ability to see, manipulate, and travel across space and time. Soon after, the spirit figure of her dead father Jacob (Bob Odenkirk) tasks her with solving the mystery of his untimely death one Halloween night years ago.
As the series progresses, we see reality splintering through Alma’s eyes, shattering, bubbling, and blurring into different shapes and colors and impossible visions of past, present, and future. It’s depicted in lush rotoscope animation — a technique notably employed in Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly and Waking Life, and in the 2006 crime documentary Tower — in which individual live-action frames are traced over to create vivid, detailed illustrations. The cast filmed their scenes in a black box, while painted oil backgrounds were juxtaposed beneath the characters during the animation process. The effect produces a show that quite literally looks like nothing else on television.
We don’t question the nature of Alma’s disorienting visions at first; we’re used to superheroics that stretch our understanding of time travel and quantum physics. But the mastery of Undone comes as it delicately, self-assuredly sews in threads of doubt, wondering whether Alma’s visions are a result of magic or mental illness, or perhaps a little of both.
It is not a spoiler to say that the answer is not so simple. Neither possibility robs Alma of her agency, nor do they erase the fact that this is her reality, ultimately informed by her lived experiences as a young Jewish and Mexican-American woman born and raised in San Antonio, Texas. (Purdy recruited Latinx writers Joanna Calo and Lauren Otero, both also from the BoJack team, to imbue Alma and her family with a lived-in specificity. She just is.)
Undone respects it as such. Purdy, who penned the brutal, standout season four BoJack Horseman episodes “The Old Sugarman Place” and “Time’s Arrow,” renders Alma’s journey with full-throated empathy. The show only ever leaves Alma’s perspective to see her through the eyes of those who love her — her sister Becca (Angelique Cabral), her mother Camila (Constance Marie), her live-in boyfriend Sam (Siddharth Dhananjay), her supervisor Tunde (Daveed Diggs) — and only want to understand what she sees. But you know just how impossible it is to explain. Where would you even begin?
“We’re broken people, okay? And broken people break people,” Alma tells Becca in the series pilot. Their grandmother was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and the specter of the disease — coupled with their father’s early death — looms over Alma’s life. When we first meet her, Alma has resigned herself to a daily routine that wears on her out of sheer dullness. Salazar captures the character’s desperate immobility in subtle facial cues that speak volumes, and by mining the dry, dark humor of an existential crisis borne from mundanity: “I’m so bored of living,” Alma deadpans. “I’m 28 years old and I’m terrified this is all there is. Sometimes, I’ll be in the store, and I’ll be looking at two different cans of beans, and I’ll think, ‘These beans are better. No, these beans are better.’ And then I’ll think, ‘That’s the most boring thought anyone’s ever had.’ I mean, God. Everything is pointless.”
Her visions and Jacob’s arrival suggest that Alma’s new abilities might be the answer she’s looking for. Odenkirk brings warmth to the role of a loving father, but retains a tragic, desperate edge as Jacob single-mindedly pushes his daughter to piece together his story. He guides Alma through her unpredictable new abilities, explaining that he studied holy people around the world to identify and hone their spiritual powers. What most western societies would classify as a mental illness such as schizophrenia, Jacob believes to be temporal omniscience akin to shamanism. He believes Alma possesses these same abilities.
This story development is in part inspired by Purdy’s own exploration of shaman healing practices to heal her anxiety and depression, and she has explained how these practices often recontextualize mental illness as powerful opportunities for spiritual healing. Undone especially draws from native Mesoamerican cultures as inspiration, and Purdy reportedly consulted with indigenous cultural scholars as well as mental health experts when working on the show. But here Undone stumbles somewhat, attempting to cover certain logistic plot holes with indigenous imagery when it doesn’t necessarily need to — the wonder of magic is that you can create your own rules to follow.
Which gets, more or less, at the actual point. Instead of offering any single inalienable truth, Undone proposes an alternative: that we might get closer to our own truths, evolving and imperfect as they may be, if we are perhaps willing to consider our reality — our histories, our traumas, our memories, our desires, ourselves — in a new light.