Because You Watched RUSSIAN DOLL, You Should Watch UNDONE

Written by: Jason M. Lucia – February 12th, 2020 1:30pm pst

Russian Doll (the mind bending dark comedy miniseries created by Natasha Lyonne, Leslye Headland, and Amy Poehler) came out of nowhere last year to realign our emotional connection to time, perception, and memory, following Lyonne’s troubled (and hilarious) game designer into a lethal time loop that holds less and less of her life every time she dies.

credit: Instagram

As wildly entertaining as the show is, such an original storyline seemed in the telling to be too eccentric to engender a legacy, but signs have surfaced that like many paradigm-smashing works, Russian Doll has cleared the way for a whole new genre…in this case, a genre of urgent, soul-searching human stories that play freely with time and space and identity.

Some would argue that this form of story in some ways reflects more authentically our experience of consciousness than the linear cause and effect model of story that 99% of our movies and Tv shows adhere to.

Others would argue that these trippy stories are just really cool.

In any case, the strongest sign of this building wave of narrative innovation (post Russian Doll) might be season one of Undone, an 8 part animated series on Amazon, created by Raphael Bob-Waksberg and Kate Purdy, starring the astonishing Rosa Salazar.

credit: Amazon Originals

The first thing you’ll notice about Undone is the animation style. It animates a cartoon skin on live footage through rotoscoping (a technique employed most extensively by Richard Linklater in his films Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly). The figures move through layers of hand-painted watercolor backgrounds. These techniques create a baseline of visual splendor that melts and shifts and shreds into the impossible with unsettling ease. There isn’t the leap we make with CGI special effects in live action films, where we feel the film cut to the “fake” part. Rotoscoping gets used rarely enough to surprise us with its power in an extended experiment like this. Every single frame is a work of art.

credit: Amazon Originals

Salazar plays Alma, a young woman who gets into a near fatal car accident that awakens her latent ability to manipulate time and opens her up to the counsel of an entity who seems to be her dead father. He wants to train her in this ancient shamanic talent so she can go back in time and solve the mystery of his murder.

So Alma is either swept up into a deeply personal adventure that takes her beyond the boundaries of matter, mind, life, and time…or she’s banged up her head very badly and these experiences are tricks of mental illness. The series does an incredible job of maintaining that ambiguity throughout the twists and turns of Alma’s journey, leaving the text open to either interpretation up to its very last shot…and beyond, I would say, but Amazon has renewed Undone for a second season, and some form of resolution seems inevitable.

credit: Amazon Originals

But in Season One, we get to see Alma’s initiation and transformation from within the rich expanses of her inner life AND through the eyes of her mother, her sister, and her boyfriend. These are strong relationships between warm, funny, complicated characters. As with Russian Doll,we are persuaded to accept the metaphysics through our emotional connection to the characters. We like spending time with them, no matter how confusing or psychedelic the story becomes.

credit: Amazon Originals

And this story IS psychedelic, not in the cliche pharmaceutical sense, but in the original sense of the word: the soul made visible. A major feature of the great TV that’s flourished on our screens in the past decade is the greater inclusion of the inner life of characters. I would wager that we are seeing more dreams, distorted memories, visions, and hallucinations in the body of non-genre dramatic shows than ever before.

Just as TV has opened itself by necessity to the moral complexities of our time, shows like Undone confront the strange complexity of having a mind, being a person, living a life, and how no matter how grounded we may seem to be, half the time we’re somewhere else, and we’re affected and defined by what happens in those places. In our dreams. In our visions.

credit: Amazon Originals

Alma accepts the call to adventure that comes to her from the shadowy caves of her pain, a call to be the shaman of her family, to go deep inside and beyond the beyond to solve the puzzle that will heal the wounded land. But when we see her behavior from outside, through the eyes of her troubled loved ones, we see how crazy she seems, how behavioral side effects of her ongoing inner journey could be read as signs of dissociation and schizophrenia. Her experiments in changing her personal history seem to be turning her into a more patient, empathic person, but we have no way of knowing if the transfigured moments and unmade mistakes are “real” to anyone but Alma.

Some critics have argued that the story unethically romanticizes mental illness by suggesting that some forms of schizophrenia might be the key to latent reality-shaping superpowers. I think that critique is problematic, because by implication it diagnoses thousands of years of indigenous American culture (its shamanic class and the cultural precepts spun from shamanic knowledge) as schizophrenic. A case could be made, from the perspective of the most mechanistic psychoanalysis.

credit: Amazon Originals

But shows like Undone and Russian Doll invite us into an ancient and yet very modern space where reality is much less sure of itself than it used to be, and its heroines show us a way to behave ethically and with purpose when the world becomes a shapeshifting wonderland where everything is happening at once. In a world that is more and more a storm of information, we might be looking to more and more of these tragicomic transdimensional recovery narratives for validations, consolations, and survival strategies.

Undone is available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video…

About The Author:

Jason M. Lucia is a media critic, columnist, and professional ghostwriter whose work has been published under several pseudonyms.  He was raised in Medford, MA.  He went to school in NY.  He lives to rhapsodize the stories he loves on the page and in the flesh.

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