Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted July 25, 2022
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I've been lax in reviewing filmed media, even things I enjoyed. I thought about reviewing "Undone" when I watched the first season almost three years ago. One thing I wondered was if there would be a second season, and what direction that might take. If not, how to make sense of the scant episodes we got. Now it has been three months since I watched the second season. I'll be surprised if we get more, but I will watch if that happens. Many stories of a fantastic nature can be viewed as "what you see is what you get," that what is happening is real, even if hard to understand and believe. Another option is to think of it as all in the mind of the protagonist. "Undone" is just as meaningful either way you look at it.
Rosa Salazar plays Alma Winograd-Diaz, a 28-year-old woman living in San Antonio, adrift with apparently little ambition, which has probably been the case since her father Jacob (Bob Odenkirk) died when she was young. She had dropped out of college, now working as a pre-school teacher/caregiver. Her relationship with Sam (Siddharth Dhananjay) doesn't seem to be going anywhere, and it's clear it doesn't matter to her if it does or not. Her younger sister Becca (Angelique Cabral) is newly engaged, and clearly wants Alma to be jealous. She's not jealous, but rather angry at people for expecting her to care. She makes it clear to Sam that she does not want a long-term relationship; she doesn't want to settle down, get married, have kids. While Sam is willing to entertain her idiosyncracies, hoping she will eventually come around, she breaks up with him instead. She also has a huge argument with Becca the morning after a bachelorette party. Prior to that, while looking through old family photos for one of Becca as a child, she finds one of her father she is sure she had never seen before, and is surprised that he was smoking. She asks her mother Camila (Constance Marie) if her father smoked much, and had he been smoking the night of his car accident, but her mother brushes her off with an "I don't know." Asked about the police report, her mother says she doesn't have a copy, that it was twenty years ago and she doesn't remember.
Early in the first episode we see Alma in a car accident, but we are not shown what distracted her. That scene is shown in full later. After her break-up with Sam, after her fight with Becca, Alma is driving, angry and crying, running red lights and stop signs with no regard for her safety. She sees, or at least thinks she sees, her father standing on the sidewalk, and it is him as she had seen in the photo of him smoking. Dazed and confused, she is struck by another vehicle as she passes through the next intersection. That is the end of the first episode. When she comes back to consciousness she is in the hospital. She has lost some of her memories, although her father sitting in a chair at her bedside brings back that shock. She has forgotten about her fight with Becca, forgotten her break-up with Sam, who indulges her in that by moving back in with her, pretending that nothing had changed. Her father keeps popping up, insisting he needs her help solving his death. He had supposedly been blinded by oncoming headlights, lost control of his car, plunging off a cliff. He claims he was intentionally run off the road by someone upset by the research he was doing. It's easy to think his manifestation was generated by Alma's troubled mind. In her argument with Becca she acknowledged she was broken, and felt it was because she came from broken people. Her father's mother had suffered from mental illness, eventually committing suicide. Alma was worried she was destined for the same fate. Is her father really speaking to her, and if so how and why? Or is it all the product of Alma's imagination as she tries to sort out the mess she has made of her life? What she learns of her father's work could be a total fabrication. What she is imagining could be occuring while she is unconscious after the accident, although that doesn't explain her seeing her father before the accident, if she actually did that is. If he is appearing and speaking to her, why did he wait twenty years before asking for help?
Before saying anything else about the plot I want to talk about the production style. It is a form of animation known as rotoscoping. The actors are filmed in front of green (or blue) screens, those scenes are then transferred to a computer, then the animation is layered over the live footage. All of the action could have been live, either on studio sets or on location, but the rotoscope method was probably much less expensive. Not even all an actor's actions, movements, and facial expressions had to have been originally filmed or video taped. Those things could be manipulated by the computer program. Two prominent examples of the technique are both films by Richard Linklater, the Philip K. Dick adaptation A Scanner Darkly, and his original story Waking Life. Linklater also used the technique for a recent Netflix film I haven't seen yet, Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood. This semi-detachment from realism gives the story a dream-like quality, perfect for something that might be taking place within someone's conscious, or unconscious mind. Alma's father is trying to teach her how to become detached from reality so she can go back in time to observe his accident and determine the cause. Those flights of fancy are backdropped with kaleidoscopic, psychedelic, hallucinogenic swirls of colorful mayhem, then Alma ends back in her present wondering what's going on. Things her father shows her are not limited to his work, other memories are of family outings, one in particular gives Alma an idea of how to bring her father back to life. After hopefully rearranging events of the night of his death, she travels to Mexico, to an archaeological site they had visited before. She spends the night waiting for her father to walk out of a cave. The first season ends with the sunrise, with her obviously being surprised by something she sees, although we don't get to see what that is.
The second season is better than the first, but it also reinforces the idea that everything is a dream or hallucination in Alma's mind. It is not her father that walks out of the cave, but rather an old woman. That woman appears later in a segment concerning Alma's mother's life, both before and after she had met Alma's father. Alma had taken her mother's car to drive to Mexico and wait outside the cave. In the Season One finale Becca had figured out where Alma was, perhaps there was GPS tracking on the car, or she tracked her phone, can't remember right now. Becca calls her mom to say she had found Alma, she was okay, they would be home soon. But when Alma tells the old woman she's leaving with her sister, Becca is not around. Alma calls her, only to find out Becca is on her honeymoon in Bora Bora. The trip back to San Antonio is glossed over, almost as if it was all a dream, with the scene in Mexico automatically sequeing into San Antonio. She goes into her parents' house to find her father working in his study. Another change is that Becca seems to have the same time-traveling, detachment from reality ability as well. Alma, Becca, and their father attempt to unravel his mother's mental illness, perhaps even change her fate as it seemed Alma had changed her father's.
One argument in favor of the visions being real is that Alma had next to no knowledge of her grandmother Geraldine (Holley Fain), and she sees things even her father might not have known. In their time travels they encounter Geraldine as a young girl, before she immigrated to America, before she had changed her name from Ruchel (Veda Cienfuegos). In these scenarios it seems Ruchel/Geraldine had been haunted by events for which she blamed herself. Can they learn the truth, and will that truth unlock Geraldine's psyche, enough that she stops suffering through depression, surviving instead of killing herself? Either way you choose to view this show, it still presents a powerful message. For a family to work each moment is as important as any other. If what Alma sees of her father's life was true, it was his obsession with his work that drove a wedge between him and his wife, and distanced himself from his daughters. If what we learn of Camila's life before she met Jacob is true, it reinforces the notion that it is never wise to keep secrets from those you love, and those who love you. Even if everything Alma witnessed was only in her imagination, would it be enough to set her on a different path going forward? Being less self-absorbed and selfish would be a good start. Can she do it? The finale might mean that it worked, or it could mean Alma ends up like Geraldine, trapped in her own head until she can't live with it anymore. I know which ending I prefer, but even if my preference isn't correct, I still enjoyed the story, and recommend it enthusiastically.
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