Off the Beaten Path | Undone S1

It’s 420 y’all, so it’s time we celebrate this highest of holidays with an abundance of the legal cannabis riches our state of Illinois can provide because why the hell not. So for my celebration, I figured why not cover the kind of show that I love to watch when I’m stoned yet looking for something more substantive than my go-to sitcoms and lighter comedies. And in this case, I often gravitate towards the conceptually trippy. Stuff like Mulholland Drive, It’s Such a Beautiful Day and anything based on the works of Philip K Dick. You know, something that can blow a THC-soaked brain as little else can. Well, the show I picked out for you all, the animated Amazon Prime original dramedy Undone S1, is all that and more.

If you didn’t click on the trailer, the premise of Undone is pretty mundane. Created by Kate Purdy and Rafael Bob-Waksberg, it follows Alma Winograd-Diaz (Rosa Salazar), a 28-year-old daycare teacher who struggles with the ennui of daily existence. Then, she ends up in a coma after barely making it through a horrific car crash. When she wakes up, two things are different; she has become unstuck from the linear flow of time, and she can communicate with her dead father Jacob Winograd (Bob Odenkirk). Alma then has to juggle normal life responsibilities while learning the secrets of time manipulation from Jacob for one goal; to find out who murdered him on Halloween night 2002, and to change the past so he can survive. You know, typical kind of post-coma story.

Conversely, it’s the story of Alma experiencing a worrisome mix of PTSD and a schizophrenic breakdown, a condition that has plagued her paternal line for generations. It’s honestly up to the viewer’s interpretation (I’ll get into mine further on in the review). 

Now, like many a good Off the Beaten Path show before, this is not the first time I’ve seen Undone before. I watched it back in 2019 in what became a very trippy, time shenanigan-filled weekend – I watched Russian Doll on Friday and Undone on Saturday and Sunday. Back then, I was floored by how good Undone was. After this go-round, I felt largely the same quality-wise, but my interpretations about what was happening on screen were different, which I’ll talk about in due time.

So What’s Exactly Real?

Or, you know, we can cover this whole “are Alma’s time-traveling powers real or a schizophrenic breakdown” debate now. It’s the key thrust of the series and encapsulates everything within it from character arcs to theme to animation style. Plus, it’s still at the forefront of my mind and this is my review, so why the hell not start with it.

Alma learning to move the keys

The first time I watched the show, I was a full believer in the idea that Alma’s time abilities were genuine. Well, I was at first. The way the show worked out various uses of said time travel in conjunction with the rotoscoping animation was super compelling to me. Like, the whole sequence of Alma learning to move her house keys without touching them – she does this by consciously moving to a time when the keys are off the table – blew my THC-soaked mind. As such, I was more than a little enamored.

But that’s to be expected, since the first half of the season – it’s an 8 half-hour episode season by the way – is solely from Alma’s POV. Once you get to the back half, then things changed. I know I was caught off-guard when characters like Alma’s mother Camila (Constance Marie) started bringing up mental illness. As the show went on and other POVs came to the forefront, I soon switched to being on the fence, and there I stayed. 

During this second go-round, keeping my eyes open for signs, I’m now much more solidly in the “this is a schizophrenic breakdown” camp. 

From the very beginning, the rules of time travel don’t make much sense or are ill-defined when scrutinized; besides all the potential paradoxes that are glossed over, the biggest head-scratcher for me was the whole “see the history of your genetic timeline” bit. In turn, the rules and terminology become more elaborate once Alma remembers past experiences or gains new information from linear time. For example, it’s only after Alma watches the Aztec spirit dance in The Wedding that Jacob starts saying that Alma is training to become a shaman. Most of all, I don’t think Alma made any leaps in understanding made impossible without time travel or made any sizable changes to the timelines of the story through perceived actions to correct past mistakes. Nothing is outside the realm of impossibility.

All that said, not believing Alma is a time traveler doesn’t take away from the magic of the show. Far from it. Adding this level of ambiguity by playing the “through the eyes of madness” trope adds rich character dimension and subtext to what we see. If everything we see through Alma is indeed hallucinations and delusions, it tells us quite a bit about the state of her character.

That moment when Alma wonders if this is everything there is.

I mean, the whole time-quest is a great look at what Alma wants so desperately out of life. From the very beginning, we’re introduced to an impulsive womanchild without ambition who angsts about how life is just unceasing monotony and artifice. By accepting Jacob’s time quest, she finds beauty and excitement in life. Even if shit gets vastly more complicated – much of the middle episodes deal with Alma randomly hopping through her chronological story ala Slaughterhouse-Five, with much of the show’s cringe humor coming from how she attempts to deal with this – she becomes more invigorated. Once Alma is convinced her mission was successful, she’s so excited she doesn’t even try to hide how insane she sounds. This quest, not only to save the father she so clearly misses and idolizes but to get a second chance at a life free of fuck-ups, gives her life meaning.

It’s all summed up in a beautiful moment at the end of That Halloween Night after Alma finally comes to terms she’s likely just schizophrenic. Talking with her younger sister Becca (Angelique Cabral) outside some Aztec ruins, an emotionally crushed Alma wishes it were all true because there has to be more in life; Becca in turn responds that there is plenty of beauty in normal reality all around them. Like, it may be wrapped up in a layer of metaphysical insanity but this central story is highly relatable.

After rewatching Undone, I’m at the point where I would be disappointed if the time quest was real. I say this because if it is real then all this interesting and symbolic characterization would be moot, replaced with a metaphysical, yet stock heroes journey. Plus, from what I’ve read and compared to other movies and shows that deal with mental illness, this is a well thought out and nuanced portrayal of how mental illness can affect not only ourselves but the people around us, and making the time travel aspect real takes that angle away.

If I have any complaints about this plotline and the mystery, it’s about the ending. Mostly, I think it’s too perfect an ending for a tv show. The ambiguity of the end shot – Alma is ready to leave with Becca when the Sun rises behind the pyramid, and she sees something offscreen that we don’t ever see – is just too good. It’s like the ending of Cowboy Bebop with Spike’s fate or Inception with the question if Cobb is dreaming or not. I just don’t know how season 2 can live up to season 1 without definitively answering the question of if Alma is sick or not. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see once season 2 comes out.

Can the Characters Shine?

Now, I’d be remiss if during this whole review of Undone that I didn’t mention the acting performances because there are some great performances. 

Alma and Camila at church

First and foremost, Rosa Salazar’s turn as Alma is the acting highlight. At this point, there’s not much else to add compared to what I already talked about, but it’s no question Alma goes through the emotional wringer, and that Salazar is always up to the task.

One great performance I want to highlight was Constance Marie’s turn as Camila Diaz. Back when I first watched Undone, I was largely with Alma in thinking Camila was merely a pushy and stifling mother without an imagination. This go-round though, with everything we know about Jacob’s true nature and the truth about what happened that fateful Halloween night, I’m much more sympathetic to Camila. Sure, she’s still overly pushy and can be stifling, but it’s now easy to see that she’s doing this because she knows Alma is in trouble. She had seen Jacob lose himself to schizophrenia, and seeing Alma’s slow descent must be the most terrifying deja vu to a mother who had already lost a husband to this illness. In the end, she’s a mother who struggles to connect with her daughters but who nonetheless cares immensely about them. All of this is sold incredibly well by Marie.

If there’s one performance I wasn’t feeling as much, it was Odenkirk’s turn as Jacob. If I had to peg down my feelings on the matter, it’s that the nature of the role allowed Odenkirk to phone it in more so than the others. He doesn’t have many scenes involving strong emotions, nor does he interact with many of the other cast members outside of brief flashbacks. For the most part, his is the role of the even-keeled, if manipulative, instructor in all things time travel. As a result, he didn’t have to try as hard, ironically, to be in the moment like everyone else does.

So What’s Rotoscoping?

Before I close out this review, I just have to talk about the animation. Unlike everything else I’ve reviewed so far that was animated, Undone uses the divisive technique of rotoscoping as the primary vehicle of animation. If you aren’t aware of what rotoscoping is, it’s animation that essentially traces over live-action footage frame by frame. Thus, it became an animation style commonly held as inferior due to it being used by studios and animators looking to animate something as cheaply as possible. One animator who I’ve covered before who used rotoscoping is Ralph Bakshi, who used it in movies like Wizards to animate large army scenes and background battles on the cheap using footage from live-action movies.

Jacob introducing Alma to life unstuck from time

But here’s the thing. While Undone is using a fairly unpopular animation style, it uses it in a way that doesn’t feel cheap. I’d even go so far as to say it’s the best animation I’ve reviewed since FLCL.

On the one hand, I’d put this down to utilizing the rotoscoping is used as Richard Linklater did. If you aren’t aware, Linklater made 2 rotoscoped movies in the early to mid-2000s: the philosophical vignette collection Waking Life and the sci-fi thriller A Scanner Darkly, based on the Philip K Dick novel of the same name. What’s great about these movies is that they use rotoscoping as a method to highlight the feelings of unreality both stories traffic in. Plus, they also look really good, like oil paintings in motion.

Undone, both from an animation and a thematic standpoint, follows in the traditions of these two movies by using the animation to highlight unreality and create some gorgeous and surreal imagery. Like, I highly doubt many of Alma’s trips through time/hallucinations would look nearly as good or play as well if they were done fully in live-action.

I mean, just look at any of the pictures I have on the page. There’s no way these beautiful pictures were done on either a non-existent budget or without a care for quality. 

One other reason, albeit small, is for the actors’ performances and Hisko Hulsing’s solid direction. Another reason why people tend to look down on rotoscoping is that cheap rotoscoping makes the actors and everything going on on-screen look uncanny due to looking too lifelike for comfort. While I don’t doubt there are people who would be turned off from Undone for this very reason, I think the rotoscoping gives us the best of both animation and live-action because even if this show is fully animated we still get the benefit of the performances of all the actors. I mean, say what you will about if rotoscoping is good or not, but everything was first shot in live-action, and Undone reads that way performance and directing-wise.

In Conclusion

So that’s Undone S1 in a nutshell. To be honest, there’s so much more I could talk about – stuff like B-plots, episode pacing, you know, the works – but there’s just so much to talk about and I don’t want to take too much of your time. Just know that if you watch this you’re in for one truly singular existential head trip that begs to be experienced. And that’s regardless if you’re high as a kite or stone sober.

My Recommendation: Highly Recommend

My Episode Recommendations

  1. The Crash – Recommend
  2. The Hospital – Highly Recommend
  3. Handheld Blackjack – Recommend
  4. Moving the Keys – Highly Recommend
  5. Alone in This (You Have Me) – Recommend
  6. Prayers and Visions – Highly Recommend
  7. The Wedding – Highly Recommend
  8. That Halloween Night – Highly Recommend

In Case You’re Interested in Watching Undone S1

If this review old you on what to watch for one hell of a 420, you can find it on Amazon Prime.

Joseph MacMaster

Writer extraordinaire in progress who hangs out with the Chicago Film Scene crew. I screenwrite for my fellow CFS filmmakers. I also write TV and movie reviews, and am a co-host/main writer of the Chicago Film Scene: Live! podcast.

Joseph MacMaster

Writer extraordinaire in progress who hangs out with the Chicago Film Scene crew. I screenwrite for my fellow CFS filmmakers. I also write TV and movie reviews, and am a co-host/main writer of the Chicago Film Scene: Live! podcast.

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