When we first meet Alma (Alita: Battle Angel’s Rosa Salazar), the heroine of Amazon’s Undone, she’s sobbing behind the wheel and driving like a maniac. Alma’s at a breaking point, and Undone – which has a mind-bending story and trippy visuals to match – sucks you into her world right as she’s falling apart.
[Note: We’ve seen the first five (of eight total) episodes, and won’t be spoiling any plot points in this review.]
Undone’s unique look comes courtesy of rotoscope animation. It’s the first episodic series to ever use the technique, which most sci-fi fans will immediately recognise from Richard Linklater’s 2006 take on Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly.
Dick’s narrative influence is also felt here, though Undone comes mostly from the minds of co-creators and writers Kate Purdy and Raphael Bob-Waksberg (BoJack Horseman), with director Hisko Hulsing and animation studio Submarine, along with the rotoscope team at Minnow Mountain (co-founded by Craig Staggs, who helped create A Scanner Darkly), bringing Alma’s increasingly fractured reality to life.
Rotoscope’s vaguely disorienting, “animation over live-action” feel is the perfect vehicle for Alma’s story, considering she also feels like she’s suspended between worlds. After that out-of-control driving sequence that opens episode one (which is titled “The Crash,” after the single-car smash-up that sets Alma’s journey in motion), we take a step back and get to know our characters a little bit.
“I’m so bored of living,” Alma complains to her sister, Becca (Angelique Cabral), who’s so irritatingly well-adjusted and optimistic she’s got engaged, for god’s sake. Alma, meanwhile, is having an existential crisis of the highest order, drifting through life at age 28 feeling out of place, even though her sister is her biggest champion and her boyfriend, Sam (Siddharth Dhananjay), basically worships her. Her mom (Constance Marie) means well but is a bit of a nag, and her dad (Bob Odenkirk) – well, her dad has been gone for 20 years. But ever since Alma’s car accident, dear old dad has been popping up everywhere, urging Alma to “develop her potential.” Potential for what?
Well, time travel. Specifically, time-travelling to figure out if his untimely death – the result of a car crash, as coincidence would have it – was actually a murder, plotted by forces working against his own time-travel research. And as dad’s initially friendly visits become more paranoid and demanding, Undone starts giving off some Mr. Robot vibes, if Elliot Alderson happened to be a sarcastic, boozy daycare worker living in San Antonio rather than a computer hacker in NYC. And since Alma’s world is animated, her wobbly grasp of what’s real is way more visually intense than Elliot’s prison-denial hallucinations.
Though she’s ostensibly learning to navigate the cosmic beyond to do some detective work for her father, part of that experience involves flashing back to moments in her life marked by intense emotions: losing her hearing at age three, then regaining it a few years later after getting a cochlear implant; fights she witnessed between her parents; meeting Sam for the first time; the Halloween night when her father got an urgent phone call and rushed off in the middle of taking her trick-or-treating, never to return. (Eight-year-old Alma’s costume, Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, foreshadows the adult Alma’s visits to over-the-rainbow places that might be coma dreams, fantasies, or alternate realities.) The animation fluidly pulls us between scenes that fold into each other and shatter apart, so suddenly that Alma herself has trouble keeping up.
Also like Mr. Robot, Undone acknowledges the looming spectre of mental illness. Alma is fascinated with the fact that her father’s mother had schizophrenia – something her father insists to present-day Alma was a result of Grandma’s own “potential” – and suspects she may have similar tendencies, but she’s reluctant to dig any deeper. When her concerned mother insists she visit a shrink, Alma treats it as a joke and refuses to take the medication she’s prescribed. Part of Undone’s roller-coaster ride is that you’re never sure if Alma’s interactions with her father and her journeys through time and space are due to her head injury, or if they’re the manifestation of her as-yet undiagnosed mental illness. Or... maybe... just maybe... they’re real.
This review so far is making Undone sound rather gloomy, and while it does dig into some very dark topics – including guilt, grief, depression, and the uneasy feeling that you might really be losing your shit – the series manages to infuse most everything with Alma’s wry, dry, “inappropriate” sense of humour. Cracking jokes is definitely one of her coping mechanisms, but Undone also has fun with other random touches, like when Alma’s dad gives her a pocket-sized blackjack video game to help anchor her to reality – like the spinning top in Inception – which she then proceeds to play obsessively, even when she’s helping her sister pick out wedding gowns or greeting her young students at work.
There’s also an amusing moment where Alma, trying to learn to shift time around so she can move keys with her mind, informs her dad that she’s “not a Jedi,” which leads into a whole conversation about Star Wars, which is soon echoed by her father’s Yoda-like advice to “Try not to try.”
For a series that takes so many flights into the surreal, Undone is also surprisingly grounded. The rotoscope animation allows for performances that feel more “human” than traditional or CG animation would, and Salazar makes the most of her messy, complicated character; Odenkirk is also very compelling as her extremely enigmatic father. Alma is an unreliable narrator and a deeply flawed person, but the show takes the time to show us why she’s so messed up. Nobody around her is perfect; even the saintly Sam pulls some major bullshit at one point. But Alma’s fear of going through life without any sense of purpose – then her fear when she’s presented with a purpose (filtered through a person she desperately misses but doesn’t really know or understand, and who says things like “Time is a limited form of experience”) – is what propels Undone from moment to moment.
We haven’t even gotten into Undone’s other thematic explorations, like the fact that Alma’s indigenous heritage on her mother’s side might be just as important to her journey as the history of mental illness on her father’s side. Her deafness is also an intriguing element that’s presented in a refreshingly matter-of-fact way; we’re only reminded of it when Alma deliberately removes the external portion of her hearing aid to shut out the noise of the world, and the sound mutes for the audience, too – it’s the ultimate door-slam, especially during an argument.
For a show that runs less than 30 minutes per episode, Undone packs in a lot. Chalk that up to the thoughtful writing, but also the animation. Live-action would never be able to so vividly capture the tiniest nuances of facial expressions – while also illustrating the vast landscape of a mind that’s struggling to tell the difference between what’s real, what’s imagined, and what might be something truly extraordinary.
Undone premieres September 13 on Amazon Prime Video.