Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Of Kimmy’s four bunkermates, Gretchen is unquestionably my favorite, so I was delighted to get a follow-up to last season’s “Kimmy Kidnaps Gretchen!” in which Kimmy tried to stop Gretchen from joining another cult, and failing that, encouraged her to start her own. Flash forward to a year later, and Gretchen is living in the woods with a troop of young boys, engaged in a standoff with the FBI. It’s basically a cult leader’s dream, but it’s Gretchen’s nightmare — in large part because cult-leading is much harder for a woman.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt has always been a feminist show in practice, with Kimmy advocating for the women around her to escape bad marriages, toxic friendships, and other bunkers of their own making. But Kimmy herself often transcends the boundaries of womanhood, with her irrepressible goodness serving as a disarming superpower that insulates her from societal mistrust of women’s opinions. (She even managed to turn the tables on one of the most pervasive forms of sexism — getting catcalled — by causing Mikey to question his sexuality.)
This show is at its best when it points out the absurd aspects of our normal lives, allowing us to see them anew through Kimmy’s childlike lens. In that sense, Gretchen’s plight might be one of the best story lines it’s ever done, because it demonstrates how much we take male violence against women for granted, by showing how bizarre it would be if the roles were reversed.
Of course, it’s absurd for Gretchen to assume that she’d be able to kidnap and command an army of tween boys, and not end up being their servant while they spend the afternoon Krazy Glue–ing their dicks together. So why isn’t it absurd that men who lead cults do this to tween girls? If only by dint of sheer numbers, the mole women had just as much of a numbers advantage over the Reverend, but they never even considered exasperating him as a form of rebellion — not because of where they ended up, but because they were trained to be obedient long before they had someone to obey. When both following and leading leave her powerless, it’s no wonder Gretchen feels more like blowing herself up than continuing on. Even the SWAT team surrounding her house thinks she’s unimportant (with some great comic business to that effect, including an emergency “sassy gay friend” to help her let it out over a bottle of regulation FBI white wine).
The conclusion is a repeat of “Kimmy Kidnaps Gretchen!” but with one important twist: Kimmy encourages Gretchen to start again by turning herself in and resuming her cult at a women’s prison, where, in a sly moment of Netflix crossover, she ends up finding happiness among the characters of television’s most truly female-centric show. And it not so subtly reminds us that society doesn’t have to be this way — after all, orcas and bonobos seem to have it figured out.
But even as sisterhood sets Gretchen free, patriarchy exacts its price. With Russ still bedridden and her cash flow on the line, Jacqueline has to continue to suck up to the odious Snyders, who are all too happy to trash-talk their own wives and mothers in front of her. (“At least your wife is still hot.” “Yeah, mom’s a dog now. Sorry, Dad.”) The Snyder men are Trumpian archetypes, expecting Jacqueline to cook for them, ogling her, and in Duke’s case, ultimately forcing himself on her. (Guess he picked that move up from his Ghost-reenacting Meemaw.)
The show now seems firmer in its conception of Jacqueline’s character as truly loving Russ, as opposed to just telling herself she does. Her indecision may actually just be years of trophy-wife-dom that have left her without a spine. She doesn’t seem to be using the Snyders to execute a well-conceived plan; she just seems lost and sad, looking for a way out.
The Titus and Lillian subplot is somewhat lighter, but equally morally thorny, with Titus getting scurvy because East Dogmouth is a food desert where the only fresh-produce game in town is Stouffer’s French Bread Salad. The solution, of course, is Lillian’s mortal grocery enemy Big Naturals, but the writers are sensitive enough to not make Lillian’s opposition feel knee-jerk. She’s right to be concerned that she and Titus can’t actually afford oranges that they don’t shoplift, and that Big Naturals will knock the store they can afford, the wonderfully named “Grim Dollar Store,” out of business.
At the end of the day, Kimmy is the one who keeps Titus and Lillian going, and though she comes and saves the day as usual, she just gets judged for not getting there soon enough — which rightly pisses her off. What happens when Kimmy gets sick of being the Gretchen for her cult of friends? I think we’re about to find out.
• My favorite joke of the episode was Gretchen submitting her cult manifesto to The New Yorker, and them thinking it’s a cartoon-caption-contest entry. (Ellie Kemper does a perfect blink-and-you’ll-miss-it snicker at the cartoon, before realizing it’s not supposed to be a joke.)
• Jacqueline: “There’s gotta be a way I can have my cake and eat it too. Is that the expression? I don’t really eat cake, though I did sit on one once for Richard Branson.”
• Donna Maria’s business appears to still be thriving: She bails on helping the FBI with Gretchen because it’s not a strong enough promotion for her appearance on Shark Tank Español.
• So far, Peter Riegert’s Artie is my favorite new addition of the season. “Gene, how’s the girlfriend? Just don’t let the wife find out about her, am I right? [To Titus and Lillian] He’s a terrible person.”