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Undone Takes Us Back Into Madness

Photo: Courtesy of Amazon Prime Video

Is Alma Winograd-Diaz insane? That is one of the central questions of the first season of Amazon’s Undone, which follows its maybe time-traveling heroine, played by Rosa Salazar, as she tries to prevent the death of her father, Jacob (Bob Odenkirk). The recently completed second season mostly tables the question, though, putting it away in the first episode and not picking it up again until the second half of the finale, which makes the question of Alma’s sanity salient once again.

The madwoman has a storied history, stretching from recent entries such as Starz’s Shining Vale and Disney’s Cruella back through the 19th-century short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” and all the way to the ancient Greek myth of Cassandra, doomed to see the truth but not be believed. We even have that special word for it, hysterical, connoting the terribly dramatic ways women are supposedly inclined to react with our emotions rather than with masculine logic. Of course, feminists have taken up the cause of the madwoman, illuminating how the trope has been weaponized against us to make it easy to dismiss our real concerns.

Undone earned positive reviews when it entered that landscape in 2019. Danette Chavez, then the TV editor for the A.V. Club, called it “bold and gorgeous,” noting how the creative team featured Latinx writers and consultants with expertise on Indigenous cultures and mental illness. Time’s Judy Berman wrote, “Its rotoscoped world might be merely a fun-house mirror of reality, but if you’re brave enough to gaze into it, a mind-expanding adventure awaits.” Undone’s otherworldly animation reinforces the show’s sense of unease while grounding its characters in their very specific reality of Mexican Americans in San Antonio. Everything seems both real and unreal at the same time, an eerie feeling that continues into the second season even as the show shifts its focus.

It opens with Alma having achieved her season-one goal: She prevented her dad’s death and now gets to reap the benefits. Instead of being unable to keep her job in day care because of her mental-health issues, she’s a Ph.D. candidate, lecturing undergrads and working on her thesis with her father’s help. Her sister, Becca (Angelique Cabral), is also seemingly better adjusted, unable to imagine cheating on her fiancé/husband, Reed (Kevin Bigley), as she did in the season-one timeline.

But all is not well with the Winograd-Diazes. Mother Camila (Constance Marie) is clearly unhappy, hiding a secret that’s crumbling her internal resolve. Jacob is isolated from her. Alma may have a better job, but she’s overwhelmed by it and misses her boyfriend, Sam (Siddharth Dhananjay), from the other timeline. Even with her dad alive, she can’t find more meaning in this routine than she did in the day-to-day pattern of the old one. So she goes on a quest that determines the shape of the second season, trying to fix all of her family’s past mistakes with her now proved time-altering abilities. (In this, she joins other recent heroines, from Russian Doll’s Nadia to Encanto’s Mirabel, who find their hero’s journey in addressing the sins of the past.) And through this quest, the central question of Undone’s second season emerges: What would it look like if you could really, truly heal your family’s trauma?

The answer for Alma is quite different from those characters’. The last episode of the second season is titled “We All Love Each Other,” and while it’s a bit of a joke, the reality is there. Alma’s fixed everything and created peace for her whole family. It’s the first-generation Latinx dream. Wishes fulfilled, happiness found.

Now, this being Undone, the show is smart about how it gets us there. For one, it takes a communal approach to all this healing. Alma isn’t time-traveling alone anymore; she now has her father and sister with her. This structure reflects the collectivism of Alma’s Mexican side, revealing mostly the power of our family-first culture, though there are pitfalls there too (see Camila’s mother disowning her and the pain that causes). With Alma’s Polish grandmother, Geraldine, the process (and the pain) is more individualistic. We learn that Geraldine (or Ruchel, as she was then called) was ripped from her family, persecuted for both their Jewishness and their ability to play with time. Alone and orphaned, the young girl believes herself responsible for her parents’ deaths and has no one to help her heal from the enormous guilt of it. This fissure is at the center of her many problems, and it ripples through her descendants, hurting everyone it touches.

Alma & Co. are able to help Geraldine/Ruchel, working together and showing again the limitations of individualism. But then what? Who are you once your family’s struggles are gone? It’s a bit of an impossible question, rewriting the constellations that make up one’s sense of self perhaps to the point of obliteration. After all, who in the U.S. hasn’t heard that challenges “build character” or the particularly vexing phrase, “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger”? Perhaps our past wounds do define who we are.

Latinx culture, with our tragic love songs and immigrant stories of hardship, can glamorize “the struggle.” So it’s nice to take a moment with Undone and its sister stories to imagine an alternate pathway. But it is just a moment of wish fulfillment for Alma because all that well-adjusted happiness doesn’t sit right with her. She can’t break free from the nagging feeling that the old Alma, the one who grew up without her dad, is still out there, aching. She resolves to return, betting that she will be able to bring this experience with a healed family and emotional peace to that other Alma and that the result will be tranquility for both of them.

It’s quite the gamble, in part because in that timeline, Alma’s belief in her ability to time travel is a sign of mental illness, not supernatural abilities. Her return also puts into question everything that happened in the previous seven episodes. Was it all just a dream? And if it wasn’t, does it matter if Alma is stuck in a place where no one will believe it wasn’t?

Such are the ways of madness. It’s an unknowable thing, the way our perspectives shape our understanding of reality. It also positions Alma squarely within the madwoman role. If the time-traveling isn’t real, if she’s not really talking to her long-deceased dad, she’s just a mentally ill woman, and a brown, disabled one at that.

Even more so than in the first season, Alma’s mixed identity is front and center in the second installment as she journeys back to Mexico to discover her mother’s past and time travels to Poland to see her grandmother’s origins there. It’s a matriarchal history, one the show seems to double down on in the finale. In the new old timeline, Alma doesn’t have her white dad to guide and protect her anymore. Her family is her Latina sister and mom. Moving forward, it’s unclear whether they’ll have any men kinfolk between Becca’s botched wedding and her mother’s estranged son.

So Alma won’t have much access to her full identity in Undone’s yet-to-be-confirmed third season. She’ll be more squarely in the Latinx box, without white male allies to leverage their power on her behalf. She’ll also be insane, or at least presumed to be, and can visions born of madness bring her solace? It seems unlikely, but it is perhaps possible. It reminds me of the therapeutic technique of imagining alternate endings, sometimes called imagery rescripting: How could a given traumatic experience have gone differently? What would that have felt like? The idea is to reduce the pain associated with traumatic events so the patient can begin to process them and heal.

That tactic, in effect, embodies the entirety of Undone’s second season. The finale rewrites the previous episodes not as the characters’ truth but as Alma’s fantasy. It also sets up a third season that will bring questions of sanity and mental illness back to the forefront with the addition of real healing — not through supernatural powers but through more traditional therapy and hard work.

And perhaps the final frontier for the madwoman is peace. Can we imagine a story in which she gets to be insane and correct, wronged and healed? If that’s where Undone goes next (and that is where this finale seems to be pointing), it’d be a fitting match for the show’s uncanny visuals and smart storytelling. It would also be a satisfying addition to the madwoman canon, a refreshing break from the death and pain that too often envelopes her. Let Alma be mad and happy, and let her take us with her.

Undone Takes Us Back Into Madness