Have you ever had a family mystery that’s chipped away at you over time? It might be something so central that it partly defines who you are? Or maybe it’s not that big, but it caught your attention and you can’t let go until you know more. Perhaps it’s a thing that only you have actually noticed and given thought to. Most people I know have something, somewhere in their personal history for which they want answers and sometimes they even get them.
And there are also those instances where no one knew about a family mystery until it explodes in their face — just ask anyone who’s been contacted by someone who took a DNA test and now writes to inform them that they have a brother or sister or child that they never knew existed. Family secrets have a way of impacting generations, and sometimes in a destructive way.
In some ways, Undone, which currently streams on Amazon, is about all this. Alma (Rosa Salazar) is specifically haunted by her father’s death. One Halloween when she was a kid, her father (Bob Odenkirk) left her while trick or treating after he received an urgent phone call. Later that night, his car went careening off a cliff. Alma’s understandably always wondered about the truth of that night, but the trauma of the loss has given it significance beyond curiosity. Alma’s suffered psychologically, even as she’s had no capacity to dig down to the truth that might set her free.
Part of the problem is that she lives her life in a sort of free fall that pushes her into oppositional interactions with her sister Becca (Angelique Cabral) and her mother Camila (Camila Diaz). With her mother, she even seems to harbor some blame about the loss of her father, and the stresses of her trauma complicate romantic relationships, leading her to panic and flee, pushing away her boyfriend.
This all becomes more complicated after a car accident that lands Alma in the hospital, where visions of her father manifest. It all has a rational explanation, he says. The accident has jarred her natural abilities into full gear, allowing her to exist in a universe where time and space are fluid and she can control them. This allows Alma to travel back to the moment of her father’s death, and her father is there to help her master these powers so she can solve the mystery of how he died or, more specifically, who murdered him.
Alma has to juggle this sudden cosmic responsibility with her sister’s upcoming wedding and her mother’s concern over her behavior, not to mention her boyfriend’s efforts to save their relationship. Her father’s needling doesn’t help and Alma finds her superpowers are sending her into further free fall, but worse than ever before because now it’s through time and space. Can she uncover her father’s murderer and solve every destructive issue her family has ever contended with?
Series creators Raphael Bob-Waksberg and Kate Purdy don’t present this story in linear terms, as Alma finds herself not only jostled from one moment in time to the next without warning but sometimes repeating the moments and even being in more than one. The unpredictability of her manifestations mirrors the same in regard to her emotions and her psychological state, and also comes to represent the multiple layers that Alma has to parse in order to get to some kind of truth. In real-world terms, these layers are made up of lies, misunderstandings, emotional framing, and many other things that create unreliable narrators and engineer situations where people cannot align.
That’s one of the great strengths of the show — the fantastical elements operate as a metaphor for the abstract aspects of the human experience within the story. Any time temporal displacement is utilized, it is always in service of the human story, as are wheres and whys of the afterlife, the time travel, etc. But the relationships between the humans are rich and complex enough that they actually overshadow any of the genre elements anyhow.
That’s a tribute to the actors involved, especially Salazar as Alma, who instills in her character a haughty, infuriating nature that is both an instrument of her problems as well as the very thing that will save her. What makes it especially amazing is that the animation could threaten to mute all that nuance. Instead, the rotoscoping adds a dimension that makes it obvious this just wouldn’t be the same show if it was live-action. It’s yet another area of perception that works as a metaphor for the emotional state of characters, particularly Alma, displaced from reality even though it seems like a place she’s existed in. It radiates an alienness even if there are parts of it that remain familiar, but divorcing herself from it gives her a mission that she can focus on — a mission other than attending to herself and her earthly relationships.
Undone is about many things, but at its center, it’s about perception. Alma’s perception of her family ends up being only one possible way of looking at it, just as her perception of time and space is not shared by others around her. What seems to be happening from the point of view of one person can be completely different from the point of view of another. If this doesn’t seem profound, consider how often it comes into play every day in multiple circumstances, and how it fuels so many of the political and social problems faced by the world — and the personal problems faced by each of us. An inability to understand not only perceptual difference but the idea that your perception in the eyes of others could be wrong causes distress and conflict. But it’s not personal. It’s just how the human brain works.
And Undone is smart enough to bring these ideas back around to the viewers at home. As it moves through multiple concepts of varied perception, including mental illness, shamanism, and science, it challenges the audience to look at itself through Alma’s experience. The question it asks isn’t “What is going on here?” The question is “What do you think is going on here?” That is a far more revealing one.