By Leah Harris
“Undone” is A Magical, Mystical, Trippy Masterpiece Exploring Psychosis and Altered States through a First-Person Lens
Rarely does television manage to capture, or even attempt, the complexity of what is called psychosis or “altered states” from a direct, first-person storytelling perspective. The Amazon Prime series “Undone” based in part on the lived experience of writer “Bojack Horseman” Kate Hurdy, succeeds masterfully in doing just that.
“Undone” is notable on many fronts, one of which is that the story features a Latinx main character, a rare thing in on-screen depictions of characters grappling with mental health. Alma, a late twenty-something played with enormous heart and skill by Rosa Salazar, navigates her experiences in the larger context of a Latinx-Jewish family. This emphasis is so vital and so important, given the enormous impact of culture and history on the experience of both crisis and healing.
The show opens with Alma robotically going through the motions of her life, feeling cynical and disillusioned with the world. “I’m so bored of living she says.” Her life takes a completely different course when she is in a car crash. The massive head trauma suffered in the accident sparks a series of supernatural experiences, including time-traveling adventures with her long-deceased father, all while struggling to continue to navigate the day-to-day expectations of consensus reality.
Part of the success of “Undone” at making these experiences of altered states accessible to the viewer lies in the unconventional style in which it was created. Rotascope animation is a technique in which artists draw over actual footage created with real actors, which gives the footage a dreamier, more irregular quality than existing forms of digitization could accomplish, while still capturing the chemistry of real-life interactions between human actors. Rotascope provides the otherworldly feel that is reminiscent of altered states of consciousness, and the fluid movement of scenes between dimensions and realities. This technique allows the show’s main character to magically transcend time and space at a moment’s notice.
Another remarkable aspect of “Undone” is that it doesn’t seek to reduce the experiences of “mental illness” to simple explanation. The show does not reduce Alma’s experience to purely biological explanations, hinting at cultural and spiritual ones as well. Alma’s father, in particular, describes how the altered states of consciousness that often get diagnosed as psychosis or schizophrenia in the West are seen and nurtured as gifts in other cultures, especially ones that still practice forms of Shamanism. Plotlines guide Alma closer to exploring her own Mexican ancestral heritage as a source of healing and strength. There are hints in the conversations between Alma and her father that perhaps the schizophrenia running in the family is not just the result of “bad genetics,” but may point instead to a line of powerful healers, who just never got the right kind of guidance and support to master their gifts.
But “Undone” also doesn’t fall glibly into the “mental illness is a superpower” stereotype, either, glossing over the suffering that can be associated with altered states. The show’s writers do not shy away from the fact that early loss and trauma are defining features in Alma’s life. Alma enjoys some aspects of the expanded experiences available to her following her head trauma, such as moving keys back and forth in time and reconnecting with her beloved, long-deceased father. But the show does not romanticize either, illustrating the disruptive and disorienting impact of these altered states on Alma’s work, family, loved ones, and relationships.
In other words, “Undone” captures both the complicated reality of navigating altered states and voice-hearing in a world that often doesn’t understand these experiences, as well as the deeply compelling, authentic quality of the experiences themselves. No small feat.
At least in Season 1, “Undone” does not definitively answer the question: is Alma experiencing a mystical connection with her deceased father, or is it psychosis? At every point when you think the show is about to answer that question, it plops a question mark in front of the viewer once again. The writers’ willingness to remain in the mystery distinguishes “Undone” in a field of heavy-handed, one-dimensional, even cartoonish treatments of mental health that grasp at easy answers and facile stereotypes.
For further reading and exploration:
- How ‘Undone’ Creator Kate Purdy Re-contextualized Her Mental Illness With Gorgeous Animation (Bustle)
- You’ve never seen anything quite like Amazon’s Undone. We mean that literally. (Vox)
- Amazon Prime’s New Show, ‘Undone,’ Is Mind-Bending (NPR)
- ‘Undone’ Review: Indescribably Great (Forbes)
- Hearing Voices Network USA (see the directory for a group near you or online)
- Voices and Visions Group in Alameda County.
- Shades of Awakening: a community platform that provides a compassionate container to explore all things related to Spiritual Emergence(y) and Transformational Crisis.