Amazon’s Undone is a visually arresting series that doesn’t just get by on looks alone. The mind-bending, occasionally psychedelic exploration of the perception of time and reality is filtered through the lens of a story grounded in grief and anger and family and the unfortunate stigma that still surrounds mental illness. What’s more, this often painterly series comes from creators and writers Kate Purdy and Raphael Bob-Waksberg, of BoJack Horseman fame.
Though the pair are working in familiar territory, in terms of working on an adult animated project that doesn’t shy away from sometimes painful and difficult subject matter, Undone shouldn’t be compared to the anthropomorphized animals of Netflix’s critically acclaimed satire. The series is instead a mix of existential quandaries about consciousness, time, and reality, and how things like theoretical physics and quantum entanglement can potentially alter humankind’s understanding and experience of all of the above. But it also brings a fascinating potboiler mystery to the table, as a way of making its hallucinogenic visuals and concepts not only more palatable but also more compelling as a functional narrative.
The series stars Rosa Salazar (Alita: Battle Angel) as Alma Winograd-Diaz, a young woman wiling away her late twenties worried the world has nothing left to offer her. She bristles at her sister Becca’s (Angelique Cabral) engagement to the nice but kind of insipid Reed (Kevin Bigley), and frequently picks arguments with her mother Camila (Constance Marie) about what she still doesn’t know about the death of her father Jacob (Bob Odenkirk) when she was still a child. Alma is at a crossroads when the series begins, her relationship with Sam (Siddarth Dhananjay) works but she’s concerned about its longterm prospects given her family’s history with mental illness (her grandmother was schizophrenic). As such, Alma has a tendency to self-sabotage, as a way of keeping the those she cares about at arm’s length, lest they get caught up in her fate that is as yet undetermined.
As good as the series is at making complex theoretical concepts more understandable to the layperson, Undone is even better at juggling multiple story threads and making them work in conjunction with one another, even as its jumping backwards and forwards through moments in Alma’s past and present. That unique structure is amplified by the rotoscoped animation, which takes the actor’s performances and takes it to another level. (Think Salazar’s performance in Alita but with a more painterly approach to its artistry.) The result is a series that, like Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly or Waking Life, uses its visual presentation as a means of layering a graphic interpretation of some fairly out-there concepts over the performances of its cast.
What’s striking about Undone is that, even when it’s angling to send its protagonist into the past to undo the tragic fate of her father, it never loses sight of its character’s humanity and the sometimes contradictory emotions that come along with that. Alma’s true journey begins in the wake of a car accident that seemingly awakens her ability to perceive time and reality differently from everyone else. It also brings her father into the fray as both a kind of spirit guide and a potential endpoint for her quest. Jacob died in a mysterious car wreck years prior and now he tells his daughter she can unlock the mystery behind his death through the power of quantum entanglement. Through it all, however, Undone takes steps to see Alma’s journey through the eyes of those around her, especially as her increasingly distracted, possibly erratic behavior begins to resemble that of her grandmother as she was in the early stages of schizophrenia.
To say more about the plot would be to give away too much of what the show hopes to accomplish, both in terms of its lofty ambitions with regard to quantum entanglement and theoretical physics, and its approach to addressing concerns of mental illness. Rest assured, however, that while Purdy and Bob-Waksberg occasionally appear as if they’re rocking the boat on either front, Undone always manages to right the ship. The series is neither too complex nor too facile in its presentation of heady theoretical ideas, and it’s treatment of mental illness — though at times a little too super power-y, a la Homeland — mercifully refrains from going full Carrie Mathison.
At just 30-ish minutes a piece, the eight-episode season is a fast and satisfying binge-watch, one that rewards viewers time and again with not only gorgeous visuals but also some fascinating ideas. The series’ hallucinogenic nature is also one of its greatest strengths, as it allows Alma, her father, and the supporting characters to move back and forth through a sometimes phantasmagorically lush setting, without sacrificing believability or its emotional weight.
Undone streams exclusively on Amazon beginning Friday, September 13.