The second season of Undone has just last month, April 2022, dropped into our screens after a long wait from the pre-lockdown first season hit which was released in Autumn 2019. It is a sometimes realistic and sometimes hallucinatory exploration of family turmoil, mainly from the standpoint of a young Mexican-American woman, Alma, who is treated by her family as younger than she is. She’s the kid in the family, and what she sees and says about her life disturbs everyone around her.
Alma is played by Rosa Salazar, but that ‘played’ is complicated here, because the acting is overlayed by a technique of ‘rotoscoping’ through which the characters are effectively turned into animated characters. That itself draws attention to the construction, representation and interpretation of them, as well allowing for some pretty weird destabilising of identity and time; we can see Alma and then (plot spoiler) others travel into alternate realities.
If this sounds all a little too edging into spirituality as well as science fiction, then yes, that’s what the rotoscoped narrative enables, but the questioning of reality, and of whose reality is dominant, is crucial to what is going on. And in that, there are some progressive moves, progressive questions, as well as some little traps that the series could not ever fully solve.
Alma is particularly good at puncturing hypocrisy, but what she opens up in the family as she does so goes beyond the wildest dreams of the kind of stroppy young girl she is made out to be. She’s treated as a teenager, which she is not, but what she sees and calls out includes the fake promises and secrets that lace together a nuclear family. And in this way, there is a fairly clear indictment of patriarchy in San Antonio, Texas, at least, and then a question about what alternative kinds of ‘family’ might be possible.
First trap then, is that ‘Mexico’ appears in the series as a hyperreal brightly coloured place, an effect intensified by the rotoscoping, as a place where there might be some kind of deeper and more inclusive alternative to a closed US-American family. Alma’s mother is Mexican, and her dad, it turns out, is also a traveller into US-America from another culture, with hints of a Holocaust history in that part of the family. This aspect, of Alma’s Latinidad has been commented upon by some viewers enthusiastic about the series, and there are quirky reflections on this inside the series, as in the moment when Alma and her sister comment, after talking to their Mexican grandmother that they are glad they speak Spanish.
You start by now to see how different aspects of identity are being patched together, and how they are being undone. The risk taken here is that Mexico is idealised, re-presented as another site where there is a closer connection with nature, and, here an atheist viewer might be a little unnerved, a closer connection with spiritual realms beyond empirical brute reality. What Alma opens up are other realities, realities other to the stories she has been told by her family about them and about herself.
But then, that trap is avoided, or skirted around, by questions raised about Alma’s sanity. How can one account for her speaking about things she sees that she should not see? One potent way of doing that is to imply that she is seeing things, that she is mad. The grandmother, we learn, was mad – ‘schizophrenic’, we are told – and this raises the spectre of madness running down through the family, now expressed by Alma.
Alma is undoing things, and she undoes them from a particular standpoint, which is neatly complicated even further when stories are told of her ‘disability’; Alma is deaf. This aspect of who she is appears quite late in season one when we suddenly see what we should have noticed from the beginning, that Alma is wearing a hearing aid, something that, when removed, inducts her into a hallucinatory experience of what people are saying around her. Alma is played by a Latina, but not, some angry deaf viewers have noticed, by someone who is hearing impaired (though the actress playing her child-self is herself deaf).
But for all the problems with the representation of different forms of identity in the series, we have a whole series of ‘undoings’ that are questioning of identity as such, pitting the stories which would reduce what Alma sees to ‘mental illness’ against those which would romanticise some kind of spiritual awakening. That is what has made some viewers rave about it, in a positive way.
What would a perfect representation of every aspect of oppression intersecting with every other kind of oppression look like? There will always, I guess, be some point from which we look at what it this kind of thing, and realise, too late, that there is a blind spot, that we are unable to take into account our own viewpoint. For example, most viewers will only be able to understand the sections of Spanish dialogue through reading the subtitles. So, you need to be able to read to enjoy this do you? And then, to appreciate the rotoscope effect, don’t you need to see?
We always have our own privileged standpoint on what is going on when we watch series like this. We don’t really know what is happening in this series, and that is what makes it work, makes it possible to debate it, possible to undo it.
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