‘Undone’ and Why Complex Depictions of Mental Illnesses Matter

In a world where characters with mental illnesses are consistently depicted as the monsters, villains, antagonists, and just generally ‘unlikeable’ people across film and television, Undone feels like a breath of fresh air. An Amazon original series, the show is an adult animated, dramedy created by Raphael Bob-Waksberg and Kate Purdy, both known for their work on Bojack Horseman. Undone revolves around the story of Alma Winograd-Diaz (Rosa Salazar) and her changed relationship with time after getting into a car accident. She starts seeing her father, Jacob Winograd (Bob Odenkirk), who had mysteriously died during her childhood, as he attempts to explain the nature of reality and how she, and only she, can manipulate it to help him solve the mystery of his death. Those familiar with Schizophrenia will start to see some overlaps between what Alma is experiencing throughout the show and some of the symptoms of the disorder. In fact, the show even goes so far as to suggest that Alma in all likelihood does have Schizophrenia. In the first episode it is revealed that Alma’s grandmother had Schizophrenia and in episode four Alma is prescribed antipsychotics for her to take by the psychiatrist her mother, Camila Diaz (Constance Marie), had dragged her to see. In the sixth episode her boyfriend, Sam (Siddharth Dhananjay), observes her talking to thin air and staring blankly into space and as the show unfolds, it becomes an increasingly complex and multi-dimensional narrative centered around the depiction of a mental illness.

Undone initially presents Alma’s changed relationship with time as some sort of pseudo-superpower. She has a near death experience and suddenly gains the ability to perceive and distort stuff along the space-time continuum. Struggling with this, Alma initially tries to deny the responsibility her father has placed upon her shoulders to discover who had killed him so many years ago but eventually accepts her abilities as a part of her, learning how to use them to achieve her goal, and embracing her destiny. If any of this sounds familiar, then that’s great because it should! Alma’s arc greatly resembles the narratives found across all types of superhero stories and on an even broader scale, it resembles the mythological concept of the hero’s journey. The show further elaborates on this idea of Schizophrenia as a superpower by suggesting it could be some sort of magical ability or the cosmic understanding that shamans and priestesses possess. The work done by Alma’s father was centered around studying the brains of various religious leaders from primarily Indigenous and tribal cultures and Alma’s mother, Camila, is shown to be Mexican-American with some Indigenous ancestry, though Alma and her father both seem to be more interested in this ancestry than Camila herself. What makes Undone so fascinating is that these narratives coexist with the audience’s growing knowledge of Alma’s Schizophrenia. Part of why the show is so successful in its portrayal of Schizophrenia is because any potential glorification or romanticism in a narrative arc in which it is presented at times as a superpower or religious cosmic understanding is that it is also continuously counteracted by the effects of the disorder on those around her. 

An ongoing narrative throughout the first season revolves around Alma’s relationship with her family. She feels her mother is too controlling and her younger sister, Becca (Angelique Cabral), is trying to be too perfect. In the seventh episode, during a pre-wedding photoshoot for her sister and her fiancé, Alma explosively reveals that Becca had cheated on him. Alma is, from her perspective, able to eventually rewind time and do the photoshoot over again, this time choosing not to sabotage her sister’s wedding and supporting her instead. What had started in the first episode as Alma angrily telling Becca, “Cause we’re broken people. Okay? And broken people break people.” eventually leads to Alma comforting her sister before her wedding in the seventh episode, contrasting her early thoughts and words, “Cause you’re human, and you’re not perfect. Which is totally perfect and wonderfully human.” And while Alma displays character growth each time she has to complete a sequence of events over again, it still remains that her complete and total immersion into her own hallucinations and delusions lead to a lot of these painful moments in the first place and that sometimes you don’t ever get a do-over.

While Undone clearly demonstrates how Alma’s Schizophrenia is affecting those around her, it also shows how she herself is being affected. Taking place largely from Alma’s point of view, almost everything that happens over the course of the first season is shown from her perspective. Alma is the main character of the show, she is the protagonist – not the antagonist, or the villain, or the monster. And while some of her actions, words, or behaviors might be unlikeable, Alma herself isn’t. Throughout the course of the first season Alma is continuously shown to be relatable. In episode six, Alma connects with a security guard at San Antonio University and is able to relate the tragedy of the guard’s missing sister to the mysterious death of her own father. In episode five, Alma experiences the events of her boyfriend, Sam’s, childhood and the empathy she feels for those circumstances leads to their reconciliation. By putting the events of the show in Alma’s perspective, Undone creates an inherent sort of empathy that viewers feel for Alma. We understand what is happening and why she is doing the things that she is. We see the events and circumstances she is living through and we feel the things that she is feeling as she experiences them. In a beautifully moving scene, Alma runs through a mirror to get back to the Halloween night that her father died. She connects with the very fabric of the universe through dance and propels herself into the past to fulfill her proclaimed destiny but in the next episode, Alma is seen being fired from her job for running into a mirror. The ability of Alma to relate to the experiences of those around her and our own perception of relatability to Alma makes her a very likeable character, even when she says or does something we don’t like or agree with. 

Undone isn’t a perfect show and it certainly isn’t a perfect representation of Schizophrenia. But life itself isn’t perfect by any means either and a show taking the necessary steps to explore the portrayal of mental illness in a complex and multifaceted way feels like a huge step in the right direction.