‘Undone’: Inside the ‘BoJack Horseman’ Team’s Latest Animated Marvel
Amazon’s new animated series “Undone” is “as incisive about mental illness, inherited trauma, disability, and spirituality as it is warm, funny, and daring,” writes Melissa Leon.
What we see in Undone through the eyes of a self-destructive young woman may or may not be real. The new Amazon animated series manipulates time, space, and memory to disconcerting effect, evoking sci-fi fantasies and psychedelic fever dreams. The very look of it is surreal—a blend of live-action and oil-painted rotoscope animation that roots every frame in the space between reality and what might exist beyond it. The result is one of the most original—and best—new shows of the season, as incisive about mental illness, inherited trauma, disability, and spirituality as it is warm, funny, and daring.
For all the metaphysical questions Undone provokes, the series grounds itself in a firmly human perspective: that of Alma (Rosa Salazar), a sharp, charming, but critically bored day care worker from San Antonio. She’s only 28 but already sagging under the prospect of eking out the remaining days of her life without losing her mind. She’s appealingly witty, prickly and sardonic. But she’s also deeply lonely, despite regular bar meet-ups with her newly-engaged younger sister Becca (Angelique Cabral), her fussy mother Camila (Constance Marie), and Sam, the live-in boyfriend (Siddharth Dhananjay) whose sweetness and loyalty Alma is sure she’s wasting. She’s in need of connection, yet can’t help but perpetuate her own isolation: her brain is “broken,” she’s convinced, and broken people hurt others. Why put anyone through that at all?
Alma’s routine comes to an abrupt, catastrophic halt after an emotional breakdown and a car accident one-two punch her into a coma. When she wakes, the physical dimensions of her world seem suddenly unmoored. The world whips by outside her hospital window as if she’s in a moving car. The walls bleed into a picturesque forest. She begins to experience time in a loop, piecing together new revelations with every spiral. And she can now see and speak to what appears to be her dead dad, Jacob (Bob Odenkirk), who disappeared and perished one Halloween night when Alma was a child. He comes with startling news: he was murdered, he says, not killed in an accident. And he needs Alma to use her new command of non-linear time and space to figure out whodunnit.
The show’s rotoscope animation—in which animators trace over live-action footage, in this case with painstakingly crafted oil paintings—seamlessly blends Alma’s everyday world with her surreal post-coma visions. The technique is most often associated with films like Richard Linklater’s Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly, but has never been used to animate a full season of serialized television. (One can see why: eight 23-minute episodes of Undone amounted to “the equivalent of two feature films” executed in a year and a half, according to Dutch director Hisko Hulsing.) With rotoscoping, the show begins to move fluidly between dreams, memories, reality, and hallucinations. Then a sci-fi mystery unfolds in earnest, as we dive deep into Alma’s flawed, fascinating, not-quite-“broken” mind.
That Undone comes from the same team of creators behind another animated series known for its brilliantly devastating emotional and psychological insight is no surprise. Co-creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg is best known as the creator and showrunner of Netflix’s BoJack Horseman. He approached staff writer Kate Purdy after the show’s second season, referencing an episode she’d penned the year before called “Downer Ending,” in which the depressive BoJack trips on drugs and envisions an alternate reality where he might have been happy. The episode, Purdy’s first for the series, was an early landmark of how cannily the show would begin experimenting with form to reflect heightened emotion (in one sequence, BoJack loses the cartoon outlines of his body and melts into the background in a panic). Bob-Waksberg wanted Purdy to envision a series with that wild psychedelia as its starting point, and which would “just get crazier and crazier from there,” he tells The Daily Beast.
In planning how Alma’s story would tread the line between banality and fantasy, “Raphael talked about the tension of: is this A Beautiful Mind or is this The Matrix?” recalls Purdy. “Is this someone who has lost their mind and is creating a delusional reality to feel that they have purpose and that the world makes sense, or are they actually tapping into something?”
Alma herself is often skeptical of whether she’s truly transcended reality, though she badly wants to believe she can—both to connect with her dead father, and to escape the dead-end life she once tried to end. The show couches itself in that space: between doubt and belief, rationality and faith. In that way, it’s a mix of both its creators’ philosophies. “I think Alma gets Kate’s eagerness to believe in something, and she gets my trepidation,” says Bob-Waksberg. “I think that tension is a big part of what makes the character work.”
Still, Undone is unmistakably Purdy’s show. Her personal experiences with mental illness and spirituality inform much of the series, and many of its thematic preoccupations parallel her individual work on BoJack. (She penned that show’s gutting, time- and reality-bending “Time’s Arrow” episode, which told the story of a complicated woman’s life before Alzheimer’s.) In Undone, Alma often fixates on the fate of her paternal grandmother, a housewife who was diagnosed with schizophrenia. After the accident, her ghost-dad informs her that schizophrenics typically have enlarged brain ventricles (the cavities which carry cerebral spinal fluid)—just as Alma does.
Purdy’s brain has them, too, as she learned in college after undergoing a CT scan and wrenching the results from her reluctant doctor. The gaping dark spots prompted thoughts of her late grandmother, who’d been schizophrenic. “I already had this fear around not knowing what that meant, not knowing if I could develop it, whether it was genetically in me or not, so it increased my fear around losing my mind,” she remembers. A Time magazine article on a study which linked enlarged brain ventricles and schizophrenia intensified that fear. It mentioned that women who haven’t developed the disease by age 30 usually never do. “I started counting down the days ’til my 30th birthday,” Purdy recalls. “And I was easily triggered whenever anybody said, ‘You’re so crazy,’ even if it was just off-handedly.” (In the show, Alma snaps at her boyfriend when he jokingly calls her the same.)
But the anxieties reflected in Undone, “Time’s Arrow,” and another of Purdy’s standout BoJack episodes, “The Old Sugarcane Place,” concern more than just inherited DNA, she says. “It’s also inherited trauma. What shaped the character of our grandparents, the reality that they existed through and survived through, then shape their children. And in those behaviors, then shape us, whether we have an awareness of it or not.”
Purdy, a former UCB stand-up who wrote for MADtv and Cougar Town before working her way to BoJack (she’s since moved up to become co-executive producer) recalls experiencing “pretty deep depression and anxiety” in her early-30s. Turning to “alternative healing modalities like Ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine, and also shamanistic traditions from Polynesia and central Mexico and India,” along with meditation and “readings of ancient texts,” she says, helped widen her sense of reality. The show also draws on more science-based ideas, particularly quantum entanglement, in illustrating the limits of what we can perceive.
“So much of spiritual philosophy right now points to the fact that with theoretical physics, we’re kind of getting to the same point of understanding that these ancient traditions have been talking about for thousands of years,” Purdy explains. “There is this mystery around quantum entanglement. Like, why is it possible that these two particles that are light-years apart can still have a connection, can still understand each other or move simultaneously in reaction or relation to each other? That there is an invisible something seemingly holding everything together that we don’t know or understand?”
Undone never presumes to have the answers. Instead, it’s content to simply expand Alma’s perspective—of the fabric of space-time, sure, but also of herself and the people in her family. Their shortcomings and good intentions, their patterns and communication breakdowns, and her role in accepting their love. Cosmic provocations and dreamlike surreality aside, the show’s emotional heart stays earthbound. Perhaps surprisingly, the effect of that is heightened, not hampered by the show’s animation style. “That it’s hand-drawn and hand-painted really gives it an organic feel,” Purdy says.
The process of rotoscoping Undone involved a number of feats of human imagination. Actors performed in an empty L.A. studio with little more than tape to mark the bare bones of sets and backgrounds that animators would eventually paint. Footage of the performances was then sent to an animation house, Austin’s Minnow Mountain, to be outlined frame-by-frame. Those pages then shipped to Amsterdam, where the artists of the animation production studio Submarine set about inking, oil painting, and animating. “Our composer, Amie Doherty, she right away said, this is a very organic show and I want the score to feel very organic and hand-made as well—you know, real instruments,” adds Purdy. “It’s nice that you had this cohesion of that feeling.”
Apart from its animation style, Undone represents another rarity in television: a series led by a biracial Latina. Alma’s mother is Mexican; their strained relationship bears a handful of telltale signs of first- and second-generation disconnect (as in the way Alma responds in English whenever her mother speaks Spanish).
“We always envisioned her as being Latina,” says Purdy. “I’m not Latina, but I’m from San Antonio. And San Antonio’s about 70 percent Mexican or Latinx and so a lot of our friends were these Mexican-American families. I just felt like there wasn’t enough representation of those kinds of families on television and it felt like a great opportunity to make this world more specific.”
“And also I think if we’re saying this is set in San Antonio, then it should be a Latinx family because otherwise it’s just not realistic,” laughs Bob-Waksberg. “You know, we’d be singling out this specific white family in San Antonio when, odds are if you’re going to any given family, it would be a Latinx one.”
As for Alma’s belief that she is broken—that her life is bad because she is bad, and that this is irreversible—Bob-Waksberg sympathizes, but offers stern, wise words. “I don’t think it’s necessarily helpful for people to label themselves as a broken individual,” he says, with a full-throated belly laugh that is more Mr. Peanutbutter than BoJack or Alma. “One of the underlying themes of this show and of BoJack—although in some cases, it’s very underlying—is the idea that nobody is really broken. Nobody is really complete, but also nobody is broken. That we’re all wounded, fragile, difficult, prickly, hard people who are trying to figure things out the best we can.”
He laughs again. “I would not say when Alma says ‘broken people break people’ that that is us saying, ‘Here’s the truth! Here’s Moses coming down from the mountain with this aphorism that we believe!’ You’re supposed to question that and think about that and maybe apply it to yourself, but think about what it means.”