Palimpsest

I watched Undone (2019). This was 1 season of 8 episodes, each 30 minutes. Apparently a 2nd season was commissioned but I can find no evidence it was aired. It’s hard to see how the premise could have been continued anyway.

The series is made using animation techniques, which are essential for the many transformations and illusions going on in the mind of the central character Alma Winograd-Diaz, following her coma after a car crash.

Alma is a college dropout currently working in a daycare centre in Texas. Her dad was a Jewish physics professor and her mum is a proud old Mexican Catholic who wants her daughters to settle down. She’s not too keen on the new young priest who’s got positive things to say about “indigenous cultures” in Mexico and elsewhere, which we learn Daddy was interested in as well. Younger sister Becca is pleasing mum better by getting engaged to WASPy jock Reed Hollingsworth, whose mum is clearly unhappy at his choice, but then Alma isn’t that keen on attending the wedding either.

Alma is currently living with Sam, but things are getting tense and in fact they split up just before her crash, a detail she forgets in the coma and Sam assumes this state will be permanent and moves his stuff straight back in again. He makes a few mistakes putting the pictures back in the wrong order however.

Alma’s accident was initiated by a vision of her old dad by the side of the road. Dad himself died in a car crash years ago. That was one of many early traumas she’s tried to suppress. She went deaf when very young and spent years in a special school before a cochlear implant restored her hearing. She remembers the night that dad died as he was taking her out on a Halloween journey but abandoned her to go to deal with a break-in at the lab. And know he’s appearing all the time to her in her hospital ward.

I wondered if the picture above her bed was going to make another appearance later but I don’t think it does – missed opportunity

Dad now tells her it is urgent that she starts taking control of her special gift of time manipulation and time travel released by the accident but latent all along. First, she has to deal with the enormous metaphysical instability in her new surroundings.

Dad is a typical Physics Dude who thinks he can figure it all out and he had some variable-quality ideas going on all those years ago. His attempt to explain the big concepts of time, causation and The Will and all that are piss-poor even by the usual standards of Science Guys waffling about how the universe is all a series of wooden blocks or whatever. Even “quantum entanglement” makes an appearance, threatening to turn this whole show into a farrago of Hollywood Spirituality in the mood of 00s fare such as 21 Grams.

What holds it together is rather wonderful character of Alma, played as a smart angry youngish person with views about how The Alamo wasn’t such a great thing to commemorate, and that the legacy of the Conquistadors is questionable, and so on. We are not here to debate these opinions. I just think they make her character the most interesting thing on view, even when Dad is droning self-importantly over the top and she has to do the serious emotional moments, thankfully quite brief.

Alma also has a good line of cynicism about digital culture, she even finds a use for an old LinkedIn account she set up years ago (to check if a previous boyfriend was cheating on her – why LinkedIn though?) Her smartphone is shown authentically cracked, which it probably was even before the crash.

Dad wants her to get in to a big plan he’s worked out to go back in time and fix the events around his death, which will wipe out all the bad stuff that happened since. She’s already convinced she can effect minor reversals in the world around her as she grows in her new powers. The story of what Dad and his research assistant was up to in the Physics lab all those years ago seems to involve a sinister big corporation, and she meets up with the big suit who dealt with Dad and maybe arranged his death.

But this isn’t a story about crank physics, it’s about mental health and a crisis something like the one Barbara O’Brien described in Operators And Things (1958). Dad’s ideas were also more in line with the theories and experiments in Altered States, but on a pitifully lower level of ambition. Damaged lives and minds trying to fix the past with the power of imagination alone and having breakdowns… this is rather a thematic cliche in modern arty cinema, we saw a version of it in Censor last year. Peter Strickland seems to have had a go at it a few times.

Undone plays the game as well as anyone else, and makes it more fun by having a smart female comedian at the centre of attention, instead of Sheridan Smith staring at traffic islands, which is what we would get in the UK version. Of course there are a few “ah, but…” moments, setting us up for the Ambiguous Ending, that’s just the rules. I don’t know how we could have had a 2nd series after that or why there would be any need for one. This is a great little show that goes on just long enough and doesn’t need to continue any longer.

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