Undone isn’t about escaping your past, but accepting it
Undone was made for me. Set in San Antonio, Texas, the series focuses on Alma, a Mexican American woman whose life is turned upside down, sideways, and inside out after an accident causes her to awaken with time-altering powers. It’s latinidad and science fiction, but more importantly, the series has maintained a sharp look at mental illness, trauma, and grief.
For those who have lived it (or some version of it), Alma’s life is extremely familiar. She was raised by a Mexican mother and white father, the former always focused on making sure her daughters fit in. This means Alma and her sister, Becca, don’t speak Spanish, and their mom, Camila, is extremely quick to stress that their ancestors were Spaniards, not Nahua. Beyond that, Alma is pushed to get a cochlear implant and put into a hearing school, ripped from her Deaf school and community in favor of being “normal.”
On the other side of life steered toward assimilation, I can see myself in Alma. My mom actively kept me from speaking Spanish, chose the “whitest”-sounding name she could think of, and taught me to hide my disability and mental health issues from those around me. It was for survival that I had to bury parts of my culture and myself, coming up with excuses to just be me. This is the core of Undone season 1, but that’s not where the story ends. Instead of choosing to just reject assimilation, the series looks at how to heal from it in season 2.
[Ed. note: This post goes into full detail about the end of Undone season 2.]
In the beginning, Alma was in pain, ripped apart by grief and dancing on the razor’s edge of manic episodes, terrified of seeing her mental illness for what it is. Her father saves her — he shows her that her mental illness isn’t a curse, but a superpower, and Alma begins to grow into it. As much as her time travel is about saving her father’s life, it’s also about fixing everything she regrets. Alma confronts everything she dislikes about herself and makes it her mission to undo it. And when she can’t erase it entirely, she undoes enough to at least make all her pain worth it.
Undone’s science fiction elements and time travel present themselves as a possibility, but something that may be more imaginative than reality. The show constantly toys with the idea that it’s all in Alma’s head, a choice that extends all the way to the rotoscope animation style. When season 1 ends, Alma is sitting alone in front of a cave waiting for her dead dad to come out and prove to her that she does have power, that she can change the ugly in her life and undo all of the pain that lies in it.
When Undone season 2 kicks off, it feels like an entirely different show. Alma goes through the cave and realizes that she fixed it all. She undid her father’s death and in the process created a new timeline. However, no matter how idyllic this new reality is, it comes with its own pain. Only now, the purpose of the series has morphed. It’s not about escaping and undoing the past, but reconciling it.
To do that, season 2 unpacks the guilt carried by the series’ mothers: Camila and Geraldine, Alma’s paternal grandmother. Both women felt forced to change who they are, to outright reject elements of their lives that connected them to their pasts. And their trauma ripples through Alma’s life in ways she can’t stand, propelling her to try to fix it all.
For Camila, she left a child she had out of wedlock in an orphanage in Mexico. Struck by the grief of giving him up but saddled with the fear of losing her current family in the United States, she chose to hide him, sending him a motherly card on holidays and money every now and again. She effectively buried that part of herself, hiding it from everyone in the hope of living her American life and fulfilling all expectations.
That choice is strongly influenced by her mother-in-law, Geraldine. After fleeing World War II-era Poland, Geraldine locked away who she was before she got off the boat. As the last surviving member of her family and having erased who she was before, Geraldine is quick to tell Camila to leave her child behind. And while initially, it feels like Geraldine is being overprotective of her son by telling Camila to forget her child in Mexico, in truth, she doesn’t know how else to live. Geraldine doesn’t know how to embrace the past or the hurt that comes with it. Instead, she knows that assimilating and pretending it doesn’t exist means survival.
The last few episodes of Undone season 2 dive deep into Geraldine’s subconscious, trying to free her younger self from behind a closed door. Every time Alma and her family get close to having adult Geraldine with her childhood self, they’re turned away. Time and time again, Geraldine rejects her past and rejects her Jewish identity and name in the process.
Geraldine’s story and the way it trickles through her family is one that many marginalized people know — that of locking away your past life to embrace a new one out of what feels like necessity. Many families changed, anglicized, or Americanized their last names in order to provide every opportunity they could. And in some cases, like Geraldine’s, the past isn’t considered a family legacy to preserve but something to throw away, leaving many with more questions than answers about where they fit in.
But if Undone season 1 taught us anything, it’s that Alma is an unstoppable force. And her desire to cure her family’s ills brings the season home by healing everyone. Camila accepts her son into her life, and he joins the family as a beloved brother and a son. Geraldine never rejects her identity and teaches her family about her past. The season’s happy ending comes from the acceptance both women give themselves. Alma has undone the pain by helping each member of her family accept who they are.
That healing and acceptance is something that Alma also chooses for herself. When confronted with remaining in her hard-won timeline of a loving family where the guilt and pain has been undone, for the most part, or returning to her own, she makes a choice.
As she’s found, even with time-travel superpowers, the ability to undo bad choices and make good ones doesn’t stop everything. It doesn’t stop Alma’s father from eventually dying. It doesn’t make perfection, but it does teach Alma that healing doesn’t mean not suffering. It’s about accepting every part of yourself, the mistakes and the pain and the happiness too.
Whether you see season 2 as a confirmation of Alma’s powers, or if you’re like me and see it as the proof that she doesn’t have them, the ending is the same: acceptance. Her choice is to return to the timeline where she is the quintessential fuck-up who fights with her mother and sister. The timeline where she’s jobless and an underachiever, where she hates herself — and most importantly, where she is mentally ill.
But by helping her mother and her grandmother accept their guilt and their grief, Alma can finally look at hers directly. There is a calm in the season’s final moments, a quiet acceptance of the pain and the problems that the entire series has worked toward. While Alma’s story is full of specificities about her heritage or her deafness, Undone ultimately reaches beyond that with universal elements that speak to all of us who wished we could just hit rewind on our choices. Undone sold itself as time-traveling science fiction, but the healing it teaches transcends that. We are not who we are because of our triumphs or our joy alone. We’re forged in the fire that breaks us from time to time and rebuilt stronger than the last. We are as much our struggles as we are our wins, and that deserves love too.