Angelique Cabral as Becca Winograd-Diaz (left) and Rosa Salazar as Alma Winograd-Diaz in 'Undone.' (Photo/Courtesy Prime Video)
Angelique Cabral as Becca Winograd-Diaz (left) and Rosa Salazar as Alma Winograd-Diaz in 'Undone.' (Photo/Courtesy Prime Video)

‘Undone’ imagines reversing intergenerational trauma in a Mexican-Jewish-American family

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Identity, mental illness and time travel are at the core of “Undone,” an animated Prime Video series co-created by Kate Purdy and Palo Alto-born Raphael Bob-Waksberg (“Bojack Horseman”) and directed by indie Dutch animator Hisko Hulsing (“Junkyard,” “Seventeen”). It is the first episodic television series to use rotoscoping, a style of filmmaking that lives somewhere between live action and traditional animation — the woozy, dreamlike effect enhances the blurring of the line between reality and fantasy and serves as a fitting narrative framework for the series’ story content. (Season 1 premiered in September 2019, and season 2 in April 2022; this piece contains spoilers for both.)

“Undone” centers on the Mexican-Jewish-American Winograd-Diaz family, with the first season primarily focusing on twentysomething daughter Alma, who feels imprisoned by life’s monotony and craves change. She blows up her life: breaking up with boyfriend, Sam, because she is afraid their goals don’t align; encouraging her sister, Becca, to cheat on her new fiance; antagonizing her mother. After a serious accident, she reconnects with her deceased father, Jacob, and discovers an ability to move between timelines. At the same time, her mother and sister believe she is mentally ill and requires therapy and medication. Jacob encourages Alma to develop her talent for time travel in order to uncover the secrets surrounding his death a decade earlier.

Initially, mentions of Alma’s Jewish heritage are sparse and even negated. Alma asks Becca if she’s going to have a Jewish wedding “because I want to dance the hora.” 

“We’re not Jewish,” Becca counters. 

“But Dad is — was,” Alma asserts. 

They don’t know much about paternal grandmother Geraldine, just that she “lost her mind,” that she was schizophrenic or, as Becca says, “had a bad brain.”

The creators bring elements of their own histories to the show. Purdy grew up in San Antonio, Texas, and lived in Mexico for several years. Schizophrenia runs in her family. Bob-Waksberg grew up in Palo Alto, and his family is very connected to the Bay Area Jewish community. (His mother and grandmother owned the Bob and Bob Judaica store, which closed in 2009. And his father retired in 2020 after years at the helm of Jewish LearningWorks.) Bob-Waksberg’s sisters are named Amalia and Becky, similar to the names of the Winograd-Diaz sisters in the show.

The two seasons flow into each other, especially if you binge both of them over 36 hours as I did. But they also construct slightly different realities. The second season explores family heritage, culture and trauma more deeply. Alma connects to indigenous Mexican people and practices, and she peers into the traumas that her immigrant ancestors brought when they emigrated from Mexico and Poland. Mother Camila’s struggle with faith, family and Geraldine’s Holocaust narrative are both painful, and may prompt viewers to try to identify which person suffered more.

The rules of time travel in the “Undone” universe are not entirely clear and consistent. But that’s forgivable for a show depicting a multiverse of literal madness that emanates from traumatic brain injury as well as inherited emotional trauma or illness. At points, multiple versions of the characters attempt to resolve family trauma in their own ways, from confronting it head-on to suggesting medication to ignoring it and pretending everything’s OK. I like the idea that the family is complicated with many branches of the family tree to explore. But these branches split the story in different directions, and some viewers may not feel connected to all the characters as they move forward in the narrative.

How much of our traumatic past would we erase for the sake of our parents’ pain and our family’s suffering?

The lack of clarity around whether this is a tale of magic or mental illness also discomforted me. Is Alma right to reject therapy and medication in favor of running at mirrors (which she thinks are portals to another time) and perhaps endangering the kids at the preschool where she works? Her magic seems to work, so we can suspend disbelief and not demand an answer right away, but in a climate where mental illness and the effectiveness of medication and talk therapy in treatment are very much under discussion, this question is likely to linger.

Alma does get to be a rectifier of sorts, using time loops to rehearse scenarios in which she tries to alleviate human pain, bridge estrangement and unlock traumatic memories until all parties arrive at some sort of healing outcome. But is the ability to undo the past real and magical, or imaginary and a product of mental illness? And in alleviating one person’s pain, might she be creating trauma for someone else?

I found this series fascinating, both narratively and visually. My brain buzzed, thinking about time travel, about the power to undo a premature tragic death and imagining a decade with that person present instead of absent, about the consequences of undoing past events. Was this show an exploration of mental illness and its genetic markers, or a reminder that someone with a disability impacting one sense — Alma is hearing-impaired — might have other senses enhanced?

The show provides an exercise in developing empathy for previous generations, the secret traumas they may carry and the way those hidden histories impacted them and continue to reverberate in subsequent generations.

How much of our traumatic past would we erase for the sake of our parents’ pain and our family’s suffering? Would altering our histories change who we are on a molecular level? What do we owe our ancestors? If we had the chance to erase their traumas, should we, no matter the cost to the future?

Initially, “Undone” is visually jarring, existing as it does in a space between live action and animation. Rotoscoping is a complicated and multistep process, in which the artistic product goes through several generations. First, actors perform their roles, then visual artists trace over the footage adding shading and background details. (Fans of Richard Linklater will recognize the style from “Waking Life” and “A Scanner Darkly.”) Beyond its visual impact, rotoscoping’s multigenerational style poetically parallels the sisters’ intergenerational identity dive over the two seasons.

Ultimately, this series is a work with relevant and contemporary questions, as so many of us look to our parents and grandparents to inform the present and — like the Winograd-Diaz sisters — encounter large pockets of familial history that are secret, untold or skipped over because they’re too painful to visit and recount. Alma and Becca do the best they can to uncover their family history with the resources they have available, but with one parent deceased and the other secretive, what they can discover is limited. Only by crossing into another realm, time or universe and interacting with the people who lived history are they able to ask the questions and get the answers they need. Offered the same ability, where — or when — would we go? And what would we ask when we got there?

Esther D. Kustanowitz
Esther D. Kustanowitz

Esther D. Kustanowitz wrote a TV column for J. She is based in Los Angeles and has been known to track #TVGoneJewy. Follow her on Twitter @EstherK.