The Show: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Principal Actors: Ellie Kemper, Tituss Burgess, Jane Krakowski
Creators: Tina Fey & Robert Carlock
Synopsis: Rescued after 15 years in a cult, Kimmy Schmidt decides to reclaim her life by venturing to New York, where she experiences everyday life with wide-eyed enthusiasm. On a whim, she rents a room from Titus, a gay wannabe Broadway actor, who makes ends meet as a street performer in Times Square. The unlikely pair find they’re well-suited to help each other out, with Titus reintroducing Kimmy to modern life, and her providing him with the inspiration that you should never give up. Together they’ll make it through whatever life throws at them.
Abuse should be a tricky thing to portray on television and in film. Often, it’s employed as a cheap way to cast someone as a villain, or give unearned emotional depth to a character that’s enduring it. Usually by the end, the abused becomes empowered suddenly, likely inspired by a new love interest, and stands up to their abuser, probably punctuating the moment with a physical strike or in the case of some movies, a bullet. Obviously, for those who’ve survived it outside of TV Land, it’s never quite so simple.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is, at first glance, one of those shows mentioned above, attempting to work through the pain of surviving trauma… with a comedy? It should be insulting, mocking, and ripe for plenty of angry letters about cashing in on someone’s pain for easy laughs. Instead, its comedy functions, as always, as the sword, the scalpel, the blade to cut deep and bare the truth to light, easing the pain with laughter, and it does so both with its stellar writing and fantastic performances from series leads Ellie Kemper as Kimmy, and Tituss Burgess as her roommate Titus Andromadon.
The series opens with Kimmy in an underground bunker with three other women, Cyndee, Gretchen, and Donna Maria, as well as the Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne preparing to celebrate Christmas with apocalyptic carols to mourn the world they believe they lost fifteen years before. Seconds later, the titular Unbreakable Kimmy is freed, brought up into the light by a SWAT team and ends up on the Today Show, where she and her fellow survivors have been dubbed “The Indiana Mole Women”. They reap the charity of the nation, being the latest viral giving craze, and Kimmy decides to stay in New York City rather than return home to Indiana like the others, and it all starts from there.
Thank You, Victims!
“Everybody in Durnsville is always going to look at me like I’m a victim and that’s not what I am!” – Kimmy
Abuse, assault, rape, battery, the word “victim” gets used a lot to describe those who live through it, because in the beginning, that’s what you are. The four women who survive the bunker all see their experience differently, the way that survivors often do, though the four outlooks are hardly the only ways. Gretchen, the true believer, reached a position of comfort in the cult by devoting herself fully to the Reverend’s teachings, and near the end of the season, is eager to return to the bunker with a few new converts to continue enjoying the Reverend’s favor. Donna Maria, the Hispanic maid, found opportunity in her new fame, and embraced the infamy if it allowed her to start selling mole sauce to the masses. Little development is given to the character, otherwise, other than her method of coping by pretending she didn’t speak or understand English simply so that she’d be more likely to be left alone. Cyndee elects to return to Durnsville where everyone already knows that she’s a victim, and are willing to shower her with more charity and preferential treatment, knowing that after the Hell she’s endured, she deserves to be happy, even if it means having to fake being straight. She embraces that treatment, even when she’s confronted by her friend, because surviving horrible treatment should be balanced out by happiness, even if it’s fake and out of pity, at least it’s there and doesn’t require any effort.
It’s Kimmy who endeavors to shed her victimhood by remaining in New York City, where she’s just some woman who makes a big deal out of running outside and riding the subway and dancing in a fountain that wasn’t actually on Friends. To Kimmy, and to some survivors, new beginnings aren’t frightening, they’re alluring, a chance to leave everything behind and either pick up where you left off, or simply treat the trauma as a thing that happened to someone else. The “victim” label only serves as a reminder of the trauma, and can often be more damaging than the pity it elicits.
It runs counter to the tone of the opening, but critiques the way society sees them. The Mole Women are repeatedly referred to as victims during their brief time in the media, and even though the rest of the country pretty much moves on (the trial of the man who imprisoned them is only available through a shoddy webcam), the survivors are forever defined by that trauma. Victims are to be pitied, after all, and often little else.
“People love hearing terrible details of tragedies. One, it’s titillating like a horror movie. Two, it makes them feel like a good person because they care about a stranger. Three, it makes people feel safe that it did not happen to them.” – Titus
The transition from victim to survivor isn’t as simple as correcting someone who mislabels you. A common method of coping is simple avoidance, getting away from anything that reminds a survivor of the trauma, steering conversation topics away from anything that might drift into uncomfortable waters, and often doing as much as possible to avoid bringing up one’s past trauma… or bringing it up to everyone.
Kimmy and Cyndee represent opposite methods of dealing with it. Cyndee returns to where everyone knows she’s a victim, but an incredibly sympathetic one, so there’s no need to talk about it and simply bask in the comfort of pity. She casually mentions in conversation that she’s still dealing with nightmares and attacking people in her sleep, but she’s generally okay with it as long as the Reverend goes down for his crime.
Kimmy chose a place where people know of her, but not that she’s one of the bunker survivors. She takes a new name, and revels in the ignorance and indifference of New Yorkers, particularly Titus, her new roommate, who first senses something off about Kimmy, but then simply ascribes it to her being from Indiana. Much like Cyndee, it’s avoidance, just a different method, and all it takes is one bad night for her to confess her past to Titus, a gay black man who left Mississippi to pursue a dream of singing on Broadway as well as escape having to be a gay black man in Mississippi. But, as Titus tells Kimmy, “Escaping is not the same as making it.”
Getting away from your abuser doesn’t mean you’ll automatically be okay. The aftermath can be brutal as well, leading to night terrors, hypervigilance, mistrust, emotional outbursts, or, in my case, getting home after dark and grabbing a steak knife from the kitchen and moving room to room through my apartment, terrified that my ex was waiting for me, being terrified of people in white jackets (as he had worn one often), and developing a fear of dogs.
Over the course of the series, Kimmy limits the people she tells about her past to only two people, her roommate/friend Titus, and her boss Jacqueline, but by the third episode, it’s made clear to her that she needs to talk to someone about what happened to her, instead of just telling someone what happened. The questions she asks, “Do you think going through something like that makes you a better person? Or deep down, does it just make you bitter and angry? Do I ever get to be normal again?” they all have answers that survivors seek, and those answers are as hard-won as they are subject to change.
Even survivors have their moments where they feel like victims again, sometimes even years afterward. At Coastal Magic, I was signed up to snark at Cinema Craptastique with Damon Suede and a bunch of other authors, but I was already in a bad mood before I even got there. It was my first convention, I was surrounded by people I didn’t know, and I had no idea what I was supposed to do. As a result, my stress was right about at the breaking point, but I knew from past experience that all I had to do was push through the first few minutes and I’d be okay. I’d left my power brick for my laptop up in the hotel room, so I ran up to get it, alone, leaving Chris, my fiancee, down in the ballroom where the event was planned. On the way back, I got in the elevator, and the next person to get on had a dog.
Cynophobia is the *irrational* fear of dogs. Let me underline that for all the dog owners and enthusiasts that might be reading this. When I see a dog, I see a creature capable of lethal violence that I can’t control, and can tell that I’m terrified. It also didn’t help that the dog’s owner told me that dogs can smell fear so I needed to calm down. To a cynophobic, that’s the equivalent of telling someone they had it coming.
Regardless, I didn’t make it more than 20 feet from the elevator. I saw someone else from the con, and asked them politely to look for Chris in the ballroom and send him back to the elevators to see me. They were confused, but did it, because when Chris found me, he later told me that I was babbling, incoherent, and absolutely refused to let go of him. The memory of it is pretty hazy, but the issue was that even over a decade after the abuse, I was in the exact same state as the night my ex left. Even looking at the words I just typed, I ask myself, “Do I ever get to be normal again?” I’m sure someone out there is saying, “Well, what’s normal, anyway?” The answer is, “I don’t know, but it’s not this.”
Ten Seconds at a Time
Can you get through the next ten seconds? For most of us, it’s a question that’s easy to answer. Of course you can make it through ten seconds, you’ve been through more than that just reading to this point. Ten seconds is finite, measurable, something you learn how to count out in preschool or earlier. Ten seconds is always ten seconds whether you’re riding a roller coaster or standing in line for it, it’s the perception of that ten seconds that makes it vary, can make it flash by in an instant or become the most agonizing eternity in your life. In the second episode, Kimmy reveals the coping technique that kept her going in the bunker: get through the next ten seconds, then start on the next ten seconds, because anyone can handle anything for ten seconds at a time. It’s simply a matter of counting it out, dragging one’s perception back into the finite, forcing the mind to accept that those ten seconds of pain and stress are now over, in the past, and can no longer hurt.
It’s powerful, and it chops the day into microtasks anybody can handle, but at the same time, it reduces your span of hope to ten simple seconds. Eventually, you learn to look past the next ten seconds, and one Kimmy passes on that method, she needs it less and less, but it moves into searching for other methods.
Much like her boss, Jacqueline, a rich housewife in a loveless marriage living in terror of being left alone, Kimmy looks for the quick fix, the way to skip over the painful parts of recovery and just get to the return to real happiness as quickly as possible. A common gag in the series is a riff on Febreze, and their campaign of putting blindfolded people in dirty rooms and misting it all with Febreze, having the people describe their surroundings with florid and enticing imagery, only pull the blindfolds and see they’re in a festering slum rife with garbage and rats. It’s symbolic of the way Kimmy sees her life, as a collection of ugliness and garbage, and needing to mist it over and lead people through it blindfolded to her past before she can let people in.
Of course, quick fixes don’t work, but it doesn’t stop Kimmy from trying, because we’re convinced that everyone is different so maybe this method which hasn’t lasted more than a day for everyone else will work for *us*. When the quick fixes fail, it hardens Kimmy’s already unbreakable resolve to her own path of recovery, which only serves to piss her off when she sees Cyndee’s means of faking her way to a better life.
It’s Dangerous to Go Alone
“I had to call for backup, you won’t talk to me. You say I don’t understand, but I knew who would understand is another one of you.”
It’s understand why survivors try to go it alone. After all, it was another person who abused them, who in their right mind would let another person in after that? At least, that’s how it feels at first. Going it alone is different than being alone, of course. Kimmy finds Titus on her first day, Cyndee returns to an entire town of people who sympathize, but what they lack is someone they can talk to about it on a professional level. Jacqueline, on the other hand, has the opposite. She has a wealth of therapists and doctors and spin class instructors to give her the easy answers, but she doesn’t have anyone in her life that she believes would stick around if her money ran out. It’s what pushes her initially to stay with a controlling and philandering husband until Kimmy, her sole friend, informs her that even if Jacqueline were flat broke, she’d still be her friend. It’s that revelation, that human contact, that pushes her to leave her husband, not the assurance that the money won’t run out on her.
It’s what Kimmy needs as well, as even though she attacks Titus in her sleep, he’s been made aware of her trauma and is brave enough to tell her he’s not equipped to handle it and she should talk to someone about what happened before it eats her alive. Titus is likely one of the most important members of the supporting cast because he represents, at first, the person who doesn’t know who you are, and gives you the reaction you can expect from other people when they find out, as Titus is the first person that Kimmy tells about the bunker. He’s the friend who picks up on the fact that something’s wrong, and tries his best to be supportive even though he has no idea how to handle it, and doesn’t want to say what’s probably already been said.
And that, I believe, is one of the issues that Kimmy Schmidt subtly addresses but never says out loud: Kimmy is never told what happened to her was wrong, and wasn’t her fault. It’s likely because it seems obvious to anyone that being imprisoned by a lunatic for fifteen years is wrong, and the blame should never lie with the victim. It’s assumed that a survivor would know that, and they do. It’s just that there’s another little voice in their head that sounds a lot like their abuser speaking to the contrary. It’s seen when Kimmy breaks down, calls herself “garbage” as the Reverend did, and constantly needs to talk to herself to psyche up. She’s trying to drown out the voice of her abuser with her own strength, and that’s not always a lock.
“I’m actually doing what I said I was going to do back in the bunker. You were going to see the world and get an education and a great job. But you’re a 29-year-old babysitter who lives in a basement!”
Ironically, it’s Cyndee, who draws her strength from the town’s sympathy, that restores Kimmy’s resolve in her lowest moments. Cyndee is, at first, appalling to to Kimmy in that she’s simply wallowing in the pity lavished on her by the public for being a Mole Woman. Whenever she wants something, she puts on a sad face and admits to having been abused and traumatized, and people fall all over themselves to help her. It pisses Kimmy off, understandably, as she’s trying to make her own way, on her own, trying to put her past behind her, while her best friend revels in the attention. Only in a confrontation between the two is Kimmy given a hard truth: She hasn’t changed. Kimmy is shown she’s essentially the same 15-year-old who was taken by the Reverend, working a teenager’s job, and living in a shitty apartment you should have moved out of by the time you finish your twenties. It’s what pushes Kimmy to better herself, pursue her GED, and realize the only way to leave the past behind is to move forward.
The difficult truth of surviving abuse is that you can’t just pick up where you left off and continue on. Time was taken away and it’s not going to be recovered. Much like the ten seconds, one it’s passed, it’s in the past, and you can’t go back. The method Kimmy uses is to resume her education and maybe become more than a “glorified babysitter”, open up more possibilities and paths in life than simply moving forward.
It’s the method that I used after my ex left, I threw myself into college to pursue my degree, narrowing my focus on obtaining my degree so that I’d fare better the next time I had to face the real world. Academia started first as my ladder out, but quickly turned into a safe haven that I didn’t want to leave. In college, I was just another student, someone looking to better himself. Outside, I was an unemployed abuse survivor, it was just easier to stay in school where there were easier answers. It’s a trap that Kimmy falls into late in the season.
A few years after he left, I didn’t have much of an idea where my ex was, mostly because I didn’t care, and trying to keep him out of my life was a priority. Then something happened, I won’t go into details, but let’s just say I had to have a conversation with a police officer about my ex because he might’ve seen something while he was in NY, and they wanted to talk to him, and wanted my help in tracking them down.
It took me five minutes of Googling to get an address, which angered me because I figured it would’ve taken that long for the police to do the same, but then, they didn’t know all the little things that I did that made the search only take five minutes. The police agreed to keep me out of it when they contacted him, but it renewed the fears all over again. Mostly, I got into World of Warcraft and utterly devoted all of my time to leveling a character to 70 in 9 days, which allowed me to think about, well, nothing.
When Kimmy is finally presented with the opportunity to face her abuser in open court, she resists at first, seeking refuge in a spin class that offers easy answers and ways to avoid stress while convincing yourself you’re just getting a lot of good exercise. She comments regularly about how blank and clear her mind is, which would seem like a good thing if she wasn’t running away from the confrontation.
It’s running away that is the common trait amongst all the characters of Kimmy Schmidt. Kimmy’s running from being a victim, Titus is running from his past in Mississippi, Jacqueline is running from being alone.
The transition for all of them is when they recognize they can run away from their problems by running toward something else. Kimmy runs toward her education, Titus runs toward a job where he can sing for money, and Jacqueline learns how to run toward independence. Kimmy learns this lesson from Dong, her boyfriend, who’s running from immigration while he runs toward learning proper English and eventually becoming an American citizen, and everyone in turn takes the same lesson from her.
For a survivor, confronting an abuser is terrifying, but sometimes necessary. That confrontation comes in the form of a trial to punish the Reverend for kidnapping and unlawful imprisonment, which for most people would mean life in jail. In the show, the trial is played up for laughs, and Jon Hamm plays up the Reverend’s craziness and oily charm with perfect comic effect. The jury is easily swayed, the judge is indifferent, the prosecutors are grossly incompetent, and the Reverend is able to dazzle them with idiotic placation and blame-shifting with “aw shucks”, down-home charm.
It’s done for comedy, but it’s the way a lot of survivors see the system: incompetent, indifferent, ignorant, and easily manipulated. Through both real experience as well as the portrayals of popular culture, survivors often believe that the system is not going to help them. One of the most chilling things I ever saw in a movie was in John Grisham’s “The Rainmaker”, where a woman is beaten severely by her husband and ends up in the hospital. When asked what happened to the husband, the answer is, “He spent the night in jail. His family bailed him out. He’s due in court in a couple weeks, nothing’ll happen.” It’s the tone that makes it chilling in that how casual and “I dunno, what can ya do? *shrug*” it is. That feeling pervades the reaction for survivors. In the Reverend’s trial, Kimmy soon finds herself on the defensive, her abuser resorting to victim-blaming and being wholly successful, getting by on his charm and good looks to convince the crowd he’d never be capable of such a thing. In order to win, she has to return to the bunker, relive the Hell she endured for fifteen years, symbolic of when a survivor has to take the stand and suffer the slings and arrows of victim-blaming and prove it’s not all lies even though the evidence is obvious and overwhelming. The survivors of the bunker actually have to prove they were being held against their will, and end up winning solely because of a hard-won detail when it should’ve been open and shut from the day of the arrest.
But Kimmy is allowed her moment, the one she feared, avoided, and ran away from through the entire first season. She’s able to stand in front of her abuser and show him she’s not afraid, that she’s not weak, she’s not garbage, and she’s going to move on with her life with his approval not desired nor required. It’s a powerful and triumphant moment amidst the silliness of the trial, a hard-fought victory that *shouldn’t* be hard-fought, but it’s at least a victory all the same. It grants the promise of the series open, where Kimmy stands in the middle of Times Square, awash in a sea of new possibility and convincing her new friend to see the wonder that she’s finally able to see:
Life beats you up… You can either curl up in a ball and die, or you can stand up and say, “We’re different. We’re the strong ones, and you can’t break us.” – Kimmy
The open ends with a joyous chorus from “The Circle of Life”, the exultant lines promising a leap of faith to the path of hope, where we’ll all, including the survivors, find our place on the path unwinding.
And why? Because we’re unbreakable. We alive, dammit.