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Ellie Kemper as Kimmy in "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt" (Netflix)

Strong as hell

“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” and moving on from trauma

By Brigit Katz on April 15, 2016

The first season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Netflix’s wackadoodle comedy about a kidnapping victim, began with the eponymous Kimmy emerging from a bunker in which she was held for fifteen years — not frightened or crying, but with a wide grin careening across her face. It was clear from the get-go that the show would be a very singular treatment of abuse, inviting us to find humor in the sort of macabre circumstances that other entertainment offerings have taken very seriously (see Room for details). But Kimmy Schmidt was hardly oblivious to the terrible nature of Kimmy’s past. A river of trauma ran beneath her good cheer, bubbling up in nightmares and flashbacks.

Season 1 ended with Kimmy putting her captor — a.k.a. “The Reverend” — in prison, a tidy conclusion that raised questions about what series creators Tina Fey and Robert Carlock would do with their protagonist now that she had seen some closure. And the happy answer seems to be that they have let Kimmy move on from the bunker, staying true to the indomitable spirit that is referenced in the show’s title.

Kimmy Schmidt’s second season hit Netflix on April 15, and the most endearing qualities of Kimmy and her weird little universe have remained the same. Kimmy (played, adorably, by Ellie Kemper) is still aggressively cheerful. She still dresses like a walking highlighter — one character describes her as a “Jeff Koons sculpture of Ronald McDonald.” She is still hopelessly out of whack with 21st century living. Her best buddies Titus (Tituss Burgess) and Lillian (Carol Kane) continue to be a relentless source of hilarity, coming out with bizarre non-sequiturs like, “You think you know everything because you got bit by a roach that crawled out of a dictionary!”

Jane Krakowski, Tituss Burgess, and Elli Kemper in "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt"
Jane Krakowski, Tituss Burgess, and Elli Kemper in “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” (Netflix)

But things are different, in a dramatic way, because Kimmy is recovering from the wounds of her past. The flashbacks that cracked at the comedic veneer of Season 1 are few and far between. People no longer refer to Kimmy as a “mole woman,” the unfortunate moniker bestowed on the Reverend’s captives. The show doesn’t make much of a fuss about Kimmy’s healing. It has simply eased up on the bunker tropes, occupying its protagonist with more mundane concerns: getting over an ex-boyfriend, holding down a job at a Christmas shop, helping the flamboyantly gay Titus patch things up with his ex-wife.

So yes, the stakes are lower this time around. But Kimmy Schmidt’s distancing from the kidnapping narrative that defined its inaugural season doesn’t feel like an oversight or a cop-out. In fact, it seems daring. When so many television shows—Game of Thrones, Jessica Jones, Happy Valley, The Fall, CSI, Law & Order—are steeped in the horrible things that men to do women, Kimmy Schmidt reminds us that trauma does not need to be the end of a woman’s story. It doesn’t need to subsume her story either. As Lilian tells Kimmy: “The sooner you quit something that stinks, the sooner you can find something that doesn’t.”

This idea of radical opting-out, of quitting the parts of your life that don’t work, carries over onto other characters. At the start of Season 2, we find Kimmy’s employer/sort-of friend Jacqueline (Jane Krakowski) desperately clinging to the Upper East Side luxury that she lost when she was dumped by her husband. Between ordering massages for her dog and commandeering Kimmy to act as her chauffeur, Jacqueline is forced to consider that she may have to become something other than the unhappy wife of a wealthy man. In a rather dramatic turn of events, she even does something nice for another person.

Elli Kemper in "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt" (Netflix)
Elli Kemper in “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” (Netflix)

Kimmy Schmidt isn’t overly sentimental or neat about these transitions. Jacqueline is as weird and snobbish as ever, and Kimmy hasn’t completely shirked the memories of the days when she was forced to “keep hope alive in a bunker where the end of your braid is your toothbrush and your best friend.” But the show allows its characters to transcend easy categorization. “I’m like a biscotti,” Kimmy says at one point. “People act like I’m this sweet cookie. But really, I’m this super hard thing and nobody knows who I am or why I am!” Kimmy is nice and she is tough. She is a victim and a survivor. She is unbreakable.


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