Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and the Cycles of Abuse

Under its primary colours and insistent optimism, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is a psychologically complex show. Many writers have talked about its problematic handling of racial issues and how some of that is the very point, the way it deals with coming out of cult situations and sexual abuse, the way it addresses the aftermath of said cults, including delayed development and depression in a deft way which manages to laugh and take it wholly seriously, all at once. 

You can click all those hyperlinks open in new tabs to read later, but point being, it’s got a lot going on. Addressing very current, very real threats via a surrealist comedy is always going to have some pitfalls, and often open itself up to criticism – some great, some missing the point, some in-between – and I wanted to establish that context before settling in to talk about “Kimmy Does a Puzzle!”

I’ve written before on this blog about how I grew up in a fundamentalist cult scenario. I always talk about it in context of television and movies, because 1. that’s what this blog is about 2. film and TV are a large part of what helped me leave, and what helped me navigate the world after I left. The exaggerated situations Kimmy find herself in are funny because jokes!, but also because they’re completely recognisable to people like me. There was a time I had absolutely no clue how to go about navigating a workplace, or dating, or ordering a drink. The first time I rode in a car alone with a boy, purely for convenience’s sake, I had the weirdest internal freak-out:

Do they expect me to ride in the back? Is that too chauffeur -y? Oh gosh if I get in the back seat are they going to assume I want sex? If I get in the front am I going to seem too fresh and familiar? Okay, get in the front, look at the road, and keep your hands in your lap at all times, because what if you brush their hand and they crash the car? How are the cops going to explain that to your mother!?

Which is absolutely ridiculous, which is the point. So imagine me trying to pick someone up at a bar, or interviewing for a job, or buying a swimsuit. Plenty of hilarity ensues when I look back on them, but at the time they were terrifyingly awkward, and most of what taught me how to navigate them (and sometimes more importantly, how NOT to navigate them), was film and TV.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt finds much of its humour in taking those sorts of scenarios to the max, but it does so while touching on the underlying human person in the equation. It deals with the brokenness Kimmy is still working to fix, and how that effects those around her, even if the show coats the situation with a thick layer of humour. “Kimmy Does a Puzzle!” breaks down not only how Kimmy’s past life is still impacting her, but how someone can easily perpetuate cycles of abuse – even if they’re a good person, even if they’re ‘doing better,’ even if they’re aware of exactly what bad behaviour is an are actively trying to avoid it.

The setup: there’s a storm coming, and Kimmy and Co board up their windows and settle down in their bunker’d apartment. Kimmy immediately sets out to ensure this storm-bunker experience is nothing like her kidnapped-bunker experience. She verbally warns against ‘bad guys’ in the bunker. She makes sure they have games, because the years of nothing but a crank to turn were nearly unbearable. She sets up boundaries in direct contrast to the rules the Reverend enforced. Her friends understand her history, and are accomodating and reassuring. But ultimately, Kimmy gets overwhelmed, and falls into some of the same problematic and abusive behaviour the Reverend exhibited all those years in the bunker. She yells at her friends. She becomes demanding and enraged when people don’t follow the rules she sets out; rules she meant to be in everyone’s best interest, rules she actively tried to prevent bunker-ish behaviour with. She acts, in short, like an authoritarian asshat in training. The abuse which was perpetuated against her for so many years is deeply engrained, and in some ways is the only thing she knows. So when the basics get stripped away, when she’s anxious and depressed and upset, she falls back on the yelling, the rules, the exact manipulating and demanding behaviour she abhors.

In the end, the episode is clear Kimmy’s behaviour is not acceptable, but it also clearly shows exactly where that behaviour comes from, and thus understands and forgives it once Kimmy has course-corrected. Everyone screws up, and Kimmy of all people has reason to. People who have escaped from cults will often exhibit not just delayed development and PTSD, but will also sometimes revert to the exact abusive behaviours they were subjected to for years. What’s important is understanding the reasons one is doing this, engaging with them, halting said behaviours, and moving forward in ways which ensure one breaks the cycle. Kimmy has been doing this throughout the show, and at no point does it excuse her actions, even when explaining them. The important thing is Kimmy acknowledges and apologises for her actions. The further she gets from her time in the bunker, the better she gets at being able to recognise where they come from, and the more able she is to examine herself, ask for help (from her friends, her therapist, her boyfriends), and move towards a better place.

In breaking the cycle of abuse, people who are honestly trying may fall. It’s hard and it sucks and it’s not always pretty. But it is possible, in fact it’s necessary, and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt faces all that with humour and understanding.

Stray Observations

– Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is one of the quickest sitcoms going right now, jumping from music videos to cutaway jokes to verbal barrages all between [what would be] commercial breaks [on ‘regular’ TV]. “Kimmy Does a Puzzle!” pokes some meta fun at this when Artie deadpans about not being able to keep up with Titus and Kimmy riffing.

– The costuming and set dressing always have their own easter eggs; in the pictures above you can see Kimmy and Titus have complimentary bear and bunny slippers.  

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