Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Trauma, and Humor

In Season 4, Kimmy learns some important life lessons.
By  · Published on September 18th, 2018

This past May, Netflix released the first half of the final season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidtthe wacky-yet-lovable series created by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock. Over the past four seasons, the show has followed the (mis)adventures of 29-year old Kimmy Schmidt (Ellie Kemper) as she attempts to get her life in order after being kidnapped and trapped in an underground bunker by Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne (Jon Hamm). The series begins with Kimmy and the four other “Mole Women” she was imprisoned with (Sara Chase, Lauren Adams, and Sol Miranda) being rescued by a SWAT team and seeing daylight for the first time in 15 years. As a neighbor/witness (Mike Britt) proclaims, his words immortalized in auto-tune in the opening credits: “Females are strong as hell.”

As the show’s title and theme song suggest, Kimmy (and her fellow survivors) demonstrate incredible resilience, as they survived for 15 years trapped in a bunker, constantly faced with unspeakable terror at the hands of the Reverend. In its quirky and silly way, the show portrays Kimmy’s endless processing of her trauma, each season showing Kimmy at a different point in this journey. As Meghan Demaria writes at Refinery 29, this premise sounds like it would “lead to a pretty dark drama.” Yet what makes the show special is how it uses absurd comedy to address trauma and abuse, setting it apart from any number of self-serious dramas that deal with similar themes. Kimmy Schmidt has always been about walking the line between light and darkness and understanding that sometimes that line gets blurred.

The show’s visual and musical style and sense of humor resemble 30 Rock (naturally), with its bright colors and rapid-fire, goofy jokes that constantly reference and satirize pop culture (Kimmy binges “Girls on the Town” on the streaming service “HouseFlix”). Where 30 Rock existed in the insular world of a multi-million dollar television company, Kimmy Schmidt portrays a different New York City experience, where characters are unsure of how they will pay their rent and might be living in a tugboat that passes for an apartment. Every day, Kimmy is faced with reminders of her trauma. She is unaware of most world events from the past 15 years and has difficulty reckoning with the fact that her 14-year-old brain does not match up with her 30-year-old body. Physical contact evokes violence in Kimmy, demonstrated in Season 2 when she repeatedly hits her love interest, Dong (Ki Hong Lee) whenever he tries to be intimate with her. The series is filled with bunker flashbacks, painful memories that impede on Kimmy’s day-to-day life (often played for laughs, such as Kimmy pretending to be Cyndee’s scumbag boyfriend, Brandon). What can be seen as symptoms of PTSD are filtered through the show’s sense of humor, yet are still taken seriously, demonstrating the show’s commitment to finding laughter in the face of horror and abuse.

The latest season proves that the show’s creators have perfected this balancing act. As Jen Chaney of Vulture notes, the series has always “teeter-tottered between dealing semi-seriously with unprocessed trauma and absurdly riffing on everything from Dionne Warwick to the Washington Redskins, but this season, it walks that line with more confidence and a sense of purpose.” Season 4 sees Kimmy facing harsh truths about sexual harassment, white privilege, and toxic masculinity. The season’s third episode, “Party Monster: Scratching the Surface,” takes the format of a fake HouseFlix documentary and brilliantly sends up films that purportedly uncover previously unknown truths about violent crimes. “Party Monster” humorously addresses the pervasive attitude in America that women are unreliable and lie about being abused in order to take down innocent men. Kimmy’s hurt and rage upon seeing the film is palpable, and while she is defined by her bubbly and upbeat attitude, this season demonstrates that she is growing up and coming to terms with her darker emotions.

One of the most emotional scenes comes in the season’s final episode, “Kimmy Meets an Old Friend.” Kimmy is reunited with her purple JanSport backpack that she lost in the first episode of Season 1 (aptly named “Jan”), and soon realizes that the animated, high-voiced Jan is yet another symbol of her childhood that she must let go of in order to grow up and move on. She takes Jan to the river, and tearfully puts rocks into the bag, claiming that they are going to go on an adventure. Jan, in a panic, tries to convince Kimmy she can do adult stuff: “You can put work papers in me! Or pornography!” But Kimmy knows what she needs to do. She is interrupted by a phone call from a television executive’s son, who enthusiastically asks her about the script that his father previously rejected. Kimmy realizes that her childlike optimism can be channeled into writing stories that obliquely address real issues, such as the way young boys are raised in North American society. Kemper brilliantly moves between disappointment, sadness, and loss in this scene before finding her way back to Kimmy’s energetic and giggly self.

While the series will come to a close when the second half of Season 4 is released in January, the show has demonstrated subtle growth throughout its run. The characters — Kimmy, her best friend/roommate Titus (Tituss Burgess), her landlady Lillian (Carol Kane), and Kimmy’s rich ex-employer, Jacqueline (the hilarious Jane Krakowski) — have not significantly changed over the course of the series, but each has had moments of growth, maturity, and self-discovery. It is especially important to note how far Kimmy has come, because although she still dresses in garishly bright colors and understands the world through cartoons and fairy tales, she consistently confronts hard truths about her experience, and knows she will always be dealing with the trauma of being kidnapped and abused in the bunker for so many years. Every time it seems the show could take a depressing turn, however, the writers come out with something like “DJ Fingablast,” “YouTube Brown,” or “Boobs in California.” Kimmy Schmidt expertly demonstrates that the world is a confusing and terrifying place, but there is always laughter and joy to be found.

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Actual film school graduate from Toronto. Always thinking and writing about queerness, feminism, camp, melodrama, and popular culture.