In early 2015, for the first time in a long time, I felt good. I had just come out as bisexual to my family and friends, resolving some years-long tension. I looked good, I dressed well; I cared about myself. Season one of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt hit me at my highest high. It hit all the harder for how much I related to the eponymous protagonist. Here is a woman without a cynical bone in her body. She devotes all of her energy to helping the people around her, because they deserve it, and because she really, truly, deeply cares. I watched the first season and saw a character who reflected my own values and aspirations. I saw a character with a comedically exaggerated desire to be good, for whom goodness was not an intangible ideal but a choice. As goofily naive as she was presented, that goodness wasn’t dismissed as the result of naivete. Moreover, this character chose not just to be good, but to be happy. She resisted the temptation to be defined by trauma and misery. Kimmy Schmidt was my hero.
Season two of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, by contrast, hit me at my lowest low. Depression is fickle like that. In the run-up to the season’s premiere, I couldn’t even get excited about it. I was worried that the show’s sunniness would be soured by my own emotional state. I was wrong. The show soured itself. The second season puts the screws to the first season’s unflinching optimism, and in doing so exposes an uncomfortably bitter edge. Kimmy’s attitude, once celebrated without question, is put under the microscope, its dark motivators made clear. By extension, it put me under the microscope. The trick that this show plays on its audience is cruel, but not pointlessly so. It reframes the positivity of its first season as a symptom of mental instability in its second. As someone who wholeheartedly bought into that positivity, I probably should have been outraged at this turn. I should be lambasting this season as a mean-spirited and bitter twist on its precedent. This is the sort of baseless, useless cynicism that I almost always decry, and here it is infecting a show that I once adored. Then there’s the inescapable racism permeating the entire season, peaking in an episode which exists only to denigrate Asians for caring about how the show represents them. On top of all of that, this season just isn’t as funny as the previous one. I should have hated this. I should have hated this.
And I could write an article from that perspective. I certainly believe everything that I just said. I might as well get it out of the way now: The third episode, titled “Kimmy Goes to a Play!” has a disgusting point of view. In response to criticism of the first season’s use of a racist Asian caricature in the secondary character Dong, the show gives us an episode where Asian people upset about their representation in media are depicted as loud-mouthed, overreacting idiots. The episode has Titus put on a one-man show where he plays a geisha, to the consternation of a group of Asian-American activists. The show hammers home the point that they haven’t seen the performance that they are criticizing. The strangest part is that it actually takes Titus’ side, despite his reasoning for putting on the show (he believes that he was this geisha character in a past life) being patently absurd. A smarter satire would have owned up to Titus’ mistake, and it could have done so while simultaneously poking fun at so-called “outrage culture.” I may not have agreed with such an episode’s conclusion, but at the very least it would have been an even-handed treatment. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt has no sympathy for these protestors. They are depicted as stupid bigots who promptly shut their mouths after watching and being moved by the performance. The message to the show’s critics is, “If you only watched our show, you would see how not-racist this character is!” It’s not a wholly baseless argument. Despite Dong obviously being based in racist archetypes, the character is generally respected within the metanarrative of the show, and he makes for a sweet love interest for Kimmy. But this hardly erases what the character represents on a surface level.
This wasn’t the only racial controversy of season one. There was also the reveal that Jane Krakowski’s character Jacqueline was a Native American woman, who changes her appearance to pass for white. While it is worth exploring the self-hatred cultivated in members of racial minorities by Western culture, casting a white woman was the wrong direction in which to go. But Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt goes in the opposite direction in addressing this controversy. The final episode of the season gives Jacqueline some impassioned dialogue about the insensitivity of the Washington Redskins. None of it is played for laughs. Herein lies the bizarre contradiction of this show’s second season. It sees Native American representation as a legitimate argument and a fight worth having. At the same time, it sees Asian representation as a funny joke, and a fight propagated by whiny haters. The message from the show to its audience is disturbingly clear: “Fight for better representation all you want, just so long as we’re not the target.”
So, there’s all of that. But despite it all, this season touched me on a profound level. It shook me, it spoke to me, and it told me what I needed to hear. Believe me, given everything I’ve just said, I wish that it hadn’t. I wish I could distance myself from this show as easily as saying so. But as I’ve said before, we don’t always get to choose the media that matters to us. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt matters to me, and here’s why.
As we move on, you need to know something about people with low self-esteem: They’re often the nicest people you’ll ever meet. They’re always willing to put aside their own interests to help out the people around them. They lie to themselves and think, “I’m doing the right thing, I’m being a good person.” But they are only so selfless because they place so little value on themselves. I speak, as I’m sure you’ve gathered, from personal experience. Anything that helps people other than myself is worth doing, even at my own expense, because who cares about me? I’m, ugh, me. And they’re them! For so long, just like Kimmy, I honest-to-god thought that this made me happy. Kimmy’s arc in this season is, broadly speaking, about her learning that it’s okay for her to care about herself. The recurring line in the back-half of these thirteen episodes is that she is “entitled to her emotions.” She’s within her rights to be angry at people for taking advantage of her, or abandoning her, or not reciprocating the effort she puts into their relationship.
This is set up by the front-half of the season, which mostly consists of her failing over and over again. She fails to get her GED, she fails to keep her on-off boyfriend Dong from getting deported, and she fails to help former bunker-mate Gretchen live her best life. The fifth episode is titled “Kimmy Gives Up!,” a curdled twist on the show’s episode naming convention which serves as an apt encapsulation for the tone of the season. Again and again, season 2 demonstrates that Kimmy’s philosophy can’t work in practice. The second half of the season reveals that her unwillingness to confront her past is the root of her obsessive behavior. She is so determined to make up for her lost time in the bunker and spread joy wherever she can that she is incapable of looking back and reckoning with her past in a meaningful way. These unresolved emotions may manifest in genuinely positive ways, but they are still unresolved, and they are hurting her. Eventually, series co-creator Tina Fey herself appears to tell Kimmy, in essence, that she needs to grow up and stop pretending that being a self-sacrificing saint is anything but dangerously self-destructive. While season one didn’t imply the exact opposite, it showed Kimmy’s attitude as more of an uphill climb, a challenge worth undertaking. Season two depicts it as a Sisyphean burden.
Now we arrive at the greatest tool in understanding Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Albert Camus’ essay The Myth of Sisyphus. The second season seems to be directly inspired by it, or at least by its general ideas. In the essay, Camus talks about the Greek legend of Sisyphus, who was given a miserable curse by the gods as punishment for trying to cheat Death. Sisyphus was doomed to roll a boulder up a mountain for all eternity, with the boulder always rolling back down just before he reached the peak. Camus maps this to an absurdist understanding of the human condition as a pathetic and pointless march to oblivion. Kimmy’s journey is similarly hopeless. She can never regain the time she lost in the bunker. She can never go back and force her pre-bunker life to be better. All she can do is move forward, pushing the boulder of her history uphill.
Camus would have liked Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. He had a notably positive outlook on Sisyphus. He posited that once Sisyphus was able to reckon with his fate and recognize its absurdity, it would have freed him from its burden: “At that subtle moment when man glances backward over his life, Sisyphus returning toward his rock, in that slight pivoting he contemplates that series of unrelated actions which become his fate, created by him, combined under his memory’s eye and soon sealed by his death.” This is precisely what Kimmy does in the final episode of season two. Her reunion with her mother doesn’t provide the catharsis she hoped for. The search itself, though, helps her to comprehend the uncontrollable forces which guided the course of her life, and accept them as beyond her control.
So she keeps moving onwards. Why not? She now knows that her mission is ultimately futile, but the fact of her knowing makes the futility no longer a punishment. I’m going to keep moving onwards as well. I’ve always struggled with that decision, more so lately. The now-revealed emptiness of a Kimmy Schmidt lifestyle seems unbearably tragic. It’s an arrangement rooted in one’s own self-hatred, to the benefit of everyone but one’s self. But if it’s within your limited power to try and accomplish some good, then isn’t the trying all you can do? You’re alive, dammit. You’re strong as hell. Maybe the only way to be unbreakable is to admit that you are already broken. As Camus put it, “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.” And as he would have put it, one must imagine Kimmy Schmidt happy.
Featured Image: Netflix