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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt continues its nuanced conversation about trauma

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
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While the first couple of episodes have moved Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s characters in new directions, “Kimmy Can’t Help You!” recenters on the show’s core, tapping into the initial premise by bringing some of Kimmy’s past back to the surface. The episode goes dark, delving not only into Kimmy’s trauma and the sacrifices she was forced to make in the bunker but also into the emotions of a brand new character. In its very well executed central storyline, “Kimmy Can’t Help You!” touches on the behaviors of abuse victims without pathologizing its characters or oversimplifying the issues unearthed in the episode. “Kimmy Can’t Help You!” also includes a critical moment for the series by being the first to actually use the word rape.

Since the beginning, it has been implied that the reverend raped the women he captured. Kimmy made an off-hand comment about “weird sex stuff” in the bunker in season one, and she struggles with physical intimacy throughout the series. But the show, even in some of its darkest moments last season, never acknowledged the sexual abuse explicitly. In “Kimmy Can’t Help You!,” a woman named Wendy Hebert (Laura Dern) shows up at Kimmy’s doorstep to deliver divorce papers. Soon after, it’s revealed that she’s actually the woman marrying the reverend, which sends Kimmy into a tailspin as she becomes conflicted over wanting to protect Wendy by stopping the marriage and not wanting to get too involved with something that has to do with her kidnapper. After all, she’s supposed to be moving on, going to college, and leaving the bunker behind. But the kind of trauma Kimmy experienced never goes away entirely. When Wendy compares her situation to a Noel Coward play, Kimmy quickly retorts: “If Noel Coward was really a coward who rapes everybody.”


Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s blend of goofy, over-the-top comedy and very dark subject matter regarding trauma and abuse is sometimes disorienting, but it’s part of what makes the show so smart and layered and more than just a joke machine. The writers can go dark and do so without losing the comedy altogether, but the humor also doesn’t minimize the darkness. “Kimmy Can’t Help You!” is right in that sweet spot. We gradually learn that Wendy has a history of being with cheating and abusive men, which is subtly alluded to when she’s talking to Titus, who can see her scars right away. Wendy has convinced herself that the reverend isn’t all that bad, but it’s easy to see that she doesn’t know him very well. “He’s different with me,” she insists, an all-too-common excuse used to ignore abusers’ pasts.

Titus goes to Kimmy, hoping she can do something to help Wendy, which leads to a flashback to Kimmy helping Donna Maria Nuñez when she first arrived in the bunker. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s flashbacks are always effective in contextualizing Kimmy’s behaviors in the presence, showing her past instead of just talking about it. Here, we see Kimmy step in to marry the reverend so that Donna Maria doesn’t have to. It’s a moving moment, one that underscores Kimmy’s huge heart and empathy. She already was the reverend’s captive, and she knew all that entailed, so she wanted to protect Donna Maria from it as long as possible.

In the present, Kimmy wants to help Wendy, but she can’t. She can’t keep sacrificing parts of herself for others. She’s trying to heal, trying to be on her own. She spends part of the episode doing activities she hopes will bolster the extracurriculars part of her college applications. It’s a chance for the show to do a bunch of Kimmy bits (she believes “ultimate frisbee” means making a very fancy frisbee), but it’s more than that. The sequence encompasses Kimmy’s journey to be on her own, to not be held back by giving too much of herself to others. Talking about the reverend always brings out a different side of Kimmy. It’s the only time she’s ever sarcastic or angry. Kimmy carries her pain with her but also doesn’t let herself be defined by it, and the show has yet again tapped into these complex, dark psychological underpinnings of the protagonist in a way that’s nuanced, deep, and very real.

The Kimmy and Wendy scenes are the best parts of the episode, while the Jacqueline and Russ storyline struggles to make the points it’s trying to make. They conspire to get Russ’ family to change the name of the Redskins, a mission Jacqueline set out to do at the end of last season after doing some introspection about her identity. My overall feelings about Jacqueline’s backstory remain unchanged, but at least the writers are still using the character to tell specific stories about racial identity and Native erasure (while still actively engaging in Native erasure though, so even these highlights don’t always sit well). Jacqueline decides that the best way to persuade Russ’ family is to change the team name is to have them continue to believe that she’s white so that she can get through to them more easily, touching on the reality that white people are sometimes the only ones who can get through to racist white people when it comes to critiquing their prejudices.


Still, the whole storyline feels half-baked, and it’s also glaringly obvious that scheduling constraints are affecting David Cross’ presence on the show, which is very distracting. Russ getting run over in slow motion is a funny visual gag but ultimately pretty pointless from a story perspective. Jacqueline’s quest to reclaim her identity and take down the Redskins name is losing momentum. Kimmy’s quest to reclaim her life and gain control, on the other hand, has been reinvigorated.

Stray observations

  • Life According To Titus: “Waffles don’t travel!” He is correct.
  • Life According To Kimmy: When someone says “kudos!” that means they’re bringing you a Kudos bar.
  • If the Jacqueline storyline were taken out of the equation, this episode would be getting an A.
  • Between Dern and Daveed Diggs, this season is already killing it with the guest stars.
  • Dern’s performance is, unsurprisingly, great. The character’s eagerness and sincerity is devastating.
  • I love the fake dog runner.
  • Titus asks Kimmy if he can see her in his office…which means talking under a blanket.

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