Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt imagines life without the bunker

TV ReviewsAll of our TV reviews in one convenient place.

In “Sliding Van Doors,” Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt uses a Sliding Doors conceit to present an alternate timeline of the show, one where Kimmy never got in the van, Titus missed his “Lion King” audition, Lillian never found tenants, Mikey never came out, and Jacqueline didn’t get her stewardess job. There is, of course, lots of fun to be had with this setup, and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt pushes it into weird places, like turning Lillian into a full-on gang kingpin. But the alternate timeline also feels deeply rooted in these characters and who they are, working to develop them in the real timeline with details in the alternate one.

Advertisement

There are the obvious changes to Kimmy’s alternate life. She goes to college, becomes valedictorian and president of her sorority. She has a boyfriend, played by Anders Holm. She makes it to the screening of Sliding Doors that she missed on the day she was kidnapped in the real timeline, and it encourages her to dream of a life in London. But what’s even more compelling than all that are the subtle changes to Kimmy’s behaviors and the way that while her personality has changed drastically, she’s still in some ways the same Kimmy, just refracted.

Yeah, she’s kind of bitchy now. She’s mean and controlling with her friends, and she yells at Donna Maria, who is her maid in this timeline. She uses her own personal philosophy that you are in charge of your own destiny to be kind of a self-centered asshole. But there are shades of the real Kimmy that peek through in all of that, her determination, her resilience, her intense personality. She still shines brightly, only in this timeline, she uses that light to outshine others instead of make them better people. She still has the urge to help others, albeit in negative ways. It’s disturbing to see Kimmy so strongly encourage alternate timeline Jacqueline to cheat on her husband with Trump (for a number of reasons).

It would be overly simplistic to derive from all this that Kimmy’s trauma gave her a moral compass, and it doesn’t feel like that’s what the show is saying at all. But we are shaped by our experiences, and it makes sense that this Kimmy is both wildly different and still the same Kimmy deep down at the same time. Neither this version of reality nor the actual timeline is presented as the Dark Timeline necessarily. Bad shit happens in both. It’s just different bad shit.

Tragedy still strikes Kimmy in the alternate timeline, but she strikingly responds to it in a much different way. After she’s hit by a car and ends up in a coma for a year, Kimmy uses that to build a new brand. Whereas she fights so hard not to be defined by the bunker in reality, here she writes books, takes on the nickname “coma girl.” It’s a different kind of tragedy, one that’s much easier to talk about than being held in a bunker for years by a madman, so it yields a different response. Her attitude toward the mole women — called the worm women in this timeline — is fascinating, too. She keeps wondering why they didn’t just fight back or try to escape. It’s the same kind of mentality Kimmy is confronted with in others in the real timeline, and because she didn’t experience it herself here, she doesn’t understand that it isn’t that simple. It’s another reminder of how people tend to not fully understand what an experience like this is really like if they haven’t lived it.

Advertisement

It’s also disturbing to hear Kimmy say “fuck.” We have come to know this character so well, and her use of flowery stand-ins for expletives is such a big part of her characterization. The writers have a lot of fun with playing on our expectations with these characters and what we already know about them. There are more subtle shifts, too, like when Kimmy’s boyfriend sneaks up behind her to surprise her, and she reacts as if she finds it adorable. In the real timeline, Kimmy probably would have incapacitated him. But here, she doesn’t have the same kind of psychological trauma induced by surprises and strange men that a montage in the beginning of the episode highlights.

Titus’ alternate life gives Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt the opportunity to parody the Church of Scientology — to unsurprisingly great effect. After missing his audition, he follows the signs to the Church of Cosmetology, a cult of celebs eventually run by Gretchen who is just as cult-loving in this alternate timeline, interestingly suggesting that was always a part of her personality and not something that resulted from her time in the bunker. The Scientology jokes are fun and over-the-top and perfectly in-line with this show’s voice.

Advertisement

But there’s surprising depth to Titus’ storyline, too. He’s still fame hungry like before, and without a Kimmy compass to guide him to the light, he ends up exchanging his very self for the spotlight. He undergoes gay conversion therapy at the hands of the church and becomes Johnny Straightman, living in the closet while also having his career take off (a bit of a dark commentary on who gets to become leading men in Hollywood).

Turns out this alternate timeline means a lot of living in the closet. Mikey ends up with Jacqueline when the latter’s thirst for a rich husband backfires on her and she mistakenly thinks Mikey is her ticket to the 1%. She gets pregnant and because he’s Catholic (“I love doing stuff that I hate!”), Mikey stays with her, and they eventually have several children named after the luxury things (Lexus, Pandora, Rolex, etc.) that Jacqueline never gets a taste of in this timeline. Again, she’s still in many ways the same Jacqueline that we know: mean and intense and desperate to ladder-climb. But here, she’s humbled a bit. She does the hustling in the name of protecting her family, not just for herself. She doesn’t want to fuck things up by cheating and only does so after encouraged by Kimmy. Again, it’s a refracted rendering of their usual dynamic. Only instead of pushing Jacqueline to be a better person, Kimmy activates Jacqueline’s more narcissistic tendencies — again in the name of her increasingly toxic philosophy about controlling your own destiny.

Advertisement

Lillian’s storyline ends up, fittingly, being the most wacky of them all. She gradually rises to the top of F105, even becomes the reason Meth Head Charlie gets hooked on meth in the first place. On that note, the extent to which this episode is laced with callbacks and universe in-jokes is impressive. But even that subplot has a surprisingly warm message at its center, rooted in character. Lillian turns to the gang because she never meets Titus and Kimmy, never finds the sense of family that ends up softening — though of course not stopping altogether — her more outlandish impulses. The characters still overlap throughout the episode, touching each other’s lives in distinctly different ways than in the real timeline. They can’t be what they need to be for each other here.

The episode ends on a pretty serious, poignant note that wraps everything up. Titus asks Kimmy if she ever imagines what her life would be like if she hadn’t got in the van, and she replies quickly with a firm no. Kimmy knows that imagining other possibilities would drive her crazy and ultimately be pointless. It’s a strong message to send about traumatic experiences, and Kimmy Schmidt ends up making this alternate timeline episode into something a little more than just a fun thought experiment.

Advertisement

Stray observations

  • The Trump caricature doesn’t quite work for me, but I understand the impulse to want to do something entirely different from Alec Baldwin’s Saturday Night Live impression.
  • Mikey’s attempt at dressing up is wearing a belt as a tie.
  • The Reverend becomes The Apprentice in this timeline.
  • Using a bag of deviled eggs to show the passing of time is...such a Titus-specific device.
  • I’m still shook from hearing Kimmy swear!!!
Advertisement

Share This Story