As I spent this weekend blasting through the second half of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s new season, I felt a creeping horror reserved for people who write about TV shows in public spaces. (Consider this your spoiler alert.) It became clear with every new roll of the credits that I’d screwed up every prediction I’d made about the season based on its first half-dozen episodes. Dong (Ki Hong Lee) was given another farewell episode, one that served to push Kimmy (Ellie Kemper) into the arc that defined the season’s back half; Jacqueline’s (Jane Krakowski) Native American heritage re-emerged in a huge way just a few episodes after I wrote it was being "mostly jettisoned."
When I wrote that Kimmy’s experience in the Reverend’s bunker was becoming a "distant memory," I didn’t expect her version of post-traumatic stress disorder to dominate the season’s final brick of episodes. And while I didn’t get any of the details right, the show ended up fulfilling the promise I thought it held. With its second season in the books, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is focusing on its library of dynamic, interesting characters instead of petty internet-based beef, and it’s striking a balance of comedy and gravity I didn’t think it could manage.
The show gives Jacqueline a new sense of purpose
Let’s start with Jacqueline’s storyline, the show’s most contentious element to date and the root of its poisonous episode-length clapback. (The second season’s third episode uses Titus’ appropriative one-man show about a geisha from his past lives to diss the same hashtag activists that criticized the show’s first season.) Instead of using Jacqueline’s roots as an excuse for hacky vision quest sequences and throwaway one-liners about culture clashes, the show gives her a renewed sense of purpose. After a season and a half spent as the most cartoonish possible representation of the New York elite, she ends up horrified by their callousness and ignorance when they refuse to support her fight against "four hundred years of Dutch oppression."
She falls in love with Russ Snyder (David Cross), the repellent lawyer she originally sought for his fortune, but her heart is put to the test when she learns his family owns the Washington Redskins. It turns out he’s just as disgusted by his family legacy as she is, and they resolve to take the team down from the inside. The decision to pit Jacqueline against the Redskins is the closest the show’s come to making her heritage feel like an essential part of her character. Race is never going to be the true source of her anxiety — that’s class, which is why that aspect of her character felt so tacked-on in the first place — but the show is letting her roots subtly inform her growth instead of using it as mere joke fodder.
Her decision to fight the team alongside Russ is sparked by her love for her parents rather than some renewed identification with Native American culture, and she can work to take down the name from within her preferred upper-crust circles. (Her return to the world of rich, eligible bachelors and competitive prep-school moms, aided by guest stars like Anna Camp and Amy Sedaris, made for some of this arc’s funniest scenes.) The storytelling choice is also savvy when it comes to the show’s insulation from those pesky online critics: in the Redskins, they’ve found an enemy upon which almost everyone can unite against. She’s moving into the show’s future with new purpose and a partner slowly making her a better person, and that’s a good place for her.
I didn't expect the show to tug at my heartstrings
Kimmy’s emergent storyline is even more impressive, largely because it’s pushing the show to become something more complex than a straightforward comedy. When Kimmy meets a cute veteran and takes him to a party at Jacqueline’s apartment, he becomes the first person to recognize her triggers and coping mechanisms held over from the bunker. When she meets an alcoholic therapist (Tina Fey, having a ton of fun) while working as an Uber driver, she has the resources she needs to start healing herself. And when she confronts her coaster-freak mother (Lisa Kudrow) in Florida in an attempt to earn some closure in the season finale, it feels like a hard-earned moment of resolution from a show I didn’t expect to tug at my heartstrings.
Kimmy isn’t defined by victimhood, but her refusal to acknowledge its impact on her life ended up manifesting itself in surprising ways: strange outbursts, borderline psychotic episodes, those disgusting peristaltic "emotion burps." When the show offered a window into Kimmy’s mind and experiences this season, it wasn’t really funny; it was uncomfortable, even harrowing. (The animated representation of Kimmy’s "happy place," a Disney princess zone within which a cartoon version of the Reverend is ultimately torn to shreds, is still haunting me.) The season-ending revelation that Kimmy and the Reverend are somehow married means the bunker will continue to cast a shadow over the show, but it’s being used the same way Jacqueline’s storyline uses her background. It’s not a geyser spitting jokes, but it’s a steady current pushing the character forward.
There are still some choice Tina Fey zingers
The remarkable thing about Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s closing run is the way it juggles the plotlines above — and Titus’ (Tituss Burgess) nascent romance and career anxiety, and Lillian’s (Carol Kane) fight against her neighborhood’s gentrification — without compromising its zany spirit or breakneck pace. There are still jokes that whiz by like scenery past a car window and absurd physical bits. Drunk characters mail farts in envelopes to their future, sober selves; ancient Italian relatives take the form of giant, creepy puppets. There are even a few choice Tina Fey zingers. (Watch out, Taylor Swift.) When the show says goodbye again, it does so with all of its core characters taking huge steps forward into uncharted personal terrain, hoping for their lives to change in some way.
Now that a few days have passed, the initial horror I felt at getting almost everything about the show’s new season wrong has mostly faded. The show’s pivot from disjointed screwball comedy to more intricate narrative work was sudden, and the second half’s developments reaffirmed my belief that the show’s characters are more complicated and adaptable than those you’d find in a traditional sitcom. I'm not hung up on questioning the show's first half when its second half provided so many of the right answers.