Photo: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix)

As the first half of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt likely last season draws to a close, it leaves Kimmy with a clear goal: taking down bad men. Now, that sentiment has always been at the core of the show. Kimmy has fought to redefine herself outside of her experiences as a victim of the reverend. But the show hasn’t always necessarily translated that personal journey into a broader story about feminism and toppling the patriarchy. It’s starting to do so in more explicit ways, and that’s exciting.

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After realizing the power books can have over people thanks to a group of grown men playing Quidditch in a park (neither Kimmy nor Titus know about Harry Potter but for completely different reasons), Kimmy decides to write a book after all. She concocts a clever YA book to teach young boys to fight back against the toxic masculinity that has been ingrained in them. A publishing exec rejects her book. They expected Kimmy to write a tragic true memoir about her experiences in the bunker. People are always looking to exploit Kimmy for her pain and trauma. She’s the embodiment of the sort of sad stories about pretty white girls that audiences gobble up. But Kimmy has never wanted to be anybody’s trauma porn, and she’s very vocal about that.

She leaves the meeting defeated and resolves to ditch the more childlike elements of her life, like her days of the week underwear and her childhood purple backpack. It isn’t just any backpack: It’s the one she was using when she was kidnapped, and it’s the one she lost in the pilot after being kicked out of a club. She’s reunited with the backpack, named “Jan,” at the top of the episode when she spots a kid at Titus’ school wearing it. The backpack was a coping mechanism in the bunker, and Kimmy suggests using it to help Titus overcome his extreme writer’s block with it, which seems innocent enough at first. But things take a twisted turn once Kimmy starts talking to the backpack and visualizing it as a cartoonish living creature with a face and pigtails.

Kimmy nearly murdering her personified backpack is bizarrely disturbing, a rather extreme—but effective—example of the show’s tendency to balance darkness and wackiness simultaneously. Even just the fact that Kimmy has a backpack who she talks to and appears to hear talking has dark implications. Ever since the show’s premise was first announced, there were doubts as to how a show about a bunch of girls being released from a bunker where they were kept by a manipulative, abusive man could possibly be billed as a zany comedy from the makers of 30 Rock. And time and time again, the show has proved it’s possible for both sides of its storytelling—the over-the-top, satirical comedy as well as the darker, emotional character stories—can exist harmoniously. That’s done incredibly well in this midseason finale, Kimmy’s arc coming into sharp focus as she decides to ignore what the exec told her and pursue this book after all, encouraged by a young boy who gets his hands on it and finds it compelling.

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Xanthippe finally returns for a brief but strong subplot with Jacqueline. Xan tells her ex-stepmom she’s pregnant and looks for advice. She reveals that she has no one to go to the appointment with because the guy who got her pregnant said it probably wasn’t his and told everyone at school that she must have cheated on him. Xan, being her usual tough-on-the-outside self, insists that she doesn’t want Jacqueline to come, but Jacqueline quickly realizes the truth: Xan needs her there, because she doesn’t have anyone else. It’s a surprisingly sweet storyline and comes together believably despite moving through its beats very quickly. Then Xan and Jacqueline get quite literal about smashing the patriarchy, showing up at Xan’s ex’s (who is the Tylenol heir Capsule Tylenol by the way) dorm to force him to tell everyone the truth about what happened and then trashing it. Dylan Gelula and Jane Krakowski make a solid comedic duo.

Speaking of comedic duos: Busy Phillips also guest stars as Artie’s screw-up daughter who tries to pretend she has gotten her shit together in order to snag her share of his fortune. It takes a con to know a con though, and Lillian is all over her act. The two have a wonderful back-and-forth, and even though the storyline is a bit detached from the rest of the episode, it works well, especially because of how good Phillips and Carol Kane are with each other. The plotline sets Lillian on a new path, suddenly responsible for someone else besides herself.

Things end on a genuinely pleasant note for all four main players, seen cutting a cake together like the cobbled-together family that they are. But that lovely image is quickly broken by cartoonish suspense that alludes to the final shot from the premiere. Someone is watching. Despite all its bright colors and fun, darkness is always waiting just around the corner on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.

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Stray observations

  • Stay tuned for the second half of season four!
  • I think the interplay between the various plotlines and character arcs this season has been particularly strong. Titus, Lillian, Kimmy, and Jacqueline are all sort of on their own paths, but when those paths intersect, it’s not only fun but coherent.
  • In retrospect, it’s even stranger that this season started with a storyline where Kimmy basically doesn’t know what workplace harassment is. Workplace harassment isn’t solely perpetuated by men, but it still seems strange that the show wouldn’t make a more earnest effort to connect that plotline to Kimmy’s overall arc this season and stranger yet that the show would render a victim of sexual abuse so naive about her own actions.
  • I hope the second half of the season has more Xan. It’s a shame we didn’t get any Xan/Kimmy action in this episode!

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