Let me talk for a minute about absurdity. When I watch Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, mostly I see absurdity. Ridiculousness writ large in the people and experiences of Kimmy’s daily life. And it’s easy to write it off as a construction planned out as a platform for comedy. In episode 11, “Kimmy Rides a Bike,” we are shown a series of spectacularly ridiculous portrayals of our society, so ridiculous that it’s easy to be offended by writers and directors Tina Fey and Robert Carlock.
The episode begins the trial of the Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne and is a collage of scenes depicting an embarrassingly empty, superficial, and predatory society. A vapid female reporter asks Mole Girl Cindy Pokorny: “Cindy Pokorny, who are you wearing?” and swoons when she sees how well the cult leader “cleans up.” The prosecuting attorneys are an oversexed duo and Tina Fey’s (who makes an appearance in this episode) Marcia Clarkesque character plainly states to her co-council: “the only thing that matters here is for us to see where this relationship can go.”
“These people are stupid!” “Are we supposed to believe these grotesque portrayals of America?” “Come on Tina Fey, this is over the top!” are all sentiments we might have while watching this episode. I was offended. I almost couldn’t finish it. And why would Jon Hamm, beautiful and talented actor that he is, deign to be part of this circus? Well, as usual, Tina Fey and Robert Carlock are onto something that both critiques our society and allows them a measure of snarky satisfaction at excoriating American popular culture.
A bit of proof: on an episode from this past season’s Dancing with The Stars, judge Carrie Ann Inaba gave the following critique to dancing duo Riker Lynch and Allison Holker: “I want to see the typical man dominating the woman!” What? What? Okay, I think we can all agree that Dancing with The Stars is an example of current American popular culture. And to its massive audience, it’s telling girls and boys that a man dominating a woman is acceptable and even valued. So Fey’s and Carlock’s absurdity that makes me so often take umbrage might not be so far off the mark.
This episode shows Kimmy at yet another crossroads between self-delusion and avoidance, and the scarier, more difficult path of self-awareness, self-advocacy, and independence. Will Kimmy answer the court summons to testify against her male captor the Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne or will she take the easier road submitting to male dominance in the form of Jacqueline’s trainer Tristafé?
Once you learn to ride a bike you never forget…
The naming of this episode “Kimmy Rides a Bike,” is a purposeful double entendre. Kimmy literally rides a bike in this episode—a lot—but the name also calls to mind that saying “you never forget how to ride a bike.” When we left off with Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt in episode 10, Kimmy was the rock amongst her frailer group of friends. They were all being wobbled by life’s twists and turns, while Kimmy laughed at what people who have never seen disaster spend time being afraid of. Kimmy was the stable one, since she had her unique perspective. Turn to episode 11 however, and we see that Kimmy is one court summons away from losing it. Because while Kimmy—and all cult survivors for that matter—is impervious to many of life’s taunts, her life in a cult has given her a unique Achilles heel. That vulnerable girl who was kept in the bunker for 15 years will never be far from the surface. Earlier in the season we saw how trying to banish portions of your life would not effectively bring healing or true freedom, and so Kimmy has to live daily with the acceptance of her traumatic past. Mostly that can serve as a source of strength. It is, after all what allows Kimmy perspective when life throws minor curve balls. But it can also be a terrifying reminder of how close she is to being vulnerable, how easily she could slip back into the darkness of her past. So it isn’t any surprise that our heroin wants to run away from reminders of her time in the bunker. Freedom feels so good and she had been doing so well healing and embracing her new life…
And bam! Kimmy feels powerless again. Here’s the rub: in order to maintain her freedom, the cult survivor needs to be willing to feel powerless. Needs to be willing to ride out the self-doubt. But Kimmy’s friend Jacqueline is always at the ready with a new avoidance technique and in this episode, it comes in the form of SpiritCycle’s Tristafé. And as the saying goes, you never forget how to ride a bike, Kimmy hops back on and rejoins her younger self in a cult-like environment, prey to the dominant male who promises a palliative to life’s difficulties. And it feels good. Kimmy enjoys being praised. Tristafé makes her feel special in the same way a charismatic cult leader ensnares his next victim. But as we see Tristafé toss Jacqueline aside once she’s been converted, we know Kimmy has chosen the road of submission.
True friends are priceless
Titus, while a member of the culture that packages controversy for it’s salivating masses, is a very good friend to Kimmy. As she avoids the trial in Indiana by being a Tristafé groupie, Titus raptly watches it unfold by video feed at the library. And he is stunned and titillated by the Reverend’s charm. As Jon Hamm’s Richard Wayne Gary Wayne plays to his jury and woos the entire courtroom, Titus exclaims: “He is wonderful! I mean, sure he’s a bad person, but he sure is watchable!” And he is enamored of him. We watch everyone get hooked by the reverend and all truths seem negotiable under his spell. While we watch, we wonder, who is going to seek justice here? And we realize that no one is really looking for the truth. No one is advocating for the victims.
Titus is so compelled by the reverend’s testimony of the end times that he flees the library in a fit of fearful visions. Landlord Lillian makes Titus snap out of it and Titus exclaims “Lillian, I got sucked in by a crazy person and I started to believe what he was saying, and if that happened to me with my iron will … my point is, that man is dangerous and he must be stopped and there’s only one person that can do it.” And so Titus entreats Kimmy to go to Indiana. He describes for Kimmy what Tristafé has become: “Kimberly, that man is dangerous. That monster told you how to dress, how to wear your hair, what to think. He locked you up and told you the outside world didn’t exist anymore. And you believed him!” Kimmy naturally thinks Titus is referring to the reverend, but he quickly clarifies that he’s referring to Tristafé. The clouds suddenly clear as Kimmy understands “Oh my goodness, SpiritCycle is a cult, it’s just another cult! Why does this keep happening? What’s wrong with me?!” Titus consoles Kimmy that it could happen to anyone, that it almost happened to him. Suddenly, with the help of her friend, her good friend, Kimmy is ready to confront the truth, ready to go face the reverend in Durnsville.
Once more, Kimmy has an epiphany to share
Before Kimmy and Titus board a bus for Indiana, Kimmy goes to mete out justice at SpiritCycle. An undercard to the main event in Durnsville. Kimmy barges in on the spinning class and proclaims to the group: “Why do we keep doing this to ourselves? Replacing one stupid male authority figure with another like Days of Our Lives replaces Roman Bradys?” Kimmy continues, “is he [Tristafé] any different than any other guy who tells you he’ll make you richer, or prettier, or safer if you just let him make the decisions?” And we know it’s true. And as surely as Jacqueline knows it’s true, Tina Fey does too. A little piece of every woman knows they’ve allowed themselves to indulge in the simplicity of that illusion.
What does this all say?
This episode is a call to women to choose the harder path, the truer path, and ultimately, the path of freedom. Because while the experience of the cult survivor is unique and dramatically difficult to sort out, there is a universal truth at play here. We are all vulnerable and we are all tempted by the easier road of denial, of popular culture and a part of all of us wants to let someone else make the decisions. Carrie Ann Inaba’s real life statement about male domination is a frightful testimony to the truth of Fey and Carlock’s thesis.
We are reminded that the struggle that Kimmy goes through in this episode represents the constant battle for cult survivors. And the culture that surrounds us does nothing to save or protect them. The world our cult survivors get dumped into is less of the safe haven one might expect and more of something to guard against. As the Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne says so knowingly in the courtroom: “the few good among us are powerless against the faceless evil of petty tyranny.” While the Reverend’s words seem like empty rhetoric, they point to the pettiness and valuelessness our society embraces. They illustrate why there is always room for another charming personality on the make, why there are so many victims in our culture.
This episode really sums up the struggles of season one of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and recapitulates the work of the cult survivor. In a lot of ways the episode feels like the climax of the show and ultimately stares the cult survivor in the face, saying, “This will be hard. Life is not going to go easy on you just because you were given a bad hand.” But, and please hear this, real life cult survivors: life’s riches, beauty and safety are not unattainable. They just aren’t doled out by the man in your life. They are granted from within.
Now, let’s go see the smackdown in Durnsville!