Right is Right
Kimmy’s a woman of strict morals. We see that from the beginning when she repeatedly prevents Jacqueline’s son from stealing candy. When she decides consequences must be doled out to Xan for her underage drinking. When she yearns for someone with whom to share the details of her captivity, and finds Grant Beldin to temporarily fill that void. Honesty is Kimmy’s best policy and that’s why lying about her past is so troubling to her. In this way, Kimmy is a well-drawn cult survivor. In my experience, children who were raised in cults develop into very moral adults who have a strict sense of right and wrong. And so Kimmy takes her role as Cindy’s big sister very seriously. Her warning to Tituss about how clueless Cindy was down in the bunker, helps us understand why this visit might be upsetting. If Cindy was clueless then, surely she’s clueless now and Kimmy will have to lead her into the modern world. Even if Kimmy has to relive her past to do it. But she’s an honorable girl—she’ll help her friend just like any person would.
Morality Meets Reality
But when Cindy arrives, it looks like she might have wised up. With a shiny new convertible and the boy of her adolescent dreams, Cindy greets Kimmy downright triumphantly. Kimmy exclaims, “Gosh Cindy, I’m really proud of you. You’re really living your life.” She is so impressed she tells Tituss Cindy won’t need his help. Well, for now. Kimmy whips back into her role as knowing older sister when Tituss declares that Cindy’s boyfriend Brandon is gay. The world is back on an even keel now: Kimmy is wise, Cindy clueless, and the only problem how to right a wrong, bring truth to a lie.
Time out: Let’s talk law of opposites for a minute. Bad versus good, dark versus light, captivity versus freedom, false versus true, abnormal versus normal. For someone who has lived under the constraints of cult life, the world seems like it is made only of these oppositions. For someone who has survived the cult experience, it seems quite simple: their experiences are abnormal. Weird. And so the outside world—people who weren’t raised in a cult—would seem by definition “normal.” Easy peesy. That’s why all this time in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Kimmy has been trying to appear “normal.”
Okay, back to the episode: So in normal terms, a gay man courting a naive female cult survivor IS NOT NORMAL. When Kimmy confronts Brandon he tells her “I’m not using Cindy to get stuff—I’m part of that stuff.” An interesting kindness, but Kimmy feels it’s still a lie and her friend should know. So when Brandon proposes to Cindy in Central Park complete with a unicorn’s blessing, Kimmy cannot handle it. In an outburst she tells Cindy she can’t marry Brandon, because he’s gay. And when Brandon continues to try to protect Cindy from the lie “Gay? Would a gay guy have just asked Cindy to be my wife?” we learn Cindy is much savvier than we thought. “Dangit Kimmy, I know what I’m doing. Geez you think I don’t notice Brandon’s tooth whitening strips and how he always talks about ancient Greece and how things were different then?” Kimmy is stumped: “You know? Then why are you…?” And Cindy simply replies “Because he’s what I’ve wanted for 15 years.”
Kimmy still tries to hold on to her notion of honesty saying “…but this isn’t love. He’s just feeling sorry for you. Your whole life in Durnsville is people feeling sorry for you.” But there’s another reality to be had here. Cindy’s version. “Who cares. I’m happy,” she says. And as different outlooks accelerate their argument, Cindy yells: “He’s my fake fiancé and we’re going live a beautiful fake life together.” And so Kimmy learns that in reality, her morals don’t have to apply to Cindy at all.
Is A Lie Wrong If People Agree to It?
How is Kimmy going to sort this out? Is a lie wrong if people agree to it? Is it wrong to capitalize on your own abuse if you choose to use it as currency? This is a new and interesting problem brought up by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock. And perhaps this tension is even more troubling than the others the show has addressed so far… the tension of wanting to share, but also trying to be someone you’re not, of wanting to connect, but not trusting others. Perhaps it’s more troubling because this tension isn’t the cult survivor’s doing. This one pops up and knocks the cult survivor on her heels. This tension doesn’t belong to Kimmy, or the bunker, and it flies in the face of absolutes. In truth, life in the free world is nuanced and operates in grays. When the cult survivor is looking to navigate her path in black and white, this is a stunning realization. But should it be a disappointment to learn that life in the free world can be just weird as life in the bunker? Maybe not. We’ll see if this new knowledge frees Kimmy up a bit. Maybe it will lighten her load and give her permission to let her freak flag fly a little bit. But one thing’s for sure: in real life, where I live, cult survivors do have trouble with the nuanced morality that colors the free world. Normal doesn’t actually exist. And when cult survivors realize that, and get past the shock, it is a step on their path toward freedom.