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Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Goes Deceptively Dark in Season 3

Hey, remember how this show is secretly about trauma?

Joyce Eng

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is a paradox. Between its wall-to-wall jokes, zingers, sight gags, callbacks, non-sequiturs, deep-cut pop culture references and musical interludes, there is no show as wonderfully weird and jubilant on TV. But there's also no show that is as deceptively dark, which Kimmy continues to great effect in Season 3 -- which premieres May 19 on Netflix.

The show's silliness and Kimmy's (Ellie Kemper) irrepressible cheerfulness have always belied the fact that the series is built on the title character's trauma: Kimmy was kidnapped and held captive as part of a cult for 15 years. Instead of shoving that darkness and melancholy in our faces, co-creators Tina Fey and Robert Carlock have been particularly deft in letting that emotional undercurrent bubble beneath the sunny exterior. You almost don't have time to process the gloom behind the barrage of jokes and gags until you slow down and follow Kimmy's mantra: just take it 10 seconds at a time.

Season 1, which primarily focused on Kimmy's unbreakable resilience, scratched the surface and eased you into her painful past. Season 2 forced her to confront what she'd been avoiding -- her PTSD and mommy issues -- through a series of episodes that were both entertaining and felt authentic (see: her "Happy Place" song). Season 3 builds on the Season 2 finale cliffhanger: Kimmy's former captor, Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne (Jon Hamm) called Kimmy from prison to tell her that they're married, and he wants a divorce so he can remarry.

It's the type of bombshell that can come off like a shock play, but it's ultimately a stealthy gut-punch reminder that as much as she would like to, Kimmy can never fully escape or ignore those 15 years. The genius of Kimmy Schmidt is that, despite its buoyant veneer, it's not interested in the warm and fuzzy fictional catharsis we've grown accustomed to watching onscreen. Kimmy's trauma, in some form, is always going to be there for her to deal with -- it'd also be a disservice to trauma survivors to suggest otherwise -- and it's a struggle that the show colors with surreal farce.

Ellie Kemper, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

Ellie Kemper, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

Eric Liebowitz / Netflix

Season 3 picks up two months after that cliffhanger, with Kimmy receiving the divorce papers. At her mentor/friend Jacqueline's (Jane Krakowski) suggestion, she stalls on signing them to mess with the Reverend. Kimmy's excuses and back-and-forth with an increasingly frustrating Reverend are funny and ridiculous, but they're merely comforting chuckles that mask her reclamation of just a little bit of power, control and agency. Beneath the delightful glee she gets out of it is the throbbing pain of all she lost for half her life. And before you know it, like a lurking PTSD trigger, the show slyly pivots off the safety net of comedy when Kimmy realizes that her current course of action is unhealthy and she needs to try to live her life... Specifically to go to college, as she had decides to do earlier in the episode.

Kemper imbues Kimmy with a bit more wisdom this season. Kimmy still radiates infectious joy and optimism, but you can see the repressed anger, and that she's trying to follow what she learned from her literal roller coaster ride with her mother (Lisa Kudrow) last season: nothing is going to un-kidnap her and nobody can fix everything, least of all herself. All she can do is accept it and move forward. Kimmy's slow shift in seeing the gray in the world -- as opposed to the clear good vs. evil that marked her time in the bunker -- and dealing with PTSD, challenges her innate, inspiring positivity more than ever. At the same time, it doesn't completely crumble, nor do those challenges stop her from still trying to do good.

When Laura Dern pops up in the third episode as Wendy, the Reverend's fiancée who's perversely under his spell and wants Kimmy to sign the revised divorce papers, Kimmy has an internal battle to "make this lady see the mistake she's making." A Kimmy from a past season would've have been far more binary about it. In the fifth episode, Kimmy tries to talk Gretchen (Lauren Adams) off the ledge after Gretchen is peeved about not getting the same respect as a female cult leader as men do. It's a biting take on misogyny and double standards, reminiscent of the Season 1 episode in which Titus (Tituss Burgess) realized it was easier to be a werewolf in New York City than a black man.

The darkest aspect of Season 3, though, is the unspoken secret of the show that is still skillfully percolating under the surface. Though there have been allusions throughout the past two seasons, the show has not fully addressed the sexual abuse Kimmy experienced in the bunker. But between the marriage and Kimmy saying "rapes" indirectly about the Reverend this season -- in another zinger that at first obscures its weight -- it seems poised to address it in its own sneakily deep way -- eventually. The first six episodes were made available for review and the show has featured a serialized story in the back half every year so far -- the Reverend's trial in Season 1 and Kimmy's therapy sessions and PTSD in Season 2. So chances are that Season 3 will address this full on (or at least, it should).


Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

Eric Liebowitz / Netflix

Like the past two seasons, the first six episodes are a mix of standalone and setup. The show has always had a clear sense of its surreal, wacky self, but it's confidently expanded its stories beyond Kimmy while continuing to maximize its stars' comedic talents. All the deliciously weird, goofy stuff you love about it is back in full force. Titus hilariously goes full Lemonade on Mikey (Mike Carlsen) when he suspects his construction otter of cheating with "Bucky with the good hair," before coming to a mature decision. His never-ending career woes lead to a near threesome with a puppet and another glorious music video, though nowhere near "Peeno Noir" levels. Jacqueline, whose relationship with Russ (David Cross) has given dimension to her character, is still on her quest to change the Washington Redskins' name and must fend off his brother Duke (Josh Charles, back at his douche bro best) in the process. And Lillian's (Carol Kane) foray into politics to fight gentrification anchors her to the show like never before.

Even with the expanded stories, the show still belongs to Kimmy, who does try to forge ahead with her life. She winds up at Columbia University, where Xanthippe (Dylan Gelula) -- who's always been a great foil for Kimmy -- also attends. She meets a philosophy student named Perry (Daveed Diggs), and trust us when we say you'll want to start shipping them right now. Kimmy's own future is something she can control and, like her spirit and clothes, it's bright. But there's one thing she's already learning: a survivor's journey is never over.

Season 3 of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt premieres Friday, May 19 on Netflix.