The Greeks had Aristotle, the Italians had Aquinas, and we, luckily, have Tina Fey. “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” the popular Netflix comedy Fey created, may initially seem an unlikely place for an ethics lesson, but the newly released second season deals directly with the question of how one should live.
Kidnapped for 15 years, Kimmy Schmidt emerged from an underground bunker, where she and three other women had been kept, as little more than a grown-up tabula rasa. Now that she has moved to New York City, begun building a life for herself, and started navigating relationships, she finds herself confronting substantial moral dilemmas. Each episode walks through her moral reasoning in these situations, demonstrating how one ought to live while engaging in debates on moral relativism, the nature of freedom, and the purpose of friendships.
Kimmy Confronts Relativism
In the first episode of season two, Kimmy comes face to face with her ex-boyfriend, Dong, who left her to enter into a green-card marriage with a much older woman.
Clearly, Kimmy still has feelings for him, but she chooses to respect his relationship. To her, it doesn’t matter that Dong’s marriage is a sham because “some things are just wrong, like kissing a married person or tracing something and saying you drew it.” Despite Kimmy’s immediate sense that an absolute right and wrong exists, her friend and landlord, Lillian, encourages her to pursue him anyway, giving an explanation of her own code of ethics in the process:
Kimmy, we have a wonderful thing here in New York called moral relativism. Where you’re from, in the Midwest, people say, ‘I’ll never cheat on my wife,’ or, ‘I’m not gay, I’m a wrestling coach,’ and then one day, poof! The wheels come off, they do it all in one weekend and drop dead. Here, we say, ‘Eh, so I kissed a priest in a leather bar, who am I hurting?
At first, Kimmy remains unconvinced and holds on to her belief in an objective right and wrong. Unfortunately for both parties, this does not last. Living in accordance with what even we recognize as objectively right is difficult; inevitably, we make mistakes. However, when this happens and Kimmy and Dong run off together, it is not a win for the relativists. Just as in real life, there are consequences to wrong actions. Dong gets deported.
The value of the show lies not in the perfection of its characters, but in their processes. Throughout Kimmy’s struggle to get over Dong, we see how she uses her understanding of morality as a guide for right action—and how we can fool ourselves into justifying doing wrong.
As Kimmy transitions to life outside the bunker, she must determine how she should live for herself. Part of learning how to live, especially in light of her kidnapping, requires resolving another ethical question: What does it mean to be free?
The Nature of Freedom
Although now physically free, the three main “mole women” (the moniker of the kidnapped women) struggle under constraints of other sorts. They may be technically free, but free to do what, exactly?
One of the women in particular, Gretchen, struggles to adjust to free society and ends up joining a cult, unable to lead an independent life. To prevent Gretchen from sailing away with her new cult, Kimmy ironically has to kidnap her friend. Only then can she show her what total freedom really looks like.
Kimmy and Gretchen then proceed to do whatever Gretchen wants, regardless of legality. This, to them, was total freedom. It only took a few hours of operating under this conception of complete and total freedom until it became obvious that Gretchen cannot live that way and it will not bring happiness.
In Gretchen and Kimmy’s quest for balance, they unconsciously confront the question of what it means to be truly free and discover that purpose matters. With no higher purpose that provides direction and a clear goal, with no clear intention for their lives, what good is freedom? If flourishing is the ultimate goal of life, then purely being “free” to act as one chooses is not enough to secure happiness.
Drawing on classic Christian ethics, the show suggests doing what is good makes one more free than simply having the freedom to do entirely as one pleases. The catechism of the Catholic Church puts the relationship between right action and freedom plainly, explaining that “The more one does what is good, the freer one becomes.”
Seeing as it is a comedy and not an in-depth exploration of Christian moral theology, the women, unsurprisingly, do not decide to convert and devote themselves to God. Instead, Gretchen assumes a leadership role and starts her own cult. Yet the framework is the same as a conversion: she must direct herself towards a higher purpose, pursuing truth as she perceives it, in order to become truly free.
What Does Friendship Require?
Kimmy’s intervention with Gretchen helped her friend take control of her own life and find happiness. However, Gretchen resisted this new direction at first. Kimmy took a risk, jeopardizing their entire relationship, by interfering. She intuitively understands that being a true friend means more than simply having mutual interests or always affirming your friends’ actions.
Like Aristotle, Kimmy understands that the highest form of friendship goes beyond friends who use each other for another purpose or who only see each other for pleasure and a shared activity. True, perfect friendship requires desiring the good and virtuous for your friend.
Seeking the good of the other involves occasionally calling them out on their poor judgment and saying “no.” This can strain relationships. While Kimmy navigates this delicate reality on multiple occasions throughout the show, the most difficult moment came when another mole woman, Cyndee, walks down the aisle on national television to marry a man she knows is gay. Kimmy breaks down in tears, recognizing that no matter what she does, she risks losing her good friend: “I want to help my friend and I can’t help my friend and I love my friend!”
When Cyndee sees this display, she is so moved by the genuineness of her friend desiring the good for her that she does not follow through with the wedding. True friendships are difficult and require us to have tough conversations, but they lead us to live better, more virtuous lives by opening our eyes to see what we cannot on our own.
Perfect, Aristotelian friendship is increasingly rare in today’s world of “bowling alone.” Since World War II, we have become less socially connected. Social networks are, however, no replacement for genuine relationships. Kimmy, deprived of social interaction outside of her fellow mole women and kidnapper for 15 years, refuses to participate in this trend. Her refusal in 2016 in New York City is radical: it requires those close to her to completely change their conception of relationships.
Kimmy Schmidt Transforms Her Surroundings
Kimmy provides us an example of what friendship can be, but it is not completely in line with Aristotle’s vision of the perfect friendship. This requires both parties to equally seek the good of the other and necessitates that they both have good character. Kimmy lives with imperfect people of sometimes-questionable character, making this impossible. However, the example of good friendship she extends proves transformative, providing a model of how to be and creating more ideal relationships beyond herself.
Her roommate, Titus Andromedon, with Kimmy’s guidance confronts his own past moral failings. By the end of the season, he is less selfish and able to sustain a healthy, committed relationship. Jacqueline, her (formally) wealthy ex-employer, also learns from Kimmy and begins to treat others with kindness, opening herself up to experience deeper relationships in the process.
Kimmy’s ethics and moral reasoning extend beyond her—her example changes those she meets. She sparks an evolution in the moral ecology that surrounds her by demonstrating her own moral reasoning and example.
In our disconnected, laissez-faire world, where we too often lack even the basic language to have conversations on what is right and wrong, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” provides us with a starting point to transform our own culture.