At its core, Unorthodox is a coming of age story, a fish out of water story, a marriage story and a drama about finding a meaningful life. However, it is also the first high-budget mainstream exploration of the lives of members of the ultra-orthodox Jewish community. It gives voice to a woman, and in-turn many women like her, who have never been seen or heard from in mainstream media. We are party to the self-discovery of a woman who has had too much expected of her from God, her community and herself. She escapes to Berlin from New York, running away from a life without freedom to a liberal metropolis resting atop a historic centre of Jewish hatred, the regime her own grandparents had escaped from. The show refuses to give easy answers, happy endings or tragic melodrama: we are witness to a single part of Esty’s story and in it we see her begin to assert power in her life or, at the very least, recognise she has more power over it than she had previously thought.
Esty’s journey is shown in two timelines: her time in Williamsburg transitioning into a marriage with the well-meaning Yankee whilst under the watchful eye of the community and her time in Berlin, having befriended a group of liberal musicians who help her to adjust to the outside world. The scenes themselves are often matter-of-fact but the depth of the performances, the pacing, cinematography and music create an atmosphere that allows its naturalism to transcend into more than a slice of life drama. Berlin is distilled into its most outlandish: bars spill out onto the streets, clubs are loud and full of smoke, coffee shops are alien and austere, concert halls are modern and bright, fashion is extraneous, flesh is bared and squares are packed full of men and women from all walks of life. We can sympathise with Esty if her curiosity blooms or she gets overwhelmed by this modern world due to the sheer vividness of the city the show brings to life.
Between these frames, for most of the run-time, stands our protagonist: Esty Shapiro. Her world view is communicated quietly, often silently, in the way her eyes interact with the world around her. The subtlety of her characterisation is married with the movement of the camera: when Esty is stressed or determined we follow her closely, the outside world blurred into insignificance whilst when she chooses to observe the world, time is taken to pick up the sort of details she would also be acknowledging. From the smaller moments, like noting the strangeness of night club wrist stamps and the initial starkness of seeing queer intimacy shown in front of her without shame, or grander changes, like naked bodies at the beach or the beauty of an orchestra operating as a single organism– the camera and Esty are unified. This makes us intimately aware of who she is, how much this experience means to her and, thanks to the flashbacks, how much she fights to be the person we see in front of us.
The behaviour of the Ultra-Orthodox community is realised with unflinching realism. Where lesser dramas would have made moralistic tales about any number of the themes touched upon– post-Holocaust guilt, cultural trauma, matchmaking and arranged marriages, gossip and pride, gender roles, alcoholism and gambling addiction within the community, the relationship of the community to other Jewish streams and Israel, the tactics deployed to control the community and alienate those who do successfully escape– they are explored as they would be experienced. These are all just parts of people’s lives: they’re presented anecdotally, matter-of-factly and, because of the pressures of the community to appear perfect, suppressed from being discussed explicitly. The frankest exploration of a single issue is in the third episode, arguably the show’s best, where the story uses both timelines to interrogate and reclaim female sexuality. This may sound like hyperbole, but the rigidity and oppression of sexual norms, the objectification of Esty’s body that is enforced by both men and women alike, recalls The Handmaid’s Tale at its worse and it is abominable that any woman should live as deprived of information, emotional support or the right to consent. Even when Esty quotes the Talmud, that textually demands of men the pleasuring of women, Yankee simply says that women shouldn’t read the Talmud. Frustration, ignorance and pain are expressed viscerally and uncomfortably.
Yet, in another way that recalls The Handmaid’s Tale, the Berlin timeline adopts a very tactile filming style and direction that allows us to empathise with a point of view that has become more appreciative for what they’ve been denied: where desire cannot be stated frankly, where the language to invite affection is alien and bodies are beautiful and mysterious. This episode shows this reclamation of sexuality juxtaposed with the reveal of the moment Esty decides to pursue her freedom at all. With very few words at all, having withheld her thoughts from the blinded Yanky, she stands alone in a corridor and we know exactly what she is thinking. The catalyst for Esty running away is not the sexual imprisonment, the absolute lack of connection or personability with anyone around her, not the restrictions put upon her pursuing her passions but Yanky’s demand for a divorce. It symbolises a multifaceted betrayal of her faith, her body, her dignity and, ultimately, every sacrifice she made for them. This triggers a single disillusionment that makes Esty’s story possible: that this is no place for her child to grow up. This profound moment rests upon an incredibly moving performance and a script brimming full of understated depth.
The show should also be praised for some of its peripheral characters. Yanky is not a typical brute but a devout, vulnerable and lost little boy. Esty’s aunt is as much an Orthodox woman as she is a fighter for her family’s dignity. Moshe is no two-dimensional villain but a man who played his hand at life beyond the walls of the community and lost. However, the character most deserved of praise is that of Yael, an Israeli born music student at the conservatory Esty auditions for. She, as an Israeli-born Jew, takes Esty’s experiences for granted, diminishes her community’s felt Holocaust guilt, laments to her non-Jewish friends with uncaring abandon the terrifying reality of Esty’s own life and calls her a baby machine. She represents a subtle nuance never before explored on television: that the wider Jewish community, for thinking they know about people like Esty and for wanting to distance themselves from being identified with that kind of Judaism, can actually be their most harsh and inconsiderate critics.
One character that could have done with more development is that of Esty’s mother. Though portrayed to perfection, balancing a calm earnestness with hidden maternal strength, there is not enough time to open her life up in the way it could have been. Queerness is visible in the show. There are two out gay couples, including one that Esty’s mother is a part of. It feels strange that there is no articulation in either timeline of the homophobia that must have driven Esty’s mother from the community but also the opinions that would be residual in Esty, having never been exposed to gay people in her life. Whilst the deftness with which some issues are taken as they are is admirable, this seems like a topic that would have invited a conversation between mother and daughter or, at the very least, Esty and anyone in her group of friends.
Regardless of any shortcomings, Unorthodox is a series that will stick with you for a long time. It offers a unique perspective of the modern world from the perspective of someone who has been locked away from it. Partly a modern-day fairy tale where modern life becomes a wonderland and partly the harrowing struggle of an outsider to find freedom. The series cements the success of its story with the ambiguity of its ending. We don’t know how Esty will deal with motherhood, whether she will get her scholarship, how she will react to her grandmother’s death, how she will fight against the community’s attempts to intimidate her out of her child’s life. The viewer and Esty have discovered the world together. She has friends and her mother on her side. We’ve seen her grow into a fighter and recognise, alone in a cafe with a quiet smile, that no price is too high for her freedom.
Image Credit: IMDb