The Unbearable Lightness of The Undoing
To say that I was stoked about The Undoing is an understatement. David E Kelley is a master storyteller whose work I have been enjoying since my teenage years (I am a sucker for a good legal drama). Nicole Kidman is on a tear when it comes to picking great TV shows and characters tailor-made for her strengths as an actor. And Hugh Grant - a staple of 90s British rom-coms and now a legitimate character actor (Florence Foster Jenkins and The Gentlemen). Let’s also not forget - About a Boy.
The Undoing is a big hit for HBO (the season finale was the most watched episode on HBO since the season 2 finale of “Big Little Lies” last year). Its weekly episodic nature kept audiences hooked and it dominated pop-culture conversations over the last 6 weeks. I binge-watched it over two nights once the sixth and final episode aired last Sunday (29th November). I was thoroughly disappointed.
Here be spoilers. Tread at your own peril.
Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant play a New York high-society power couple - Grace and Jonathan Fraser - she is a top-notch therapist and he is a pediatric oncologist.
Grace comes from money - a lot of money. Franklin Reinhardt - played by Donald Sutherland’s eyebrows - is her incredibly wealthy and influential father.
Grace and Jonathan have a teenage son - Henry - who attends a private school on the upper East side (cue in Gossip Girl). Grace and Jonathan seem to have a solid marriage - they are deeply in love and Jonathan comes across as a doting father. They both seem to be very good at what they do (plot loophole #0).
A stranger - Elena Alves - comes into Grace’s life. An artist and a mother of two, her 10-year-old son Miguel has somehow managed to get admission in the same school as Henry (plot loophole #1). Her second child is a very caucasian looking baby girl. Elena wants to help out with a charity auction event at the school and feels like a misfit around the other school moms. Grace is warm to her, but Elena comes across as hostile to the other mothers (some class-based commentary on display here, handled far more superbly in Little Fires Everywhere).
Elena - completely naked - bumps into Grace at her expensive gym’s changing room (plot loophole #2). They have another run-in at the charity auction and a final one inside an elevator. At this point, Elena kisses Grace and then disappears.
Elena is bludgeoned to death that night.
Jonathan disappears the next day.
The police come calling on Grace asking about Jonathan.
All hell breaks loose.
The show then tries to portray multiple characters as potential suspects - Grace, her father Franklin, her best friend Sylvia, her son Henry, Elena’s husband, Elena’s son, the detective on the case …
In the end, it turns out it was indeed Jonathan who killed Elena mercilessly. The show is based on a book by Jean Hanff Korelitz titled - You Should Have Known.
Face, meet palm. We should have known.
The entire season is one giant red-herring made up of hundreds of tiny red-herrings. It could have been a masterpiece. Instead, it was a giant steaming pile of muck.
The Problem with the Ambiguous Narrator
The show is clearly being told from the perspective of Nicole Kidman’s character Grace (the title song has a red-haired girl running around as Nicole Kidman sings a cover of “Dream a Little Dream of Me”). It is interspersed with snippets from her memory - in places real, in places imaginary. She seems to have a hard time remembering certain events and there is an overwhelming sense that she is blanking out parts of her memory. In the first two episodes, this really works. But then major plotholes start to emerge as the show hurtles forward - becoming a complete trainwreck by the finale.
Early in episode 1, it is established that Grace is a very perceptive therapist and is able to zero in on her client’s fundamental problems incredibly fast.
She plays chess with her father and is adept at playing the piano. Clearly a well-rounded accomplished woman with an impeccable sense of fashion. So how did she not know that her husband and partner of 17 years was a high-functioning sociopath, who never felt remorse for his actions and suffered from extreme narcissistic tendencies (more on Jonathan later)?
Her personality seems to be splintered - the long walks that she often forgets, her relationship with her father, the ease with which she accepted her husband’s guilt, the ease with which she believed the public defender’s stance on her husband’s innocence, the ease with which she accepted her mother-in-law’s assessment of her husband’s sociopathy.
Her yo-yo-ing between being a supportive wife and then turning into a hostile witness must have seemed like a great plot twist to the writer. Her ambiguity created suspense and worked as a narrative device - but in the end did a lot more damage to the storytelling.
We Need to Talk About the Sociopath
What do we learn about Jonathan over the course of the six episodes:
He has not stayed in touch with his parents back in England because they blamed him for a family dog’s death
Turns out the family dog was his younger sister. She died while in his care (ran over by a vehicle when she ran out of the house) - he lied about this to Grace
He never shed a tear or had any remorse for his sister’s death - his mother’s version of the story
He is a celebrated pediatric oncologist. He seems to have a lot of empathy for his patients. This is established again and again through flashback scenes that Grace remembers. Sociopaths lack empathy. The show went out of its way to establish that Jonathan was extremely empathetic to his patients and to his own son. His narcissism is established through hearsay but never directly.
A colleague of his thinks he is a narcissist who had inappropriate relations with family members of patients
He lost his job three months ago as a result of a disciplinary hearing (there were three other incidents in the past). Why did this hearing take place three months ago? Elena had given birth to his daughter already. Their affair started over a year ago when Miguel was being treated by Jonathan. This timeline does not make sense.
After all this - Jonathan took a loan of 500K dollars from his father-in-law. It is not clear where or how he spent this money.
Miguel is admitted to the same school as Jonathan’s son Henry. Looks like Jonathan helped out with this. This would mean that the principal and other school staff would be aware of this. Given that Grace’s father Franklin is the biggest donor to the school - how did this news not reach him? Elena also joins the same high-end gym as grace. Who paid for this?
Jonathan - despite getting fired from his job - allegedly due to Elena - still supports Elena and her family? Does he pay for her studio which also doubles up as a rendezvous spot for them?
Does Elena’s husband not know about the affair? If he does - is he ok with it? The infant girl is clearly not his daughter - he seems fine with this.
Jonathan seems to have a rock-solid relationship with his wife and son
Jonathan does not like to hobnob with the high society folks
Jonathan fights back in the prison. So he is capable of violence. But this can very easily be self-defence.
Jonathan had already planned the Cleveland trip before murdering Elena - this timeline is screwed up
So while there are hints of his narcissism, there is no established continuing behaviour of lack of remorse or lack of empathy or displays of callousness. This Time magazine interview with Craig Neumann, a psychology professor at the University of North Texas who studies psychopathy and other types of personality disorders, should be read in its entirety. This quote says a lot: “What we have to see are repeated red flags, repeated disturbances in identity, excessive grandiosity and using other people for your own game. And we need to see real, fundamental lapses in intimacy and empathy. If individuals don’t recognize it, there’s a blind eye they are casting on it. Why? There’s some vulnerability, something they want to be true, but isn’t.” - the show does a really poor job of establishing any of this.
He murders someone. Comes home and has sex with his wife. Then runs away after saying goodbye to his son. Hides the murder weapon at the family beach house. Then decides he can prove he is innocent of murder and get his family back (as adultery and lying would be lesser crimes), then runs away with his son when the writing is on the wall - what’s up with Jonathan?
In the end, The Undoing is a disappointing show. It could have been the show of the year, but it isn’t (The Queen’s Gambit has that honour). That is what perhaps led to this 1500 word analysis. The acting here is top-notch, the cinematography iridescent and the storytelling and direction for the first few episodes is masterful. But the show loses its way as it becomes tangled in its own cleverness and indulgence.