Grace (Nicole Kidman) and Jonathan (Hugh Grant) are a wealthy couple living in New York’s affluent Upper East Side. They have busy yet fulfilling careers as a therapist and paediatric oncologist, respectively, a happy marriage, enviable sex life, and a dream child in their son Henry (Noah Jupe). Their lives are a perfect mix of snowy parks, charity galas, and expensive coats.
Created and written by David E. Kelley (Ally McBeal) six-part miniseries shares DNA with his previous HBO and Kidman collaboration, Big Little Lies. Part crime drama, part melodrama, it’s based on Jean Hanff Korelitz’s 2014 novel You Should Have Known, with the title referring both to Grace’s self-help book and the fact she should have seen through her husband’s facade.
If anything of their isn’t enviable, it’s their social circle. Mostly comprised of the mums from the elite private school Henry attends, their judgemental mentality towards newcomers visibly makes Grace uncomfortable. She stays quiet and doesn’t want to tip the balance, as she jostled too hard for this position with help from her wealthy father (Donald Sutherland).
When new young mum Elena (Matilda De Angelis) arrives (her son attending the prestigious school on a scholarship), the power dynamics of the group start to charge. Elena’s young, attractive, but without the social advantages the other women have. The tension builds to a head at a fundraiser, where Elena’s fraught interactions with her partners and her cleavage revealing outfit make tongues wag.
By the next morning, Elena’s been found murdered. Here is where the enviable lives of these people start to fall apart. The premise of The Undoing is nothing new, with a beautiful young outsider murdered and the lives of those around her coming under the microscope. It hits some obvious plot points on its way, trying to point audiences towards red herrings involving an angry partner, a jilted lover, and a group of uptight mothers.
On the surface, The Undoing looks like every other crime drama on television, but it stands out for being less about the murder victim and more about investigating the unravelling of the elite. It also deconstructs our own instincts as consumers of so many crime narratives. Without evidence presented, we’re programmed to suspect the husband, the lover, the scorned wife, or the jealous colleague.
Nicole Kidman plays Grace as a tightly-wound coil, that slowly unwinds over the six episodes. Her eyes dart nervously, always on edge as she learns about her husband’s secrets, her son’s troubles, and that her perfect glossy magazine lifestyle is ultimately unsustainable. She becomes the perfect unreliable narrator, too, wandering around the city in a haze, with junks of her evening lost to a sleepwalking daze.
The character of Jonathan fits Hugh Grant like a glove. He brings his brand of sleazy charm to a man who’s spent his life spinning lies. The Undoing knows you think Jonathan’s a sociopath, it’s now Grant’s job to try to convince you he’s not the culprit, as one just always the male lead to be the killer.
The first episode, and part of the second, present The Undoing as a slick and sexy melodrama where every protagonist’s richer and more dislikable than the one before. But, halfway through the second episode, Jonathan disappears, and the story starts to drift into a clichéd whodunnit. One can’t help but mourn the show you were watching for the first 90-minutes.
Edgar Ramirez (American Crime Story) is largely wasted as the lead detective, although the courtroom scenes (a speciality of Kelley’s) are theatrical but hugely enjoyable to watch. Jonathan’s lawyer (Black Earth Rising’s Noma Dumezweni) and prosecutor (The Killing’s Sofie Grabol) are real scene-stealers too. We get a blow by blow of people with too much money and power, yet no conscience, behaving terribly. It’s hard to root for any of them, killer or not.
Donald Sutherland is sadly wasted as Grace’s father, an elderly man himself hiding lies from his family. His limitless funds and adulterous behaviour make him a shadowy figure lurking in the background of this story. Grace and Jonathan’s son, Henry, is sensitive but knows far more about his father than a child should. The only committee mum worth remembering the name of is Sylvia (American Horror Story’s Lily Rabe); a prosecuting attorney and loyal friend to Grace and a voice of reason in terms of Jonathan’s infidelity and the US legal system.
When watched in real-time, this show suffered from too many people having too many theories. It’s more than likely the Twitter hive-mind concocted a better ending than the show delivers. But, if watched outside of the online conversation, The Undoing is an enjoyable if not slightly melodramatic murder-mystery. It might lack the big shocks of Line of Duty, or the complex characters of Scandi-dramas like The Bridge, but it’s an enjoyable miniseries.
While the ending disappointed those who expected the show to have sharper twists and turns (not to say this show doesn’t deliver a good shock or two), the last episode does come to a satisfying finish. Grant and Kidman are on top form, with Kidman getting more and more frantic as Grant only gets smarmier.
While the show does wrap up the murder of Elena neatly with a powerful courtroom scene, the finale dives into the absurd. This mostly serious miniseries, if little too sombre and earnest, starts to get ridiculous. It’s as if the writers were concerned The Undoing was a little too straightforward and lacked the unexpected twists viewers have come to expect. So, in the last episode, we get rogue witnesses, car crashes, and even helicopter chases. The quiet melodrama about marriage, lies, and family suddenly goes all Michael Bay!
However, just sit back and enjoy the performance, the lush apartments, and the questionable coats worn by Kidman, and don’t get too involved in theorising… because The Undoing is, at times, a lesson at why it’s often best not to overthink TV dramas.
USA | 2020 | 337 MINUTES • 6 EPISODES | 2.00:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
Cast & Crew
writer: David E. Kelley.
director: Susanne Bier.
starring: Nicole Kidman, Hugh Grant, Édgar Ramírez, Noah Jupe, Lily Rabe, Matilda De Angelis, Ismael Cruz Córdova, Edan Alexander & Donald Sutherland.