Television

The Undoing Spoiled Itself

The HBO mystery spun its conclusion into a breathless guessing game, but its conclusion felt both obvious and arbitrary.

A lawyer and her client sit at a table in a courtroom.
Noma Dumezweni and Hugh Grant on The Undoing. Niko Tavernise/HBO

This post contains spoilers for The Undoing.

In the hours leading up the final episode of HBO’s miniseries The Undoing, theories bounced around like Spaldeens in a barrel: Whodunit? The series, scarfable trash set in the monied milieu of the Upper East Side, began with a young woman’s brutal murder and had been methodically working its way through suspects ever since. Viewers, as if with clipboards in hand, were running through the cast list, checking for the culprit.

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We thought we knew who it wasn’t: Jonathan Fraser (Hugh Grant), a pediatric oncologist happily married to therapist Grace (Nicole Kidman), who had in fact been fired from his job for having an affair with the dead woman, had been suspect No. 1. Though Jonathan was the murderer in the novel on which the show was based—Jean Hanff Korelitz’s You Should Have Known—this was not the case through the first five-and-a-half episodes of the show. Though Jonathan had means and motive, having fornicated with the victim on the night of her death, he swore he was not the killer and the show had backed him, planting doubts. He was too obvious! Too easy! A red herring! The next suspect had been Grace herself, with about as much insight into her own life as a dirty mirror, a handful of seemingly repressed memories, and who had wandered by the crime scene on the night in question. All of this eventually made her too obvious, and so by the finale she had also been crossed off the list.

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The smart money had settled on Donald Sutherland, who played Grace’s fantastically wealthy and protective father, a man living in an apartment on Fifth Avenue with ceilings so high they appeared not to exist. Perhaps he acted alone—or perhaps he acted to protect his grandson Henry (Noah Jupe), who, early in the finale, revealed he’d sent the bloody murder weapon through the dishwasher. Another popular theory, not directly related to the murder was that Grace’s best friend Sylvia (Lily Rabe) would be revealed to have also had an affair with Jonathan. And that was the straightforward stuff: Certain Redditors suspected the principal and the baby. (Hey, it happened on The Simpsons).

Well, we made our checklist; we checked it twice; and then in the final minutes of the finale, the series smacked the clipboard out of our hands: It was Hugh Grant all along. Theoretically, I find this to be an interesting, even impressive structural move. A show that has enticed the audience to play along, to put Donald Sutherland with the ax in the artist’s studio, turns around and shocks us with a grisly, no-fun outcome they wrote off in a narrative mad dash: It was the boyfriend all along. We treated it like a game, but it’s a horror and the joke’s on us. If this is a little didactic, played more lightly it could be satisfyingly surprising. It uses our own fluency in storytelling conventions against us, so as not to see the suspect hiding in plain sight. But that’s on paper. In actuality, The Undoing wanted its gotcha more than it wanted to make sense. In trying so hard to be unspoilable, it spoiled itself.

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That no one guessed the killer’s identify in advance isn’t a credit to the show—it’s a sign that it wasn’t playing fair. I mean, someone guessed the baby! The final 10 minutes had a lot of high-camp action—Kidman in a helicopter, chasing down Grant and her son and landing on a bridge—but a really grim spirit, passing off a grisly and mundane conclusion as some kind of bravura feat. The conclusion also left the series as bizarrely psychologically underdeveloped as it had always been. Instead of watching the scales fall from Grace’s eyes, the finale left it unclear whether Grace had turned on Jonathan because she knew he was the murderer, or just because he’d implicated their son.

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The only thing that recommended the show, and turned it, at the last minute, into a conversation piece, was that it had become a proper guessing game. When TV shows, even ones far better than The Undoing, become guessing games, they are usually screwed. When there’s so much pressure on how it ends, it obviates the pleasure we take in getting there—and with The Undoing, there wasn’t that much pleasure in the journey to begin with. It was a bumpy flight that wound up in a dingy parking lot. HBO must be thrilled, though. We tweeted about all of it.

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