Television

The Undoing Could Have Been Perfect Trash

By promising psychological depth as well as a twisty whodunit, the series showed up its own shortcomings.

Nicole Kidman in The Undoing
Niko Tavernise/HBO

The Undoing—the David E. Kelley show in which Nicole Kidman once again plays a wealthy, beautiful, tormented white-collar professional with terrible judgment and a gorgeous home married to a bad man who cheats on her and fathers a child with a younger, darker, and poorer woman who doesn’t fit into Kidman’s social circle but whom Kidman treats kindly since both their children attend the same school—concluded on Sunday with a finale that took a hammer to every sophisticated impulse the series appeared to have. It was sublimely nonsensical, complete with hilariously impossible courtroom scenes and a helicopter landing on a bridge so the heroine can storm a police perimeter to save her son from the wild-eyed villain who holds his arms out to her. This was a Lifetime version of True Detective, so similarly unhinged from the genres it’s in dialogue with while trying to aspirationally transcend them that it fails at plot and psychology and metacommentary all at once. It left me breathless with glee. Just a beautifully attired marvel of a mess.

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Some fans have suggested that The Undoing is mistakenly classified as a whodunit when it’s actually a “psychological thriller.” This defense usually pops up to justify the fact that the show’s twist is, so to speak, an anti-twist: The guy who is suspected of doing it turns out, in the end, to have done it. “It’s an indictment of the viewer!” some viewers optimistically suggest, positing that the show is critiquing a cultural tendency to excuse and exonerate white men, especially wealthy and charismatic ones. (It would be nice if this were true because this is a real tendency!) I can understand why that reading is attractive: Hugh Grant’s charm, the narcissistic downsides of which the actor makes lusciously available, is kind of interesting in this inverted mode, and the show does sporadically dip into discussions of privilege. But The Undoing just isn’t doing that, sorry. For one thing, its world is one where cops are reluctant to arrest the poor man of color with a violent temper and a weak-to-nonexistent alibi, preferring to arrest the wealthy and popular white oncologist. Maybe that’s critiquing a system, but it’s not the one we know. Any critique of systemic privilege more or less collapses when Jonathan’s conduct gets coded as less representative of a type than as exceptional and even monstrous. By the end he’s been reconfigured as a sociopath or worse for, among other things, failing to accept responsibility for his little sister’s accidental death. (This was treated as an astonishing revelation of his moral turpitude in the series; I confess I found it unconvincing. Wouldn’t an expert—a therapist, say—assure him that he was correct and not, as a 14-year-old boy, responsible?) If this is systemic critique, the choice of targets is curious: Poorer characters are presented as angry, violent, and two-dimensional, whereas the upper classes aside from Jonathan seem petty but harmless. Even Grace’s friend Sylvia—who is wealthy and privileged and seemed awfully suspicious early on—turns out to have been little more than a reasonably loyal friend.

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The Undoing isn’t a critique of the justice system or an exploration of abuse. Any indictment of “the viewer” for thinking the murderer was anyone but Jonathan mistakes fluency in genre conventions for moral mistakes. We know that in mysteries, unlike in life, the obvious suspect usually turns out not to be the murderer! That’s not our fault. And parsing the series as a psychological thriller rather than a whodunit just makes it worse, because its underlying psychology is just … silly. Dramatically, the series uses bad-faith misdirection to gently dodge anything as pedestrian as letting its many strange clues add up. Thousands of breadcrumbs and red herrings are scattered to the birds. If this is an examination of how a manipulative narcissist blinds a woman to his flaws, for example, we should arguably have some insight into Grace’s mentality. Her conversion is the final twist, so we should be privy to how she’s thinking. But we aren’t, because the show wants to keep us in the dark about her possible guilt, and that makes Grace’s inner life inaccessible. Beyond “she takes walks sometimes,” for instance, there’s no explanation for why rich, be-coated Grace would walk miles at night to Harlem, coincidentally passing the victim’s studio on the night of the murder. We don’t know why she and the victim kissed, why the victim had painted her portrait, or—crucially—why Grace quite dishonestly downplayed their relationship to the police. That seemed at one point like consciousness of guilt. In hindsight, given that she had no particular instinct for self-preservation (she repeatedly refuses to have a lawyer present when she talks to the cops!), her reluctance to discuss Elena’s slightly stalkerish conduct is baffling. (Speaking of stalking, we don’t know why Grace’s father, played by Donald Sutherland, spied on the victim’s bereaved husband, Fernando, from the street, nor do we know why the bereaved husband Fernando stalked Grace.) As for her internal struggles: What are they? We get no flashbacks to her and Jonathan’s relationship, so we’re blind to any interesting hints she might have missed that could have alerted her to his real character. We don’t know, for instance, to what extent Grace’s spectacular misunderstanding of her husband is hampered by her sunny but inaccurate sense of her parents’ married life. The result is that Grace’s conduct is pretty consistently inexplicable. (Would a talented therapist really let her child sit in on his father’s trial, where he’ll be repeatedly exposed to traumatic images of the victim’s cadaver?)

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The biggest cheat, of course, is that the few insights we do get into Grace’s thinking don’t make sense and aren’t explained. Grace has several flashbacklike visions so graphic and bizarre that viewers were speculating that she might be schizophrenic or have two personalities—one that used the red coat and another in the green. Nope. We’ll just never know why the show outfitted Grace with a kind of faulty ESP whereby she has visions of things that did not happen—like her husband comforting a dying child when he was actually busy a-murderin’—as well as things that did, like what turns out to be exact documentary footage of the victim begging Jonathan for her life. This last bit is really odd! Grace, whose central problem is her blindness to who Jonathan really is despite being a clinical psychologist specializing in “brain cognition,” somehow conjures that very husband’s exact point of view as he slaughtered his lover and hears exactly what the victim said as he did so. Is Grace a witch?

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The “psychological thriller” label is an effort to elevate what is—I maintain—a whodunit, and a bad one. It didn’t have to be. The Undoing could, after heavy rewrites, have been condensed into a very pleasurable single episode of something like Poirot or Murder, She Wrote. Instead, in trying to gussy a pleasurably trashy genre, it failed at the basics. The brilliant, charismatic murderer we’ve followed for six episodes turns out to be almost tragically stupid. There’s no explaining Jonathan’s decision to stop—while fleeing a murder charge—to drop his blood- and bone-spattered suit off at a dry cleaner. (Being a brilliant doctor, he sprayed it lightly first!) Nor will we learn why he elected to hide the murder weapon at his second home when the ocean was a few yards away. But it’s not just Jonathan. Everyone is periodically and inexplicably stupid. The talented defense attorney who warned Grace not to betray a single emotion lest the jury get the wrong idea collapses theatrically before them after yelling objections when things go badly for her client. The police assure everyone that Fernando Alvez isn’t a suspect because he has an alibi; a silly courtroom scene eventually reveals that his “alibi” is his … sleeping son. When the cop—played by Edgar Ramírez—showed up in the courtroom midtrial during the finale looking grim and urgent, I guess it was just out of curiosity. He didn’t say or do anything at all.

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Maybe we have enough ambitious, expensive shows striving to trump the conventions of their respective genres but falling short of basic expectations that we can finally admit what they are: prestige trash. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that, as long as it honors its trashy side. People who don’t watch SVU or Columbo might tune in to watch A-list movie stars wearing fabulous clothes in gorgeous dwellings with insane production values. As my editor points out, this can be the TV equivalent of putting truffle oil on a burger. A little can improve the thing and make it seem delicious and fancy, but add too much and all that comes through is the effort to be better than the thing you were trying to enhance. Big Little Lies got the balance right. Its campy parade of Audrey Hepburns and Elvis Presleys gave it enough humor and self-awareness to license a bad courtroom case or two, and it really nails the plot.* But The Undoing is so obsessed with yanking its genre’s lowish brows upward with close-ups of Kidman’s eyeballs and incredible coats that it made basic stuff like plot and character an afterthought. Ambition, you might say, was its undoing.

Correction, Jan. 4, 2021: This article originally misspelled Audrey Hepburn’s first name.

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