“The Undoing” Isn’t As Smart As It Thinks It Is

Are we just not going to talk about Elena?? (Spoilers, obviously.)

At the beginning of the pandemic, it was Tiger King. Last month, it was the infernal Emily in Paris. Now, a whole bunch of us have attempted to fill the void that the coronavirus has blasted into all of our lives with The Undoing, HBO’s latest hit, even though — as is the case with much of the most-chatted-about shows this year — it’s not actually any good.

But at least a soapy whodunnit masquerading as prestige cable TV has some intrigue, and even more importantly, incredible coats. Everyone I know who’s been eagerly tuning in every Sunday night to watch Nicole Kidman attempt to make facial expressions is under no illusions about the show’s quality. “It’s terrible,” a friend told me. “I can’t stop watching.” The finale drew HBO’s largest audience since creator David E. Kelley’s previous effort, Big Little Lies.

Most of us signed on for the A-listers: the gays, primarily, for Nicole Kidman with her ’90s throwback curls, and the straights for rom-com staple Hugh Grant. Married couple Grace and Jonathan are upper-crust New Yorkers, forever wandering in and out of sumptuous interiors. They have a son, Henry (Noah Jupe), who attends the elite Reardon School, and it’s a fundraiser for the school that sets our story into motion. At an event-planning meeting, Grace and her fellow snobby white moms meet Elena (Matilda De Angelis), a presumed Latina played by an Italian actress (🥴), whose son, Miguel, recently started at Reardon on scholarship. The mothers are quietly disgusted that Elena would dare breastfeed her newborn in front of them, and Grace takes pity on the young outsider. From the outset, Elena is enchanted, almost even obsessed with Grace, especially after she shows her some warmth that the others don’t — culminating in a bizarre changing room run-in when Elena stands before her fully nude and asks Grace if she unnerves her.

I wondered, in that first episode, if the show was really going to kill off this strange, “spicy” Latina, whose “great breasts” are commented on by one mother and lusted after by a swarm of men at the fundraiser. And, yep, they do — brutally. We’re forced to watch Elena’s beautiful, tear-stained face get smashed in by a hammer past the point of recognition over and over and over again throughout the six-episode miniseries. Who killed her? Was it Jonathan, who disappeared after her murder and later admitted to carrying on an affair with her up until literal moments before her death? Or was it Grace’s father, an obscenely wealthy, grizzled patriarch with no discernible motive, if only because he’s played by the always menacing-looking Donald Sutherland and his out-of-control eyebrows? Who is to say!!!

The finale this past Sunday night was, in retrospect, the only one that could have possibly made any sense, but it still disappointed thousands of sleuths who’d expected a meatier twist. But for HBO, which dropped a hotly anticipated finale during a postholiday weekend where most of us are in our pajamas all day even during non-pandemic years, that doesn’t really matter — we were all going to see this one through ‘til the end, because what the hell else do we have to do?

Clearly, Kelley was attempting a bait and switch, as Alison Herman notes in her Ringer review: “We thought we were watching a soapy thriller in which the murderer would turn out to be someone ludicrous like the private school principal. We were actually watching a muted character study about a woman coming to terms with the depths of her own denial.”

Except it didn’t stick the landing: “The Undoing was often so busy hiding the ball it never did the actual work of studying its protagonist’s character,” Herman writes. Grace is a psychotherapist (with a PhD from Harvard — where else?) who married a pediatric oncologist turned killer. It’s not surprising, really, that the kind of person who takes on the godlike power to decide who lives and who dies might be nursing some narcissistic and sociopathic tendencies. And yet Grace, married for over a decade to this man, with a doctorate in Why People Do the Things They Do, missed what was right in front of her all along. (The book the show’s based on is literally called You Should Have Known.)

Perhaps Grace convincing Jonathan’s star defense lawyer (played by Noma Dumezweni) she should take the stand in the finale just so she could fuck him over would have felt more satisfying if we knew anything at all about the evolution of her motivations. (How could a competent lawyer possibly be so foolish as to just throw an untrained witness into the lion’s den???? God, this show is stupid.) Instead, we have mostly exposition — Jonathan’s mom telling Grace in a video call that he showed no remorse nor grief after he “killed the family sister” (as opposed to the family dog — yes, this is a direct quote) — and Grace silently pacing in anguish around her father’s lush Manhattan apartment.

What’s most disappointing to me about the show, however, is its annoyingly cavalier approach in telling the story of rich white people running roughshod over the lives of the marginalized. The first episode has us thinking this thriller is going to make some sort of social commentary about the protections afforded to the privileged, similar in its light mockery and camp to Kelley’s better show, Big Little Lies. But this world of well-off mothers, lording over their community and gossiping profusely like their predecessors in Monterey, recedes into the background — the dead mother, Elena, included.

If Grace’s interiority is tough to parse, poor Elena never stood a chance. She’s a pinup doll of a character, the victim of a grisly crime whose appearances, after the first episode, almost exclusively feature flashbacks of her having sex or getting murdered. Jonathan, who lies about pretty much everything, might not have been exaggerating much at all when he tried to smear Elena as a “crazy” woman who was obsessed with him and his family, since all we really see of Elena is, indeed, her creepy and weird behavior toward Grace.

If the show really was attempting to lampoon the excesses of the ultra-wealthy — people who can engage in a car chase from their own private helicopter; people who can, and do, easily get away with murder — it failed, because it refused to humanize its central victim. Elena convinced Jonathan to help her son, Miguel (Edan Alexander, a total darling), into Reardon — something a young mother who wants the best for her children would presumably do, but the show wants us to hang onto the possibility that Elena was really just trying to get close enough to Grace to replace her somehow. It’s what Jonathan accuses her of before he kills her: “Don’t you ever come near my family.” There’s an icky feeling here of the encroaching brown Other attempting to wrest her way into, and ultimately destroy, this white nuclear family.

And that’s not just Jonathan’s perspective, but one that the show’s entire purview seems to share. When we see poor little Miguel come upon his mother’s mangled body over and over again, it’s as if we’re supposed to place at least some of the blame for Elena’s murder on Elena herself: She was in her art studio, where she indulged in her own pursuits and slept with other men, away from the family home and her motherly responsibilities. Her wanton lust led her to birth Jonathan’s baby daughter, a scandalous interruption of familial norms. In the end, she’s the floozy who, in death, has forever traumatized her son — the perfect foil to pale, angelic Grace, looking like she’s just walked out of a Botticelli painting, she who ultimately sacrifices her husband so she can save her son. White motherhood, at first threatened by the father’s misdeeds, is ultimately restored to its rightful place. Mother and child fly safely off into the sunset. And Elena is still dead. ●

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