HBO’s glossy six part drama The Undoing has come to a close providing answers to some burning questions, not least of which is who killed Elena Alves (Matilda De Angelis). The show closed with quite the bang though, raising other issues that had been playing out in the background throughout the series.
The Undoing was created by David E Kelley and is loosely based on the 2014 novel You Should Have Known by Jean Hanff Korelitz – Susanne Bier is the series director. Nicole Kidman plays Grace Fraser, a wealthy and accomplished clinical psychologist, married to charming Oncologist Jonathan (Hugh Grant). But one night after a lavish fundraiser a beautiful young woman whose child attends the same school as Grace and Jonathan’s son Henry (Noah Jupe) is found murdered. Jonathan had claimed to be away on a work trip but suddenly he’s not contactable – Grace’s world seems to be falling apart around her rapidly.
Revelations are drip-fed throughout the show. Jonathan is no longer working at the hospital he had been employed by after reports of an incident with a patient – which turns out to be Elena’s son Miguel. Jonathan was having an affair with Elena, and it turns out her baby daughter is his and not her husband’s.
When Jonathan was a teenager he accidentally left a door open when he was supposed to be tending to his four year old sister. She wandered into the road and was killed, and according to Jonathan’s mum Jonathan showed no guilt, remorse or grief over the incident.
Episode five ended on the biggest cliffhanger yet – the discovery of a mallet – the probable murder weapon – inside Henry’s violin case.
Episode six entitled ‘The Bloody Truth’ attempts to tie up these loose ends. Henry found the bloody mallet in a bag at the beach house, he says. He hid it to protect his father. Because Henry ran it through the dishwasher twice it’s now unlikely to have any meaningful DNA.
Could the mallet have exonerated Jonathan and contained DNA which might have pointed to Fernando Alves (Ismael Cruz Cordova)? And are we quite sure that Henry, who had observed Jonathan and Elena together, couldn’t have done it himself?
Jonathan certainly brings up the suggestion to an enraged Grace (more on this later).
After consulting with their lawyer Haley Fitzgerald (Noma Dumezweni) the family makes the dubious decision not to reveal the mallet to the police. Jonathan is mid trial and the revelation of the murder weapon being discoverd at the beach house can only harm his case, meanwhile it will potentially make Henry an accessory to murder.
The Undoing plays with ideas of how well you know another person. Grace is a psychologist and so in theory should be a better judge of character than most. She’s also the wronged wife who has stood by her cheating husband even after the revelation that Elena’s daughter is Jonathan’s. She is the very image of beauty, dignity and sympathy.
Grace asks Haley to allow her to take the stand – she will act as a character witness for Jonathan.
Under oath and during cross examination, Grace tells Haley that Jonathan is a kind man, an empathetic man and a man not capable of violence – not ever, not once. He couldn’t possibly have killed Elena, he isn’t capable of such an act, and she should know, she’s a professional.
The thing is, he is capable of such things, and she knows it. Jonathan grabbed Grace by the throat when he broke into the beach house. Grace was afraid for her life and called the police. And course, there’s the story about Jonathan’s little sister and how he never seemed to exhibit any kind of sadness or suffering over her loss. That doesn’t sound like the man Grace described.
Grace has tipped off her best friend Sylvia (Lily Rabe) who has fed this evidence to the prosecution who completely destroys Grace as a witness and allows a lot of evidence to be presented and referred to which is not in any way relevant to the case. Because Grace is a witness for the defence the judge won’t throw her testimony out.
As Jonathan says, she has “fucked him”.
It’s a wonderful twist that benefits from the truly terrific performances from all the main cast, but Kidman and Grant in particular. He is charming, funny but there’s a callousness, a psychopathy under the surface that perhaps Grace can finally see. Whether Grace knows it for sure or not, Jonathan did kill Elena. What Grace never doubted was that Henry did not. That Jonathan would point the finger at his own son (knowing he’d committed the crime) indicates what kind of man he really is.
But Grace’s decision to seal the deal on Jonathan’s fate feels less to do with justice than for the good of her own family. She asks Henry whether he wants the family to return to normal after the trial – but he turns the question back on her. She says she just wants whats best for him. Meanwhile Grace’s father Franklin Reinhardt (Donald Sutherland) reminds Grace that if Jonathan is acquitted he will remain in Grace and Henry’s lives forever.
Jonathan is a killer – a brutal, psychopath who beat his young lover to a pulp. But the ending of The Undoing isn’t about Elena getting justice, as much as it is the incredible control exerted over the legal system by the wealthy and powerful.
Jonathan is guilty. His DNA was in Elena’s studio, his semen was in her body, just after her death he bolts and when he returns he breaks into the property where Grace is staying – the place where the murder weapon is found. Elena’s husband has an alibi and no one else really has a motive. It’s pretty conclusive.
Yet without Grace’s manipulation it is possible Jonathan would have been acquitted. The family, thanks to Franklin, has the best lawyer money can buy. Jonathan is a rich white doctor who cures sick children, Fernando Alves is not white or rich and is prone to outbursts.
Grace is smart – smarter than Jonathan – who isn’t able to predict that the prosecution might have access to the terrified 911 call that Grace made when Jonathan broke in.
Jonathan is a monster, who murders Elena when she gets too close to his family and dares to suggest she has any control over him.
Grace is a benevolent but equally powerful woman who is able to affect the course of justice because of her credibility, her beauty and her authority (even if that means deliberately flipping that on its head).
The series finishes not with the jury’s verdict but with Jonathan making one last play for power. He takes Henry and makes a run for it – an incredibly uncomfortable journey with Jonathan flicking between faux jovial and bubbling fury. When it is clear police cars are closing in he makes one last attempt at keeping control. Driving across a high bridge he pulls over and climbs the railing threatening to jump, while his 12-year-old son pleads with him not to. Grace arrives and runs to the two screaming Jonathan’s name. But when she reaches her child she takes him and turns away. Jonathan asks for a cuddle but she refuses.
Jonathan is going to prison, Grace has her son, but the ending is bitter sweet. Vulnerable, trusting Elena is still dead, her son Miguel had to find her body, and her husband Fernando is left dealing with the trauma having been insinuated into a crime he didn’t commit. Jonathan may have been brought to justice but wealth and privilege has still proven its power.