Coming to you fresh from the New York of what feels like roughly 200 years ago at this point, The Undoing dares to ask the age old question that has fascinated pop culture for ages: Are rich people not that nice, and do they have secrets?
This may seem like an oversimplification of the show, but at least in the first episode, this is roughly the level of subtlety going on. The credits sequence literally ends with a bubble being burst. And we’re introduced to our main character through a maze of class indicators that will feel all too familiar to anyone who’s watched an episode of Gossip Girl—Grace and her husband Jonathan live in a massive home in New York, Jonathan is a doctor, their son Henry attends a fancy private school, and they’re busy making plans to attend a fundraiser for it. Plus, Grace will be attending a ladies’ tea later to plan for the fundraiser. It’s a virtual checklist for a certain kind of upper crust New York family. And the most notable item on the checklist is what, exactly, will bring this family crashing down to earth.
The elements are teased throughout the episode. Jonathan is rakishly charming, but there are signs he’s actually pretty discontented—his jokes about how much he doesn’t want to attend the school fundraiser begin to wear, and earlier in the episode, his own son accuses him of being joyless. At what point does joking about not wanting to engage in the social milieu in which you live curdle into outright contempt for your peers? When Grace suggests the family might be happier somewhere other than Manhattan, he flippantly says they don’t like anyone besides each other anyway, and she corrects him to say that’s just him.
That Jonathan is played by Hugh Grant only adds to the suspicion that something dark is lurking within him. In recent years, Grant has made something of a specialty of turning his tremendous personal charm into malice. It’s been an intriguing career shift for someone who got his start playing the sweet nice guy, and one that can practically be measured movie by movie—the charm started to be modified by a deep layer of selfishness in movies like About a Boy and Bridget Jones’ Diary, and in more recent years, the top layer of charm has gotten thinner and thinner, becoming more of an apparent veneer. Jonathan doesn’t actually do anything menacing in this episode, and yet our suspicions are roused simply because Grant has gotten so good at telling us exactly what charm usually hides. By the end of the episode, after the Big Event of the miniseries has taken place, his own wife seems to suspect him of murder simply because he’s left his phone at home and doesn’t seem to have taken the business trip he’s said he would. What does it say about this marriage and this man that his own wife makes what appears to be an immediate mental jump to murder instead of something far simpler, like an affair?
That big event is the murder of Elena, the young mother of a scholarship student at Henry’s school. It’s here that The Undoing stumbles most notably. Elena is in only a few scenes, but she’s naked in half of them and crying in the other half. She’s an emotive body as much as she is a human. Moreover, she seems to be pushing that body entirely in Grace’s direction. The show is told from Grace’s perspective, and so the idea that her behavior is directed mainly at Grace may just be Grace’s own bias taking precedence, but Elena is relentlessly sexualized and made into a damsel in distress. She’s beautiful and troubled, the show seems to want us to know, and the reason we know that is because she flaunts her body in the presence of her social betters. Grace’s interest in Elena is a little hard to parse—she’s unaccountably fascinated from their first encounter, but it’s hard to tell what exactly is drawing her in. When Elena impulsively kisses her in an elevator, Grace has a fairly stony reaction. She doesn’t push Elena away, but she doesn’t exactly seem overcome by lust, either. We also learn from Elena’s own family that Elena is an artist, and yet at no point in her conversations with Grace does Grace evince even the slightest interest in who Elena is as a person.
All told, it’s an odd way to introduce us to the character around whom the rest of the series is clearly going to revolve. Her murder brings police to Grace’s doorstep, where they stay for long enough to frighten her son, as though to emphasize the degree to which her life is now about to be invaded by outside forces. But Elena is given confusingly little interiority up to that point. Here’s hoping the rest of the series has more to say about who she is, and how she ended up in the middle of this mess.
- The show puts a lot of eggs in the “don’t trust the husband” basket, from Grace’s client who she accuses of seeing things that aren’t there in the men she marries to the constant refrain of people blaming Elena’s husband for her death. It’s made me oddly invested in Jonathan NOT being the culprit, if only so all of that is a red herring.
- Speaking of which, I wonder if it will turn out that Grace and Elena interacted more than what we saw in the pilot—we got a late addition of an extra scene from their gym conversation, which to me implied there might be more that we haven’t seen.
- I’m also curious to see how much we’ll be sympathizing with Grace as the show goes on. She’s our main character, and Elena keeps saying how kind she is, but there isn’t actually a lot of evidence of that! She’s less outwardly catty than the other moms, but her reaction to seeing Elena crying in the bathroom is to offer a free therapy session instead of treating her like a peer and offering friendship. And when she mentions the breastfeeding moment to Jonathan, she’s just as condescending and put off as the other moms were—she’s just framing it differently.
- What is the level of wealth you must achieve before you begin to swan around the home in a diaphanous gown before going out for the day?
- This is a small moment, but I do hope that Grace and Jonathan revisit with Henry how important it is to clean up your peanut butter spoon immediately after making a smoothie. Peanut butter becomes cement in a matter of moments, as far as I can tell.