David E. Kelley’s latest for HBO features Nicole Kidman in another excellent turn as a therapist who’s pulled into a murder investigation.
We all have that one friend who gives great advice but often fails to heed their own. It may seem odd, but it’s simply due to the fact that you can’t be objective about your own life and relationships. This lack of objectivity can cause even the most level-headed person to make terrible choices and defend the people who hurt them the most.
This complicated dynamic is explored in HBO’s latest drama, The Undoing, created by David E. Kelley and adapted from Jean Hanff Korelitz’s 2014 novel You Should Have Known. The series follows Grace Fraser (Nicole Kidman), a successful therapist who lives with her oncologist husband Jonathan (Hugh Grant) in Manhattan. Their idyllic life is interrupted after the mother of their son’s classmate is found murdered.
Despite being shocked and disturbed by the crime, Grace doesn’t think much of it until the police start interrogating her with a surprising intensity. With Jonathan out of town and suspiciously unreachable, her doubts begin to spiral out of control. When it’s revealed that Jonathan may be involved in the murder, she must rebuild her life and decide how much trust she should have in the man who betrayed her.
The Undoing is one of those shows where it’s best not to know too much of the plot before you start watching. It’s a series about secrets and complicated relationships, and a big part of the fun is seeing the secrets being revealed and the relationships being both broken and put back together. A few of the twists won’t come as much of a surprise, but even the more expected plot points are expertly executed, especially when the odd behavior of a character is explained later.
The ambivalent nature of The Undoing is captured in its visual style. Whenever we are in Grace’s headspace, the camera is often hazy and unfocused, with her surroundings unclear. In scenes where she is being interrogated, the camera switches to extreme closeups of her eyes (a signature of Susanne Bier, who directed every episode). The dreamlike and confusing nature of the camerawork during particularly intense scenes subtly hint that Grace’s point of view may not be entirely reliable- although it’s not clear if she’s aware of her own unreliability.
The Undoing is one of those shows where it’s best not to know too much of the plot before you start watching.
Kelley has been complimented on his writing of complicated and nuanced female characters, and this praise is well earned here. Grace is the type of protagonist where you want to cheer her on in support in one scene and then yell at her in frustration in the next. While she’s never shown to be stupid or naive, it’s clear that her love for her husband is clouding her judgment. She uses her son Henry (Noah Jupe) as a justification to help Jonathan, but it’s obvious that she desperately wants him to be innocent out of the desire to protect the man she made a life with.
It’s not surprising that Kelly cast Kidman as this show’s protagonist. Not only did their collaboration do wonders in his previous HBO drama, Big Little Lies, but Kidman is (unsurprisingly) brilliant in the role. She portrays Grace as vulnerable and conflicted without appearing weak or foolish. She remains sympathetic even when she makes poor choices or becomes overly defensive. After all, it’s easy to see what the smart thing to do is when you’re not the one in the situation.
Less sympathetic is Jonathan. Here Grant uses his natural charisma and turns it on its head. When we first see him, he is utterly charming with a wit that is just acerbic enough to be funny, but not to the point of cruelty. It’s not hard to see why people like him. However, once we learn about his more unsavory characteristics, this charisma takes a sinister edge. Grant gives a career-defining performance by taking his signature charm and transforming it into something self-serving and manipulative.
Rounding out the A-list main cast is Donald Sutherland as Franklin, Grace’s protective father. The man acts like a guard dog trained to sniff out any threat to his family and attack it with a ferociousness that is camouflaged by his old age. Sutherland exudes a quiet menace any time Franklin comes in contact with people who displease him. While he may be physically frail, it’s obvious that he is the most dangerous character in the show, because he has the money and social position to exert his will.
It’s Franklin’s power and privilege where my only major misgiving in The Undoing lies. While it’s easy to empathize with Grace, there is something off-putting about the socioeconomic dynamics of the story. The Frasers are a ridiculously wealthy white family, whereas the murder victim and her family are people of color without the status and connections that our main characters enjoy. While the show often hints at how the Frasers have used their money to create a bubble of protection, it doesn’t really explore this dynamic. It’s especially uncomfortable when the victim’s husband, Fernando (Ismael Cruz Córdova) is often portrayed in a threatening light.
In all fairness, I’ve only been given the first five episodes to review, so I can’t say that this disparity won’t be addressed later in the series. After all, a big part of the show’s trailers heavily emphasize a speech given by the Frasers’ lawyer Haley Fitzgerald (Noma Dumezweni), wherein she chastises Grace for wealthy people’s habit of hiding from the truth to protect themselves. While we are made to side with Grace, I have a feeling that she will be condemned in some way for allowing herself to be cocooned from the truth by her money.
At least, I hope that’s the case because it would strengthen an already strong series. With its stellar cast, captivating storytelling, and excellent direction, The Undoing is the perfect example of the type of prestige television that HBO is known for. So while Grace may not take her own advice, I hope you’ll take mine: watch this show.
The Undoing premieres on HBO October 25th