Elena Alves (Matilda De Angelis) has been murdered. It was a brutal, shocking event. The media descends on the community as stories of how this beautiful, young wife and mother was brutally slain. Her head was bashed in with some kind of tool, struck repeatedly until her face was unrecognizable. As one of the few Hispanic parents and a newcomer to a ritzy New York City private school community, Elena had attracted great attention before her death. She was confident and assured, joining the planning committee for a school fundraiser despite attracting the scornful looks of the other parents. Grace Fraser (Nicole Kidman), a psychologist, was one of the few to be kind to her in life. Now, in Elena’s death, the two will be forever connected as Grace’s husband, Jonathan Fraser (Hugh Grant), is accused of her murder. A children’s cancer doctor who treated Elena’s son and is alleged to have begun an affair with her, Jonathan may be the center of the police investigation but The Undoing makes it clear that the truth is often muddier than meets the eye.
At the center of director Susanne Bier‘s The Undoing is a concept that Grace is well familiar with in her work. For many, they look at spouses, friends, or anybody they know, and have an image of who that person is and seek out things to confirm that belief. It is confirmation bias, but goes beyond it as one may even lie to themselves to ensure that their convictions are not broken. Where The Undoing is captivating is in how many people this conclusion could reasonably apply to, especially given the flow of life that Elena goes through in the end and the secrets that are revealed afterwards. Jonathan’s affair, of course, at the center. Grace, as the scorned wife, cannot be written off. Her friend and a lawyer Sylvia (Lily Rabe) certainly knew more than she ever let Grace know. Grace’s rich father Franklin Reinhardt (Donald Sutherland) openly loathes Jonathan and tries to convince his daughter that he is unworthy of her affection. Elena’s husband Fernando (Ismael Cruz Córdova) is noted as having frequent fights with her, while of course also being a scorned husband.
Every one of these individuals has an image of someone in their lives or of Elena that perhaps is not real, a quality that drives them in different directions. Could it have driven them to kill or have driven them to ignore the signs that someone they know is a killer? Much of The Undoing is dedicated to evidence. Detective Joe Mendoza (Edgar Ramirez) leads the investigation while attorney Haley Fitzgerald (Noma Dumezweni) represents the Fraser’s. They pour over details, testimony, and the facts of the case. The audience is privy to the character’s mindsets and natures, all of which encourage the viewer to play along in trying to identify the killer. An obvious answer emerges, but there is doubt. Red herrings are as plentiful as clues and where the truth will ultimately end up is only truly clear in the final episode, a key strength for the series. This is a murder mystery and it can only be as good as its scenario is mysterious. There are flaws, but The Undoing plays its cards close to the chest and keeps the audience guessing, right up to the end. It is an undeniably twisty series, one that at times tries to reach for suspense with an almost cloying insistence. One can see it desperately try to spin additional webs of possibilities, even when it has more than enough to keep itself moving forward. It layers in some strained and over-the-top melodrama – especially in the final episode – that may elicit more eye rolls than tears, but The Undoing is a whodunnit at its core. In that pursuit, even if it tries to do too much, it is a rousing success.
The Undoing’s cast is its greatest asset, all of which capture an edge of mystery that keeps them in the air as a possible suspect. Donald Sutherland’s calculating and brutal character inspires fear and intimidation. His dramatic eyebrows may attract the eye’s focus, but it is heartlessness and cutthroat desire to protect Grace at all costs that stands out. Sutherland’s performance positions Franklin as a plausible answer for many, but even beyond the mystery, he is a powerful figure. He walks into the room and has a commanding presence, a quality that Sutherland lives up to at all times. Nicole Kidman has found a home of sorts in these HBO series and she turns in another strong performance as this wealthy woman whose life is upended. The Undoing finds much of its drama here as Kidman captures the trauma of a woman who has lost her husband to adultery very well. She searches for answers, forgiveness, and understanding, turning to her psychology with often little respite. Kidman’s great strength is her restraint – a quality The Undoing betrays at times for its aforementioned over-the-top melodrama attempts – as she glares into the distance and tries to make sense of everything. She is stone cold when she wants to be while she presents Grace’s more frantic moments – namely at the family beach house or in the notable 911 call – with great pathos. One can see the gears turn in her mind, desperately trying to make sense of the horror before her.
Hugh Grant uses his screen presence and charisma to perfection here, consistently turning in the strongest performance of the cast. His stare into the camera as he professes his innocence, his usual suave appeal and his general affability all work to perfection. Jonathan is said to be the murderer and is the most logical answer. Grant’s role is to sow doubt and he does this wonderfully. There is a darkness in him, but there is a gentleness as well. One need only see a single flashback of him with a young patient to see that quality, while Grant has an intensity in his eyes that speaks to the man accused of murder in equal measure. His bond with his son Henry (Noah Jupe) and his contentious scenes with Fernando seem to run counter to one another, juxtaposing the family man with the potentially violent figure. As the primary suspect, The Undoing devotes the greatest amount of its investigation to him and Grant plays it so well that it comes out so even. The evidence of both innocence and guilt mounts in equal measure, his nature and personality contrasting with some of the physical evidence. Of all the suspects, Jonathan is perhaps the most complex and Grant brings every sordid detail of him to life.
The marvelous cast, twisty mystery, and plentiful red herrings make for an engrossing viewing experience. It is not high art, perhaps, nor is it one of HBO’s absolute finest, but The Undoing is hard to resist. For mystery fans, it is a miniseries sure to keep them guessing and conjuring up various theories before the final episode reveals the truth at the heart of it all. In the end, that is the goal and to get there, The Undoing does so with capable plotting and a cast that keeps intrigue at the forefront. It is hard to get a true read on them, a testament to their performances and something that keeps The Undoing going.