‘The Undoing’ Was a Mystery Without a Mystery

Published on November 30, 2020

The Undoing is HBO’s latest prestige mystery. Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant kept the mystery engaging, even if the mystery wasn’t much of a mystery at all. That was kind of the point, but it didn’t always make for the most exciting television. The Undoing often delivered the unexpected throughout its six episodes, but in the end, writer David E. Kelly and director Susanne Bier delivered nothing but the expected. The Undoing ending is routine, in a good and bad way.

Spoilers Ahead

The Undoing mystery begins with the death of a mother, a wife, and an artist, Elena Alves (Matilda De Angelis). The main suspect is a smiley and charming doctor, Jonathan Fraser (Grant). At a party, he’s a delight with his English wit and compassion. People love him, including his wife, Grace Fraser (Kidman). She doesn’t want to believe he did it, probably making the audience not want to believe the obvious either.

Everyone in the Fraser family becomes suspicious at some point. Grace, Jonathan, and their son all become involved in red herrings, but nobody is more suspicious and likely guilty than Jonathan. The show did, however, set up another character as the potential suspect, Sylvia Steineitz (Lily Rabe), but that went nowhere. Early on in the show, Jonathan said he had one other affair that didn’t matter, and Sylvia represented him in a legal matter without telling her friend, Grace. She was a red herring that, in the end, was strangely inconsequential. Sylvia ended up on the sidelines feeling more like a low-key “what if?” than a pivotal piece of the puzzle.

No surprise here: Jonathan did kill Elena Alves. He’s a sociopath. All roads were leading in that direction. In the final minutes, Jonathan kidnaps his son, hits the road, and shows the monster inside him to his son. With Hugh Grant’s movie star smile, it’s extremely chilling. Grant was perfect for the role, using his charm as a weapon to misdirect his family members without ever quite fooling us. He wasn’t fooling viewers, but he fooled who mattered most — the people around him.

There was no way The Undoing, based on its depiction of characters, gender, and conflicts, was going to have anyone but Jonathan as the killer. The writing was on the wall long before the end, and that was kind of the point of the show — what we want to see, not what’s really there — but it takes until the last 10 minutes or so for the story to finally acknowledge what we already knew. We knew the inevitable, but most of the characters did not. There’s good drama in that idea of perception, but a mystery without a mystery has its narrative frustrations.

The Undoing is routine HBO stuff, so no surprise, the ending is routine as well. It’s a comfort food drama with a prestige television aesthetic. The Undoing doesn’t stray too far from the formula, but in the end, it would’ve been refreshing if it took a turn down a different road and actually shocked audiences. In staying realistic, of course Jonathan is the murderer, but as a piece of six-episode fictional storytelling, it’s sometimes underwhelming to watch the inevitable playout.

Then again, if The Undoing actually surprised us and was more Presumed Innocent, we wouldn’t have gotten the finest pieces of acting in Grant’s career. Grant is terrifying in the series, especially when he’s behind the wheel of his Range Rover running from the cops. The actor was famous for his charming smile in rom-coms back in the ‘90s, but now he uses that baggage that’s followed him throughout his career as one of his greatest assets and weapons. Grant is a very likable on-screen presence, which is why he couldn’t have been more right for the role of Jonathan. The devil smiles. 

Grant delivers the bang at the end of the show with his performance, while the showrunners deliver the whimper. The ending is both entertaining and underwhelming, lacking a grander oomph. Nonetheless, a good show is a good show, even if the messy drama got tied up with a bow and the answers weren’t as compelling as the once burning questions. 

The Undoing is now available to stream on HBO and HBO Max.

Jack Giroux is a Staff Writer at Grit Daily. Based in Los Angeles, he is an entertainment journalist who's previously written for Thrillist, Slash Film, Film School Rejects, and The Film Stage.

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