If nothing else, HBO’s new limited series The Undoing fits right in the network’s sweet spot. The show hails from David E. Kelley, the creator of Big Little Lies, in which Nicole Kidman plays yet another wealthy woman caught up in a scandalous murder mystery. Though HBO is in danger of drinking from this dramatic well one too many times, there’s no question that The Undoing is a worthy entry in the network’s never-ending carousel of prestige limited series.
Directed by Emmy winner Susanne Bier (The Night Manager) and shot by Oscar-winning cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (Slumdog Millionaire), the eight-episode series is based on the book You Should Have Known by Jean Hanff Korelitz. Kidman plays Grace Fraser, a therapist who’s busy living the dream with her dashing pediatric oncologist husband Jonathan (Hugh Grant) and their whip-smart son Henry (Noah Jupe), who practices the violin each day after attending an elite private school that costs $50,000 a year. Everything in Grace’s life is immaculate, from her fashionable wardrobe to the stylish yet tasteful wallpaper in her gorgeous NYC home.
Yes, Grace is living this dream life… but that’s all it is — a dream. And the thing about dreams is, eventually, they end and you wake up. I mean, a bubble literally bursts at the end of the credits for The Undoing, so this show doesn’t exactly lack for subtlety, which is one of its few drawbacks.
Anyway, Grace’s life starts to become “undone” when Elena (Matilda De Angelis doing her best Ana de Armas), a beautiful fellow parent at Henry’s school, is found brutally murdered, her head practically liquefied. It’s a shocking crime, one that Grace would love to discuss with Jonathan… if only he were home. But he’s on a business trip. At least she can call him, right? But he forgot his phone. Hmmm… that’s strange. It seems like Grace has been advising people and couples on their relationships for years, but doesn’t seem to have a firm grasp on her own.
You can see where this is headed. The question is, is your hunch right, or is it just a bit too easy?
Before Elena meets her grisly demise, she’s shown cozying up to Grace, as if strangely drawn to her for some reason. In one sure-to-be-discussed scene set inside a locker room, Elena approaches Grace completely naked and stands over her as if to assert her dominance. The nudity from Italian newcomer De Angelis is rather startling for both Grace and the audience given just how brazen it is, but it also serves a larger purpose — to show us how uncomfortable Elena makes Grace. The camera leers at her, as we’re intended to, but coming from Bier, the scene feels empowering rather than exploitive. It’s the sort of sexually-charged moment that will have people talking, even if it’s for the wrong reasons, and I suppose a show can’t ask for much more than that these days.
As usual, Kidman delivers a rock-solid performance as Grace, and Bier’s extreme close-ups of her eyes — suspicious and red with worry — help communicate the character’s general confusion, as Grace seems to pinball back and forth between what she believes, and what she wants to believe. The character is a frustrating cipher in that way, given that her opinion seems to change each episode. When Grace is asked at one point what she’s thinking, she replies, “don’t ask that,” and for a moment I felt as though I was watching a Christopher Nolan film where the answer didn’t matter all that much anyway, because the truth is that even she doesn’t know.
As good as Kidman is at playing the humiliating discovery that she doesn’t know her husband as well as she thought she did, Grant is even better as her other half, and they make a completely believable couple together. Grant’s casting as a charming cad is absolutely perfect, and his eyes are always begging — for sex, for understanding, for forgiveness, and so on. There’s a moment at the end of Episode 4 where you can practically hear Jonathan breaking Grace’s heart all over again, and both actors shine in that moment.
The supporting cast is also strong, especially Donald Sutherland as Franklin, Grace’s old-money father, and the veteran actor dazzles in one particular scene in which he threatens Henry’s schoolmaster, warning the poor administrator that he’s messing with the wrong family. Sutherland’s eyebrows deserve an Emmy for their performance, helping the veteran actor to convey Franklin’s power as well as his sense of entitlement.
Edgar Ramirez and Michael Devine play the detectives assigned to Elena’s case, but since Ramirez is a movie star, he’s the one who does most of the talking with Grace, giving his partner a little nod as if to say, “clear out, this is my scene.” Elsewhere, Lily Rabe co-stars as Grace’s friend who just so happens to be a lawyer, while Noma Dumezweni makes her presence felt as Jonathan’s high-priced defense attorney. Her strategy is to create reasonable doubt by positing that Elena’s husband, Fernando (Ismael Cruz Cordova) had motive to kill his own wife.
Like a good book you’re always one step ahead of, The Undoing is both addictive and a tad predictable. The first episode is intriguing but slow, as there’s a lot of build-up early on, but subsequent episodes pick up the pace and The Undoing quickly becomes a page-turner of a series. After tearing through the other four episodes sent to critics, I’m eager to see more, because even though it’s not quite as perfect as HBO’s The Night Of, The Undoing is effective in its own right, and represents a good mixture of Kelley and Bier’s respective skillsets.
This is an entertaining story that’s well-performed by an impressive cast, so here’s hoping the final episodes show me something I haven’t seen before, because I’m starting to worry that the story is venturing awfully close to another recent series about a family torn apart by a high-profile crime. Given its strong start, it’d be a shame if The Undoing comes undone at the end and fails to stick its landing, but I’ll be sticking with it through to the end, if only to see whether Grace and Jonathan’s marriage survives.
The Undoing premieres October 25 on HBO.