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The Undoing’s Fall From Grace

“The Bloody Truth” attempts to put viewers in the shoes of the inscrutable Grace Fraser (Nicole Kidman), but it’s too little, too late. Photo: Niko Tavernise/HBO

After watching the final episode of The Undoing, I finally realized what The Undoing was: one extended red herring disguised as a limited series.

For most of the six episodes, up until the final-act flashback to the night of Elena Alves’s murder, the show repeatedly suggested that someone other than Jonathan Fraser (Hugh Grant) could have been responsible for killing Elena (Matilda De Angelis). Given all the Hitchcockian close-ups on the panicked eyes of Grace Fraser (Nicole Kidman) and the gaps in both her memory and her knowledge of her husband’s whereabouts in previous episodes, it seemed very likely that Grace could be revealed as the real killer. But no: It was Jonathan all along.

Jonathan, the adulterer to whom all of the available evidence and basic logic pointed. Jonathan, the guy who was described by his own mother as having zero empathy or remorse. Jonathan, the same dude who did it in the book on which this series was based! It was so obvious and therefore so misleading. It seemed too boring to believe that he would actually wind up being the bad guy — especially in a drama that ended each episode with a reveal that invited the audience to rearrange their brain cells around yet another new theory.

What The Undoing was, ahem, doing all along was distracting us from the blatant truth. It turned us, the viewers, into the equivalent of Grace, the protagonist in the story who spent years batting away potential red flags about her spouse and refusing to see what was right in front of her. The whole series made us victims of confirmation bias — the tendency, as defined by Grace on the witness stand, to see things according to your own preconceived notions. We assumed that any series with this many twists would do something unexpected in the finale. But its version of the unexpected involved the most expected thing: confirming that the patently guilty party was the actually guilty party.

While there is a measure of cleverness in the concept of making us feel like Grace, that ending didn’t make for particularly satisfying television. No one likes to feel that they have been duped or that they wasted their time, even if eliciting that feeling serves a broader storytelling point, and that’s basically what this series did. Once The Undoing moved entirely into courtroom-drama territory, it started to lose some steam. Sunday’s episode, “The Bloody Truth,” was an hour during which any remaining heat quickly turned to vapor.

So many details in the finale defied belief. Henry (Noah Jupe), the son of Grace and Jonathan who desperately wants things to return to normal, not only kept the murder weapon in a violin case, as revealed at the end of the previous episode, but ran it through the dishwasher — twice — to remove all traces of DNA from it? Haley (Noma Dumezweni), the defense attorney, decides in the moment to put Miguel (Edan Alexander), Elena’s cancer-survivor son, on the witness stand without giving the boy or his father any advance warning? Grace and her father, played by Donald Sutherland and his deliberately unruly pair of eyebrows, hop in a helicopter to pursue an on-the-lam Jonathan, which seems like something thing that law enforcement would, I don’t know, discourage? Details can elevate a show in a familiar genre — like a murder mystery or courtroom drama — from the usual into something exceptional. But details in this finale were treated as inconveniences that had to be bypassed in order for the series to reach its conclusion.

That conclusion turned The Undoing into a version of a revenge fantasy. It was Grace’s testimony that seemed to guarantee a conviction for Jonathan, and that was entirely Grace’s plan, one she concocted with the help of her best friend, Sylvia (Lily Rabe). There is no way the prosecutor, an old friend of Sylvia’s, could have known all those details about Grace’s private conversations with Jonathan’s mother or with Sylvia if she had not been fed the information. Put another way: A trio of white women conspired to give a terrible white man his comeuppance. That’s not so different from the way things turned out in season one of Big Little Lies, except that in that finale, the reveal of Perry’s fate was a true reveal and it made the audience feel something. The Undoing doesn’t really leave us with feelings of any kind, and that’s because of the show’s Grace problem.

It has always been impossible to get a read on Grace because her behavior has been so erratic, something Roxana Hadadi pointed out more than once in her Vulture recaps of The Undoing. At first, it seemed like series creator and writer David E. Kelley had purposefully made her inscrutable because it was serving some larger purpose (i.e. that Grace had actually killed Elena or was hiding some other crucial piece of knowledge about what happened). But that wasn’t the case. Her inability to make up her mind and be forthright was just a character flaw, and a flaw in The Undoing.

The whole sequence with Grace on the stand, in which she starts out as the dutiful wife saying nice things about Jonathan — before doing a full U-turn and admitting that she thinks he’s a narcissist incapable of empathy — is emblematic of the show’s Grace problem. She’s of two completely different, wholly unconnected minds during her testimony, which (a) makes her a bad witness — I would have no idea, as a juror, what to make of her testimony — and (b) doesn’t help us to identify with her, which is what The Undoing very much wants us to do. By the end of the episode, Grace has saved her son from her husband and, thanks largely to her comments in court, caused Jonathan to end up in handcuffs. We should feel relieved and happy for her, but we don’t feel anything … precisely because of the whole red herring conceit. By keeping its audience in the dark about whether Jonathan did it, The Undoing may have been trying to make us feel like Grace, but that also made it impossible to like her. The show’s need to generate mystery suggested that Grace, among others, was still a potential suspect. You can’t empathize with someone toward whom you also feel suspicion, a lesson Grace learns in her marriage.

In the end, Grace’s role in The Undoing proves two things — first, that it’s possible to be so comfortable in life that you don’t even recognize how messed up that life is; second, that the establishment always wins. Jonathan was a privileged white man — you surely noticed how calmly police took him into custody even though he was a murderer attempting to flee prosecution — but in the end, he didn’t have what Grace, a wealthy white woman, did: a rich father and an equally rich best friend with connections. Jonathan was, to borrow a phrase used by Hugh Grant in the movie About a Boy, an island, but Grace came with a well-to-do army.

The Undoing’s Fall From Grace