hammer time

We Have Many Questions About That The Undoing Finale

Does one place a murder weapon in the top rack or bottom rack of the dishwasher? Photo: Niko Tavernise/HBO

The last episode of the HBO miniseries and Nicole Kidman wig showcase The Undoing, “The Bloody Truth,” ended with a bang, a whimper, and the thwap, thwap, thwap sound of an incoming helicopter. But it also ended with many unanswered questions left on the table. Some of those questions are simple, plot-based questions. Some of them are more existential. Some of them are the kinds of tiny details we will be left wondering about forever, or for at least as long as it’s still velour-coat season. In this emergency debriefing, Vulture critics Jen Chaney and Kathryn VanArendonk have a chat about all the threads that, like Weezer’s sweater song, have been left undone in The Undoing.

Kathryn: First off, let’s talk about the helicopter. Because when I went to sleep last night, that’s what I was still thinking about — the deus ex helicopter that somehow let Nicole Kidman chase Hugh Grant’s SUV down a busy state highway and then land instantaneously on a small suspension bridge. My questions are numerous and come in many flavors.

At what point after your husband abducts your teenage son do you think, The best thing for me to do right now is hop in a helicopter? Why do you bring your elderly father with you? How do you get the use of a helicopter that quickly? Don’t you need to get flight-path permission to chase a Range Rover down U.S. 202? (Maybe not? But also, why is he still on 202? Shouldn’t he have cut over to I-84 at some point?) What’s the presumed endgame of the helicopter situation? Was Nicole Kidman planning to leap from the copter onto the roof of the vehicle? And then, once it became clear that there was going to be a standoff on this bridge, how did the helicopter land so fast? One second they’re pointing at the car from way up high in the sky, and literally seconds later, Nicole Kidman is sprinting across a bridge. What?!

Jen: My interpretation of the helicopter was that it belonged to Franklin, Grace’s dad, a.k.a. Donald Sutherland. I am basing this on the fact that he knew the pilot by name — Billy, for those keeping track — and that Franklin seems to have access to anything he wants. I do wonder how chasing Jonathan with a helicopter is helpful other than as a means to deposit Kidman on that bridge in the speediest way possible. I also wonder how, in the span of time it took Jonathan and Henry to get a short distance out of New York, it was possible to realize Jonathan was missing; issue an Amber Alert for Henry and organize a press conference; secure the aforementioned helicopter; and rally all those police cars onto the road. Getting all the cars to pursue him I can believe. The rest of it seems like a lot to get done in a 20-minute time span.

But as confounding as the helicopter is, I feel like we need to talk about the real mystery here: the use of a dishwasher as an evidence-washing machine. Kathryn, I know you have some important questions regarding the rack placement of the murder weapon.

Kathryn: In this last episode, long before we get to the helicopter and the elaborate shenanigans of Nicole Kidman getting herself called as a defense witness so she can dodge spousal privilege, we learn about perhaps the most confounding detail of this entire series. Twelve-year-old Henry, after finding the murder weapon in the beach house’s outdoor fireplace, decides to protect his father by running it through the dishwasher.

THE DISHWASHER! (Do a lot of 12-year-olds know how to run the dishwasher? My kids are young, so I’m not sure — do they need help adding the rinse aid?) Regardless, Henry takes the sculpting hammer that he presumes to be the murder weapon, and he runs it twice through the dishwasher. So here’s my question: Does he put it on the top rack, or the bottom rack? I immediately assumed bottom rack because it seems like a heavy hammer, and the setup would be sturdier on the bottom. But I also think the top rack is reserved for more delicate items, and frankly, I don’t think the hammer is dishwasher-safe?

Jen: I have been thinking a lot about this since you first raised the rack question, and I think it really does have to be on the bottom rack because I don’t know that the top rack could withstand that kind of weight. The Frasers obviously have the best dishwasher money can buy though, so maybe their dishwasher racks are made of titanium or something.

I want to back up to the fact that Henry found this hammer in the first place. Like, he just found it in the outdoor fireplace. He didn’t have to look that hard. Honestly, Hugh Grant deserves to be convicted, not just for murder, but for his inability to effectively hide things.

Regarding the dishwasher: I am sure some 12-year-olds know how to run it in theory, but their ability to actually do the work — to get it started, remember they have something in there, take it out, and in Henry’s case, run it a second time without his mom ever noticing — is questionable. As the mother of a 13-year-old son, I have to say I find this generally implausible; however, The Undoing established from its first episode that Henry does know how to make smoothies. So he has some understanding of how kitchen appliances work. BUT, as also established in the first episode, he never cleans up after himself, which is why I think Henry would have run the dishwasher once, gotten distracted, and then Nicole Kidman would have opened it and been like, “What the hell is this hammer doing in here, and why did you put it on the top rack when it clearly belongs on the bottom?”

What is of greater concern to me, and this is something I know concerns you as well, is that the hammer looks pretty pristine when that wood handle would probably look kinda ragged after going through a couple of rinse cycles.

Kathryn: If nothing else, the finish on that wood would be seriously damaged. And I think there’s a good chance that after two full cycles the handle would’ve swelled and split? Especially if Henry had the dishwasher set to the full dry cycle. I completely agree with you about the improbability of him being able to run it through twice with no one noticing. Maybe because Nicole Kidman was really distracted? But this speaks to another problem with the series as a whole, which is that there’s no way to tell how much time has passed. How long were they in the beach house before Hugh Grant showed up? How much time passed between the beach house and Henry being able to hide it in his violin case in Donald Sutherland’s apartment? Who knows!

The time dilation creates all sorts of problems, and not just dishwasher-related! For instance, does the show ever explain why Nicole Kidman was walking near the location of the murder at the exact instant it was happening? To my knowledge, no it doesn’t! But also it seems like the trial is taking place some time between a week and a year after that revelation comes out, so maybe all these people have forgotten about it!

I confess I got really stuck on the dishwasher and the helicopter, but there’s really so much left here to puzzle over. Was Lily Rabe’s character ever going to be something more complicated? Was this convoluted bathroom info dump really the only way to tell the prosecution about Hugh Grant’s mom?

Jen: To be clear about the dishwasher: Henry ran the hammer through the Incriminating Evidence Removal cycle on a top-of-the-line, Energy Star–approved Bosch 800 series, which is notoriously excellent at not causing wood to split or swell.

With regard to your other points: I also wondered about Kidman’s proximity to the murder. From a legal standpoint, it didn’t help the prosecution to raise it since they’re trying to focus on Jonathan. And since Haley’s working for the family, it wouldn’t have made sense for her to bring it up in court either. The only reason we need to know about it at all is because it makes us suspicious of Grace, which plays into The Undoing’s whole tricky, narrative approach. (For more on that, read this.)

One more thing that bothered me is Haley’s decision to put Miguel on the witness stand. She makes this spur-of-the-moment call even though she had intended to put Detective Mendoza on the stand, presumably to cover similar ground about the volatility of the relationship between Elena and her husband, Fernando. First, it’s a very weirdly constructed scene. As the prosecutor protests, rightly, there’s an odd cut to an exterior shot, and then back to the courtroom, where we see Fernando telling Miguel it’s okay to testify. I assume they had to edit the scene down significantly, you know, to make sure we got enough helicopter time.

I’m not a lawyer obviously, but I have covered trials as a reporter, and obviously watched a lot of them on TV and in the movies, and the timing issue you mention is a huge problem here. I have to think the prosecutor would have asked to approach the bench and objected at greater length. There might have even been a recess of some sort. It’s a huge deal to call this traumatized child to the stand without any advance notice! Honestly, I don’t think it reflects well on the defense to do it. If all Haley really wants is for Miguel to say that his parents fight, she could have gotten the same information by calling the teacher he shared that with as a witness. Putting this boy who had cancer, then found his mother’s dead body, on the spot like that was just unspeakably cruel to me.

Kathryn: Oh, 100 percent it’s horrible. Terrible! And yet I barely even remembered how uncomfortable it made me once Nicole took the stand and was like, “Oh, he’s an amazing man full of empathy … PSYCH! It’s opposite day!”

To close us out, I’m just going to throw in some links to other things that surfaced when I typed “Undoing question” into the ol’ Twitter search field. It feels like the most appropriate response to the end of this show, which at the very least did succeed in what was apparently its primary goal: getting a lot of people to watch it and then type What just happened?” into their nearest social-media machine.

We Have Many Questions About That The Undoing Finale