Warning: spoilers ahead.
Amidst everything else going on in the country these days, elite America remains obsessed with wealthy white people. Seizing on the continued clamor for all things rich and white, “The Undoing” on HBO Max digs deep into the intricacies of that world.
Nicole Kidman plays Grace Fraser opposite Hugh Grant, who portrays her husband Jonathan. The two are professionals: She a psychiatrist, and he a pediatric oncologist. Together, they’ve amassed a fortune in assets and status.
They are, as Grant says in an interview about the show, a “Happy, privileged, loving family.” But as with all happy, privileged, loving families that are the subject of a six-part series, it all comes, well, undone.
The story centers on the Fraser family of three. They have few other close relations aside from Grace’s father, played pitch-perfectly by Donald Sutherland. Their 12-year-old son Henry (Noah Jupe) is enrolled at Reardon, a small, elite New York prep school, and much of the family’s social life revolves around that.
Elite prep schools are a world of their own, and at Reardon, the moms are all stunned and even a little confused when Elena Alvez (Matilda De Angelis), the mother of scholarship student Miguel, joins their ranks and attempts to become part of their tea and gala planning committee. To Grace and her high-class friends, Elena is earthy, too grounded in her body, too much of a mother to fit in with their high-stakes world of professional parenting.
At a “ladies tea,” Elena goes so far as to take down her shirt to breastfeed her baby, and the other mothers can hardly keep their eyes off her, filled with a mix of revulsion and awe. Elena is beautiful — as, frankly, are all the mothers — but she is foreign in their world. She’s an artist, an unabashed mother, and a comparatively much younger woman.
As comfortable as they are raising money for scholarship students to attend Reardon, they are not at ease when the mother of one such scholarship student attempts to involve herself in their activities. They make excuses for their discomfort, but the reality is that they are not at ease around a woman who would prioritize the needs of her body over less sensational experiences.
When her son Miguel finds Elena bludgeoned to death in her art studio, the Frasers’ carefully constructed world — as well as the upper-class constraints of the world itself — begins to tear apart at the seams.
At first, the investigation into her death seems far removed from Reardon. It’s an odd, unseemly blip on the veneer of perfection at the school. As the investigation unfolds, however, it creeps closer and closer into the well-preserved world of the wealthy, privileged, white people who hold themselves in such high regard.
What is the obsession with these wealthy, privileged people? Politically, they are derided. The left demands that they cough over larger and larger portions of their income to fund government programs, while the right derides their influence in both public and private life. They appear to be cushioned from the harsh realities that face the rest of us, and no matter what their difficulties, they seem to have money to shield them.
So, when their world crumbles to bits, the truth is that we’re more than happy to watch.
The main suspects are, of course, the men in Elena’s life. Could it be her husband? Could it be her lover? Without giving it all away, what we see is that with one step through the doors of desire, a man ruins not only his own life but the lives of everyone he loves.
“The Undoing” is about what happens when everything goes south in your life and there’s nothing you can do to fix it. Even for the Frasers, we see that neither their money, status, nor charm can protect them. Sometimes, when things spiral out of our control, there’s just too little that can be done.
Yet there is a difference in “The Undoing’s” particular tangled web of wealthy intrigue, found in the conscience of its heroine. Kidman’s Grace Fraser knows she can use her money and influence to change the story, flip the script, and possibly protect the people she loves. What she has to decide, however, is who to use those resources to shield. Ultimately, will she save herself? Her husband? Her son? Her status?
In confronting her options, each more life-shattering than the last, she finally lands on the one choice that is so rarely tried in our modern world: the truth. This isn’t what anyone in her world expects.
As viewers race with the police and Grace to figure out the truth, “The Undoing” crafts a compelling mystery, engrossing enough for active viewing. Plot twists are technically perfect. Twists, turns, and “red herrings” are incredibly effective. Much like in Agatha Christie’s “Poirot” stories, the rug is carefully laid and then swiftly pulled out, leaving us little chance of being able to truly tell which way is up, who to trust, or who to suspect.
At points in the series, you think everyone did it. Just as in actual reality, there are enough moving, intriguing pieces to keep you guessing. When it finally turns out it’s who you thought it was all along, it’s such a relief to realize your perception wasn’t skewed the whole time. Then you realize that, unlike life, it’s merely an intense, high-drama murder mystery thriller, and life is just never that simple.