The small-screen adaptation of American author Jean Hanff Korelitz’s 2014 novel ‘You Should Have Known,’ HBO’s mystery thriller miniseries ‘The Undoing’ marks the second collaboration between showrunner David E. Kelly (‘Boston Legal’) and Nicole Kidman (‘The Hours’) after the highly-successful 2017 twisted thriller series ‘Big Little Lies.’ On the surface, there are certain similarities between Celeste Wright (Kidman’s character in ‘Big Little Lies’) and Grace Fraser.
However, the latter has this natural sense of mystery surrounding her that makes figuring her out that much harder. Kelly, who has made a career by creating character-driven suspenseful dramas, is in his best form here. Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier (‘Bird Box’), directing all six episodes, gave the show a certain level of continuity that stories like these deserve. SPOILERS AHEAD!
The Undoing Episode 1 Recap
After a lengthy title sequence featuring the cover of Doris Day’s ‘Dream a Little Dream of Me’ by Kidman herself, the premiere episode (also titled ‘The Undoing’) begins with a young boy frantically making his way across Harlem to what is supposed to be his mother’s studio. In a voiceover conversation between the boy and his father, it is revealed that she hadn’t been home the night before.
As we later learn, this boy is Miguel (Edan Alexander), a scholarship student at the private and exclusive Reardon School and the son of Elena Alves (Matilda De Angelis). What he finds at the studio, horrifies him. The series then shifts to two days earlier and focuses on Grace and her picture-perfect family. A relationship counselor at the heart of Manhattan, she seems to have struck gold with her practice. Her patients, despite their obvious affluence, often complain about how exorbitantly high her fee is.
Grace’s loving husband, Jonathan (Hugh Grant), is a pediatric oncologist. Their son, the young violinist Henry (Noah Jupe), attends the same school as Miguel, although they are not in the same grade. Apart from serving the affluent New York crowd, Grace and Jonathan are very much part of the cream of the crop, especially Grace, through her uber-rich father, Franklin Reinhardt (Donald Sutherland).
The episode establishes that Grace, like any other mother, is an exceptional multitasker. She juggles her practice with her responsibilities toward her family, which includes serving as a member of a fundraising committee at Reardon. The committee, comprised exclusively of white and rich women like Grace, doesn’t know how to deal with its latest member, Elena, a Hispanic and working-class artist.
The Undoing Episode 1 Ending
From the moment she is introduced in the show, Elena appears to be troubled and confrontational. We don’t yet know why she volunteers to help the fundraiser and join the committee. Still, as fellow committee member Sylvia (Lily Rabe) correctly points out, Elena seems downright “hostile” toward other women there in how nonchalantly she exposes her breast to feed her child.
This can be regarded simply as a reaction to the vulgarity of the women themselves who flaunt their wealth with equal audaciousness. What’s odd about Elena’s behavior is how familiar she acts around Grace. At the gym, she appears fully nude in front of the older woman and asks a clearly uncomfortable Grace if she has done anything wrong. There is a strange vulnerability in her voice that gets accentuated multifold by the nudity.
However, there is a level of mockery in these actions as well, as if Elena is taunting Grace with her youthful beauty. During the fundraiser, there is an intimate scene that starts with Grace running into a crying Elena and ends with a kiss. It is clear that while Grace doesn’t know much about Elena, the latter is aware of a deeper connection between them, leading to their volatile interactions.
A Murder in Harlem
Jonathan’s stay at the fundraiser is cut short when he apparently receives a message about one of his patients. Returning home late in the night, he joins Grace in bed, and they have sex. It is implied that he is greatly distressed, which Grace thinks is caused by the death of his young patient. Throughout the entire exchange, the camera focuses on Grace’s face, while Jonathan’s remains largely in the shadows.
The following morning, he is gone, apparently to his scheduled convention in Cleveland. After the fundraiser, the series circles back to where it began, Miguel’s conversation with his father, him leaving their house, and discovering that his mother has been violently murdered. Grace and other parents receive an alert from the school about the incident. She tries to unsuccessfully call Jonathan, but all her messages go straight to voice mail.
Detectives Joe Mendoza (Édgar Ramírez) and Paul O’Rourke (Michael Devine) arrive to investigate the crime. They question Reardon’s other students and their parents before taking Miguel to the precinct. It’s an unsettling scene that shows a child – who just discovered his mother’s body – is taken to a police station for questioning. The detectives later visit Grace at her home. Of course, she assumes the worst.
After assuring Grace that they are not there because something happened to Henry, the detectives start asking her about the nature of her acquaintance with Elena. Grace withholds the recent interactions that she had with the dead woman (Elena), but the detectives can tell that she is uncomfortable. Before leaving, Mendoza gives her his card for future correspondence, with suspicion in his eyes.
A Missing Husband
Grant (‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’) is at his charming and sardonic best as the husband who appears to be perfect at first glance. Although his son describes him as “joyless” and “stressed,” Jonathan seems like a family man through and through. Considering what his job is, those traits are very much understandable. Throughout the episode, Grace responds with a mild exasperation to his constant ridiculing of their social circuit, despite having become disillusioned with it herself.
The ceaseless showing-off of their wealth climaxes in the fundraiser, which seems like a twisted form of self-gratification through which these people feel good about themselves. Following Elena’s murder, Grace unsuccessfully tries to call Jonathon multiple times. She eventually starts panicking when she discovers he has left his phone at home. She goes through the list of every prominent hotel in Cleveland, calling each of them, but Jonathan cannot be found anywhere.
One time, she does find a Jonathon Fraser, and when the reception forwards her call to the room, she hears a woman’s voice. Kidman brilliantly portrays that brief moment when Grace feels that Jonathan is cheating on her. However, it turns out to be a different Jonathan, which both relieves and disturbs her. The episode ends with a back-to-back shot of Grace alone in her room and that of Elena’s bloodied body.
At about halfway into the episode, Sylvia quickly deduces that Elena’s husband is the one who killed his wife. “It’s always the f***ing husband,” she exclaims. She is likely looking at the wrong husband. The show indicates, not overtly, of course, that there is a connection between Jonathan and Elena, which will probably be explored in the following episodes.
Read More: Is The Undoing a True Story?