I Was Undone by HBO’s The Undoing

“Underneath this wonderful family, there is a ticking time bomb.”–director Susanne Bier.

I’ve been obsessed. I’ve watched and  rewatched episodes of The Undoing so many times, I’ve lost count.  I’ve been bewitched by its talented, smartly cast team of actors. I’ve been gripped by its riveting teleplay and its twisty direction.  I’ve been captivated by its clever use of music, sound and the seasonal streets, greenscape and skyline of Manhattan to set the mood and presage upcoming narrative.

There should be no surprise that The Undoing’s transition from Jean Hanff Korelitz’s novel, You Should Have Known, to a six-part limited HBO series, had all the earmarks of success coming out of the gate. Created and written by Emmy® Award-winner David E. Kelley; starring and Executive Produced by Nicole Kidman; and directed in its entirety by Emmy®, Golden Globe and Academy Award®-winning director Susanne Bier, The Undoing has more than a little in common with such recent outstanding HBO limited series as Big Little Lies (Kidman, Kelley, Bier) and Sharp Objects. All three series explore the lives of privileged couples and their families whose dysfunction, once hidden from public view, is outed by particularly gruesome murders.

A marriage unravels with tragic consequences in THE UNDOING. From left: Hugh Grant, Noma Dumezweni and Nicole Kidman. Photo courtesy HBO.

The Undoing introduces us to a handsome, seemingly happily married professional couple–Grace (Nicole Kidman) and Jonathan Fraser (Hugh Grant).  The couple’s micro-managed lives revolve around their precocious 12-year-old son, Henry (Noah Jupe); their commitments to their patients (he’s a pediatric oncologist; she’s a clinical psychologist); and the responsibilities demanded of all wealthy patrons of Henry’s exclusive private school.

Another key member of this picture perfect family is Grace’s dad, retired financier Franklin Reinhardt (Donald Sutherland). Franklin lives in an art and music-filled Manhattan apartment on “millionaire-row” with a maid and driver at his beck and call. Despite his air of patrician detachment, Franklin dotes on his daughter and grandson and will do anything…anything… to ensure their happiness.

But all is not well in paradise, as is evidenced quickly in the first episode, when a shocking incident upends everything the Fraser marriage and family seems to represent and hold dear. The ramifications of a life built on lies immediately takes a toll on Grace, who has dedicated two decades of her life to healing her patients’ marriages and families. When she is forced to turn her attention inward and face chilling truths about her own husband and marriage, the Fraser family’s house of cards comes tumbling down and the collateral damage is swift and deadly.

Retired financier Franklin Reinhardt (Donald Sutherland) will do whatever it takes to protect his grandson, Henry Fraser (Noah Jupe), in THE UNDOING. Photo: David Giesbrecht for HBO.

This is Award-worthy stuff, most especially the brilliant performances by Hugh Grant (still a charming master of the bon mot, but frayed around the edges and dangerously, emotionally shredded); Donald Sutherland (he has never looked or acted so imposing and powerful; his flowing white mane of hair, formidable eyebrows and patrician profile belong on Mt. Rushmore); and Nicole Kidman and young Noah Jupe (their bond, as mother and son, is the engine that powers this drama from the outset).  The small supporting cast is equally outstanding, most especially Noma Dumezweni as defense attorney Haley Fitzgerald and Ismael Cruz Córdova as Fernando Alves.

As with games of chess (a pastime shared by Grace and her dad), every move plotted by David E. Kelley’s teleplay and orchestrated by Susanne Bier’s direction begets a series of unexpected counter moves that are impossible to ignore. All of these elements and mighty talents fanned my fascination with The Undoing from the outset, and sparked my resolve to identify the psychopath in sheep’s clothing who drove the Fraser family’s privileged, seemingly idyllic life to the brink of hell.

Psychotherapist Grace Fraser (Nicole Kidman) walks the streets of Manhattan at all hours of the day and night to clear her head in THE UNDOING. Photo: Niko Tavernise for HBO.

The full season (Episodes 1-6) of The Undoing is available on HBO On Demand and streaming via HBO Max. The series debuted on HBO on Sunday, October 25, 2020. The final episode premiered tonight, Sunday, November 29, 2020, with many repeat screenings on HBO throughout the weeks ahead.–Judith Trojan

About Judith Trojan

Judith Trojan is an Award-winning journalist who has written and edited more than 1,000 film and TV reviews and celebrity profiles.
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11 Responses to I Was Undone by HBO’s The Undoing

  1. Joan Kagan Feinberg says:

    Hi Judy — Enjoyed both the show and your critique. Put me down as a “regular,” Happy healthy new year..

    Liked by 1 person

  2. angeljoann says:

    Love your review of this!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. angeljoann says:

    This show was such as shocker, I loved it so much. You can read my review of the series on my blog here: https://misspresident.home.blog/2020/12/30/the-undoing-series-review/

    Like

  4. Doris H says:

    Yes Judy, I too was surprised by your impassioned enthusiasm for The Undoing. Yet, it was this very thing that motivated me to read your review. I was hooked also. Outside of “Sharp Objects” and “Big Little Lies”, (first season), It’s been a long time since I could not make a good guess at the “whodunit” before a last episode. One thing that almost made me think I wouldn’t watch the entire series, was the role of Matilda De Angelis as the murdered lover—very awkward and very strange way she tried connecting to the Nicole Kidman character, it seemed so unbelievable.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Judith Trojan says:

      Wonderful to have your input, Doris! I share your feelings about the Elena character. She was very unsettling from the outset. See below, in my response to Ted’s critique, how I made sense of the character and made peace with her oddball behavior.

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  5. Ted Hicks says:

    Your review of “The Undoing” is very well written (as usual), but I was surprised at your impassioned enthusiasm for the show. I was hooked with the first episode, but began having increasing doubts as the mini-series progressed. I felt that it went off the rails entirely with the third episode and never recovered. I didn’t believe a minute of it, most especially in the courtroom scenes. We were committed to watching it to the end, but I was really glad to be done with it after the final episode last night. That said, I agree that the production values were excellent, as were the performances. Speaking of which, when you were singling out actors, there were several I was surprised you didn’t mention. Edgar Ramirez, though wasted in the role of the police detective, has had an impressive career, including his role as Gianni Versace in “American Crime Story.” I was also surprised you didn’t mention Lily Rabe as Grace’s friend Sylvia, and most importantly Matilda De Angelis as Elena Alves, arguably the character on which everything turns. But I loved Donald Sutherland’s performance and his character, which seemed the most rational and reasonable of them all. “The Undoing” was all the more disappointing to me because of the talent involved. Susanne Bier has done great work, having directed the recent mini-series “The Night Manager,” as well as a number of excellent films in her native Denmark. David E. Kelley’s track record is amazing, having been the writer and creator of “Big Little Lies,” “Ally McBeal,” “The Practice,” and many more. I don’t think “The Undoing” compares well to something like “Big Little Lies,” which had greater depth and a wider scope. Okay, you get the idea, I didn’t like it. We saw two different shows. It’s like a film teacher was told me in regard to different reactions to the same thing, “Sometimes you get on the ride, and sometimes you don’t.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Judith Trojan says:

      It was great to hear your reflections on THE UNDOING especially since, I have to be honest, I was shocked hear that you disliked it. You seem to have missed the whole point of the series. Yes, it was a gripping murder mystery that may not have delved deeply or with perfect exactitude into proper police procedurals. But at its core, it was much more than that…it was the story about “the undoing” of a seemingly singular marriage…the couple’s relationship with each other and their son based on secrets, lies and expectations that had no basis in reality…hence the broad appeal of the series. I didn’t single out the actors you mention above for good reason. Those roles could have been played just as well by any number of actors. I believe that Elena herself was a red herring. She is essentially and correctly only a cipher in this series. Her motivation, odd behavior (sitting across the street from the school yard all day staring at the school), her strained and volatile relationship with her husband and her own probable mental illness (post partum depression was my guess initially, but it was obviously much more than that) were only hinted at. If Kelley had delved into her background and answered all of her unanswered questions, it would have diverted attention from the true theme of this piece. To me, Elena was strictly a red herring whose actions exposed the cracks in Grace’s deeply flawed perception of her husband and marriage. And Elena was also a trigger for Jonathan to show his true colors; and his pathology was the engine that drove this story. I also believe that the Police Lieutenant and Grace’s friend Sylvia (I did like Lily Rabe) were also ciphers, i.e., red herrings that were used to inject a sense of menace and doubt and throw us off track. Well acted, yes, but I thought that the performances that I did single out in my review were the ones that will warrant a nod when Awards season rolls around. They are the key players. As I also mentioned, this series has a lot in common with BIG LITTLE LIES and SHARP OBJECTS (the essence of those series…obviously, the scale of the latter two was larger and there were many more characters to orchestrate). Aside from the horrific murders that drive all the action, all three series are about the lies we tell others and ourselves about ourselves and our loved ones, especially our spouses, partners and children. I think Susanne Bier did a brilliant job with Kelley’s twisty teleplay. The many moods of Manhattan were used to great effect. And, for example, the sequence orchestrated around Grace and Jonathan’s last sexual encounter (their “swan song” if you will) framed by Franklin’s piano (check out the piece he plays!) took my breath away the first time I saw it. I think THE UNDOING stands comfortably with Kelley and Bier’s best work.

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  6. DonnaBordo says:

    Judy-enjoyed The Undoing-especially the performance by Hugh Grant. Thanks for your critique.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. David Reich says:

    The final episode took some crazy twists that had me thinking at different times that three different people could have been the killer. Great program.

    Liked by 1 person

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