So it was Hugh Grant’s sociopathic surgeon, in his lover’s art studio, with the sculptor’s hammer all along. The finale of David E Kelley and Susanne Bier's The Undoing (Sky Atlantic/ HBO) contains a big reveal alright – but it isn’t a bombshell regarding the killer of Elena Alves (Matilda De Angelis). It’s that we have given this glossy and seemingly ingenious whodunit too much credit. In the end, it turns out the killer was the obvious suspect. Everything else has been mere distraction. For the past five weeks, the series has been skating by on smoke, mirrors and Grant’s Hollywood smirk.
It’s hard not to feel let down. And it’s not just that the wild conspiracies the internet has been cooking up fall apart as the closing credits loom. The real disappointment lies in the degree to which The Undoing shows itself to be simply a cheesy thriller.
The penny drops in earnest as Grant’s evil oncologist Jonathan Fraser, having watched wife Grace skewer him in the witness stand at his murder trial, flees with son Henry (Noah Jupe) while Grace (Nicole Kidman) pursues in a helicopter.
Suddenly all the slick trappings fall away and The Undoing stands before us in its full, glorious silliness. Even Kidman, so poised and unknowable in her green coat (sorry, THAT green coat), looks like she’s guest starring in an episode of Law and Order SVU. There isn’t even any catharsis. Jonathan thinks about jumping off a bridge, then climbs down and Henry runs to his mother. And that’s that.
If there is a twist, it isn’t to do with the identity of the killer. It’s that Grace is the one to bring down Jonathan. She does so by taking to the witness stand and “reluctantly” going public with his maniacal narcissism – as demonstrated, in particular, by his lack of empathy over the death of his four-year old sister decades earlier. His violence against Grace when he broke into her father’s upstate mansion also comes up.
It isn’t spelled out but the implication is that Grace is quietly in cahoots with prosecution lawyer Stamper (Sofie Gråbøl). We’ve already seen Grace take a walk with Sylvia (Lily Rabe) after asking her pal to do her a favour (presumably to act as a secret backchannel to Stamper).
Grace feigns unwillingness in the stand as Stamper draws the truth out of her about her husband’s true nature. But Jonathan, for one, is in little doubt that the whole thing is a set-up as Grace testifies to his monstrous ego, his lack of humanity and the fact he was perfectly willing to creep up and grab his wife by the throat. After that, it’s game over for him.
One queasy touch is that Elena Alves, the victim, is herself shown to be less than perfect. As Jonathan flees New York with the reluctant Henry (who had found the murder weapon and then ran it through a dishwasher to protect his dad), we flash back to the night of the murder. Jonathan indeed calls on his lover, and after some hilariously awkward canoodling (Grant seems in deep existential pain as he is required to fake passionate lovemaking) turns on her. She explains that she has been becoming friendly with Grace and suggests that Henry might make for a good older brother for little Miguel (whose cancer Jonathan helped cure).
For a compartmentalised psychopath, the idea of these two worlds, sordid and respectable, colliding is unthinkable. Jonathan warns Elena that he will hurt her if she continues to intrude on his family, banging her head against the wall as warning.
But then, as he is leaving, she runs up behind, attempting to biff Jonathan with the mallet – unleashing in the not-so-good doctor a murderous rage that leads him to beat her to death.
As with the helicopter chase, it’s as hokey as anything – and surely far too preposterous and “TV movie” for a prestige thriller in 2020. The Undoing had a decent run and genuinely reeled us in for a while. But in the end, it is revealed to be nothing more than an absurd little game of cat and mouse, remarkable only because it cast two great actors as the leads.