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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Undoing begins to muddy the waters of who might have committed a crime

Illustration for article titled iThe Undoing/i begins to muddy the waters of who might have committed a crime
Photo: Niko Tavernise/HBO
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As evidence continues to mount against Jonathan in Elena’s murder, The Undoing takes some time to ask the important question: Just how much of an asshole was this guy? For that particular crime, the evidence is pretty overwhelming. He was a narcissist at work, and a neglectful, cheating husband. He went into a specific field of medicine most people would consider heroic, and then he took advantage of people’s affection for him.

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It’s all quite a lot, but it’s hard to extrapolate from what we’re given that being arrogant and emotionally manipulative would be enough to make him a murderer. And that’s the question Grace struggles to answer throughout the episode. After her initial shock about what he’s accused of leads her to believe he’s guilty, she takes a slow but steady journey towards believing he didn’t do it. She hires a fancy lawyer for him, and begins to push back against the people around her who don’t believe him. In the process, of course, she starts to behave in ways that make her a lot less sympathetic. Threatening the grieving husband of the woman she can’t know for sure her husband didn’t kill is one of the early signs that Grace is willing to go to some nasty lengths to prove Jonathan’s innocence. And trying to throw the police at him despite their ongoing hostility to her is a bold if rather ineffective move. What leads her to believe they’d be inclined to take her side? They’ve already cleared him.

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The episode also abruptly remembers that Grace is a therapist, but her insights are heavy-handed at best. What therapist would say “Crazy people do crazy things,” especially one as polished as her? It’s a gross comment, but it’s also incredibly simplistic. Wouldn’t someone like Grace have some more elegant way of suggesting Elena might have done some unsettling things if she was unwell? She’s oddly disinclined to look for specifics in the narrative Jonathan presents, even after his former colleague lays out in no uncertain terms that Jonathan cultivated unhealthy relationships with the families of his patients. It’s an unexpectedly sharp swing away from the beginning of the episode, where she summons the police (by helicopter? Sorry, taxpayers) to arrest him, and tells them he threatened her. But it also comes after she meets with Jonathan where he’s incarcerated, and he gives her the full force of his denial. Grace has so far been a bit of a cipher on the show—we spend an awful lot of time in her company, but she’s so often reactive. Is she the type of wife, and specifically the type of wealthy, white, privileged wife, who would be this quick to disregard ample evidence that her husband is a truly reprehensible person?

Illustration for article titled iThe Undoing/i begins to muddy the waters of who might have committed a crime
Photo: Niko Tavernise/HBO
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It’s a narrow line the show is currently treading, especially since we haven’t yet been offered any signs that Jonathan may be innocent, and so our perspective on Grace’s change of heart is that she simply decides to believe him despite abundant evidence from other people that he was hiding a dark side.

We also get glimpses of Jonathan’s life behind bars. The show feints at sympathy for incarcerated people—Grace and Henry are clearly experiencing empathy for the other families in the visitation room—but the only other person we spend time with is a stereotype of nasty prison behavior. The brevity of the scenes also makes it hard to tell what it is that suddenly pushes Jonathan to violence. We’ve seen that he can be physically forceful, which Grace recounts immediately to the police. The prison fight suggests that he can be viciously violent when he wants to be, but without a more in depth look at what’s happening to him there, it’s unclear whether we’re supposed to think he’s really been pushed that far, or if this is who he is in some meaningful way. It does seem quite notable that the point where he bites the other prisoner’s finger is not a moment where he’s actually in danger. He may be in the midst of a fight, but he’s not cornered alone somewhere, and the guards have already started to break up the fight. Did he intentionally choose a moment where he could hurt the man without getting further injured himself?

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Illustration for article titled iThe Undoing/i begins to muddy the waters of who might have committed a crime
Photo: Niko Tavernise/HBO

The short, opaque prison sequences are representative of the episode as a whole. After an episode where we spent all of our time with Grace, we’re given one where we hopscotch around so frequently that it’s somewhat hard to predict when scenes are going to end. While it’s occasionally confusing, it can also be quite effective. The collection of scenes where Fernando can be seen near Grace pushing a pink stroller without ever actually speaking to her all end without a confrontation we know must be coming, so that when it finally does happen, we’re primed to think something frightening will take place. But it turns out the most frightening person in that scene is Grace, who turns around his accusation that her husband has abused his position by suggesting that there’s something evenly remotely equitable in a traumatized mother having an affair with the man who saved her son’s life. It’s one of a couple of moments sprinkled throughout the episode that lead the viewer to be a little bit more ready to believe Grace may have been up to something nefarious when the police reveal she was filmed near Elena’s studio. Just how well do we know our unreliable narrator?

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Stray observations

  • I kept thinking the theme song sounded like Nicole Kidman singing and I finally looked it up and it is! I had started to wonder if we would eventually get a scene of her portentously performing the song at karaoke or something.
  • OK, what was the $500,000 for? That’s the other nugget we get that seems likely to be revisited down the line.
  • So much of the time on this show, it’s hard for me to tell if I’m actually supposed to experience empathy for its characters. Jonathan expresses regret, kind of, but I’m also not sure if he ever uses the word “sorry.” And the sentiment “wanting to help overwhelmed me” is one of the seedier things he offers. It’s a particularly arrogant and self-aggrandizing way to excuse his affair.
  • Still not sure where they’re going with Donald Sutherland’s character but it sure was racist when he called Detective Mendoza “dear boy.”
  • Apropos of nothing, I can’t remember if I’d ever seen Hugh Grant in short sleeves before this.
  • Occasionally I find the directing of this show a little heavy-handed, but mostly I enjoy how conscious I am of the choices they make—who’s in frame, what colors are visible, how close we are to them, etc. The colors of Grace’s hair and clothes are always very noticeable against the drab grays around her.
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Contributor, The A.V. Club. Lisa is a writer and editor based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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