After Big Little Lies and now The Undoing, it might be safe to say that Nicole Kidman has a type: rich, prominent, white mothers who find themselves at the center of murderous marriages and struggle to maintain the façade that everything in their lives is going just fine. But hey, if it ain’t broke, no need to change course, I suppose. That’s kind of like the question you ask yourself after you finish watching The Undoing — did we need another story like this? No. But will you enjoy watching it? Maybe.
Perhaps it’s oddly pleasing to watch horror of a different kind being inflicted on wealthy, privileged types at a time when many seem unbothered by the world’s greatest dreads, including poverty. That and the fact that creator David E. Kelley — who brought us Ally McBeal, L.A. Law, The Practice as well as Big Little Lies — has always had a knack for giving us stupendously flawed yet compelling characters.
Kidman plays Grace, a successful therapist who seems to have it all: a gorgeous New York City home, an oncologist husband (Hugh Grant), a son (Noah Jupe) at one of the city’s best private schools, and an eagerly anticipated new book. In fact, at the start of the series she is doing one of the top five things the rich and unfazed are known for: helping put on a fundraiser. She’s on a committee with other upper crust, designer-clothed women delegating tasks while also tossing side eyes at Elena (Matilda De Angelis), a young newcomer who breastfeeds her baby at their meeting, much to their chagrin.
Not Grace, though, because she’s different. The first episode very carefully sets her up as a departure from the other snooty moms. She even takes a special interest in Elena, who lives in Harlem with her husband (Ismael Cruz Cordova) and older son (Edan Alexander), and offers her a ride home when she encounters her in the fundraiser bathroom in tears after being ostracized by the others.
Upon returning to the party, and to Kidman’s credit, who always finds away a way to give her characters remarkable composure despite what is likely a volcano erupting in their minds, Grace is all smiles, well-manicured and all about the “thank you for coming.” At this point in the series, we don’t quite know what’s in her head, and why Elena has also taken to her. But director Susanna Bier — who helmed all six episodes — has a way of presenting Elena as an intriguing figure for Grace who also gives her discomfort. An example is when a stark-naked Elena walks up to a fully clothed Grace at the gym to thank her for being nice to her at the party. Or when Elena kisses Grace on the mouth before she leaves to hop on the subway home.
Hugh Grant and Nicole Kidman, The Undoing
For some inexplicable reason (at least from the first five episodes screened for critics), The Undoing seems to fixate on Elena’s comfort with her own body as a source of great anxiety for Grace. Presumably, it’s to point to a difference between Elena and the perhaps more sexually reserved Grace, but it’s awkward and presents Elena as almost a mythical figure at times.
But all of that is merely a preamble for the more pressing murder mystery that quickly unfolds by the end of the first episode and continues to unravel throughout the remainder of the season. And just like that, Grace’s veneer, and that of her entire story, fades.
Bier builds terrific tension with a masterful cast (including the always great Lily Rabe as a well-to-do lawyer and one of those snobby moms) at the start of the mystery, before slowly peeling away more and more of Grace’s layers as a woman used to psychoanalyzing others but begins to struggle with her own grip on reality.
But while the slow burn mystery is razor sharp, there are certain themes that dangle in the narrative — including female sexuality, the cycle of infidelity and the loyalty of a wife. We are to discern that New York City itself plays a role as a setting that breeds competition and tightly wound members of upper-class society like Grace whose worlds are quietly falling apart. But these other smaller yet equally meaningful themes deserved to be more fleshed out.
Plus, because The Undoing talks so much about how rich women see young women who live in Harlem and have big boobs, it would be nice to see more of Elena’s perspective, so that she is more of a human and not an object. Kelley has created a crackling mystery with terrific actors. But ultimately, it has nothing to say.
TV Guide rating: 3/5
The Undoing premieres Sunday, Oct. 25 at 9/8c on HBO.