Something I might have hinted at before on this blog is that I am not at all precious about spoilers. I tend to respect them out of the same kind of nebulous social convention that makes the whole of western civilisation conspire to make children believe that every Christmas Eve a jolly man with an innate knowledge of people’s moral worth flies around the world giving rich children more presents than poor children, but I believe quite strongly that any text that can actually be spoiled by knowing how it ends is, not to put too fine a point on it, probably not very good. There are a vanishingly small number of exceptions to this rule (I found the twist at the end of the adventure game Unavowed sufficiently delightful that I genuinely wanted to preserve the surprise for other people) but by and large, The Empire Strikes Back remains the best-regarded Star Wars movie despite the fact that these days nobody watches it without already knowing that Darth Vader is Luke’s father.
Self indulgent side note: I do actually think one element of TESB is harmed by spoilers, and that’s the reveal that the little green muppet guy is actually a wise Jedi master, and even then it’s not really the film that’s spoiled by this so much as the character of Yoda in every subsequent movie. The original point of Yoda’s character is that he’s supposed to not be like you expect a Jedi master to be, so having him become the most archetypally Jedi-Master-ey of all Jedi Masters really cheapens him. And much as I love Baby Yoda in The Mandalorian I do feel mildly saddened by the fact that it now seems to be canon that Yoda’s species is inherently really strong in the force. Again I feel it really cheapens the original Yoda. The whole point of his original character is that a Jedi Master can be anybody, the whole point of Yoda and the Yoda-species in later canon is that some people are just inherently really good at using the force. (It also makes all his wisdom highly suspect, apparently his whole species can just do Force shit pretty much from birth, so what the hell does he know about how to train people who actually have to work at it?)
Sorry, that was a long digression. This post isn’t about Star Wars, nor is it about Unavowed, although it is about another property with the word “un” in its title, that property being The Undoing, the mystery-thriller-thing with Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant.
Surprise! It’s the return of the Grantathon! Well… semi-return. I specifically didn’t do mini-series in the original run so this can be seen more as sort of Grantathon bonus content.
But anyway. This post will contain spoilers for The Undoing. And normally I’d say “so if you haven’t seen it, and you care about spoilers, stop reading now” but actually in this case I’m going to say something different. I’m going to say “if you haven’t seen it, even if you care about spoilers, you might want to keep reading, because I genuinely think that being spoiled for the ending of this series actually makes it better.”
Of course mileage varies here. I’ve seen reviews online of people who loved the ending and think you should absolutely go into it fresh. But honestly if the show is on your radar at all then you probably know the major reveal (insofar as it is a reveal) anyway because a lot of people were quite vocally disappointed by it.
Anyway, if you don’t trust me, or still believe that knowing the endings of things makes them worse, this is your last chance to bail.
It also occurs to me that formatting your spoiler space as a sentence that some people might read out of linguistic inertia and thereby spoiler themselves anyway probably defeats the purpose.
Okay, seriously, everybody who doesn’t want to be spoiled (or as I will henceforth be insisting, “engoodened”) should genuinely be gone. So let’s talk about the ending.
Specifically, the twist in the ending.
Specifically, the twist that there wasn’t a twist. And that the guy who the police thought did it, and who all the evidence said did it, and who all of the characters who weren’t obviously living in deep denial thought did it, and whose entire legal defence was “the police didn’t look closely enough at other suspects because my client is so obviously guilty”, in the TV show based on a book that was literally called “You Should Have Known” actually did it.
People fucking hated this ending. Not all people, obviously. I can think of literally nothing that some people won’t stubbornly insist is good (or for that matter, that some people won’t stubbornly insist is bad) in face of an overwhelming consensus to the contrary. But the broad vibe of the interwebs when it was revealed that no, actually the young woman really was murdered by the guy who obviously did it and not by the main viewpoint character, or a random parent from her son’s school, or the principal of her son’s school, or her own newborn baby (this was a real fan theory) was a ritual Calling Of The Bullshit.
And much as I’ve lightly mocked that reaction by pointing out that everybody who was surprised that Hugh Grant turned out to be a wrong ‘un Should Have Known I do actually see where they were coming from. Because I would certainly have been one of them if I’d been watching the show as it released.
Words that End In GRY
This is tenuous, but I wanted a subheading.
There’s an XKCD strip that I think sums up people’s frustration with the ending of The Undoing. In it Stick Figure A (if you’re not familiar, all XKCD strips are populated entirely by stick figures) asks Stick Figure B the old “words that end in GRY” riddle and Stick Figure B responds by cutting their arm off, hitting them with it, and then saying “communicating badly and then acting smug when you are misunderstood is not cleverness.”
It’s not a subtle strip, but it’s a satisfying one, and I tend to think of it every time I think a TV show is treating me like a sucker.
The riddle, in case you don’t know it goes: “Angry and Hungry are two words that end in GRY. There are only three words in the English language, what’s the third?” And the answer is “Language” because the question that’s actually asked (“There are only three words in the (1) English (2) language (3), what’s the third?”) is unrelated to the first sentence, which isn’t actually part of the question at all. The “trick” here is that the “riddle” (and honestly it barely qualifies as one) violates the common social convention that when you try to communicate with people you don’t deliberately obfuscate your meaning by adding extraneous information (if we’re getting technical and linguistey, it breaks the Principle of Cooperation by violating Grice’s Maxims). Which, as XKCD observes, isn’t clever it’s just fucking smug.
(Incidentally the “riddle” gets even worse because it’s often incorrectly stated as “there are only three words in the English language that end with GRY” which makes the “I meant what’s the third word in the noun-phrase the English language” interpretation not merely pedantic but actually grammatically wrong, but I digress. I mean, I digress more.)
Anyway, point is, to a lot of people the non-twist to The Undoing felt a lot like the “words that end in GRY” riddle. The show communicated its story poorly and then acted smug when people misinterpreted the story. “Do you see?” it seemed to be saying “you assumed Hugh Grant couldn’t have done it because he’s all nice and rich and white and stuff but really he’s a horrible murderer, lo I have revealed your implicit biases with my brilliant social commentary”. To which viewers naturally responded (a) “fuck off” and (b) “actually the reason I assumed it couldn’t be Hugh Grant is because you deliberately framed this series as a whodunnit and I therefore assumed that whodunnit principles applied, you haven’t actually explored anything in any meaningful way, you’ve just asked me for three words ending in GRY and then laughed at me for not guessing I was meant to say language.”
Which is why knowing the ending makes it so much better. If you know from the start that Hugh Grant really did do it, then you can appreciate the series not as a mystery but as a psychological thriller. You can watch the series asking yourself not about whether Jonathan Fraser (Grant) really murdered Elena Alves (Matilda De Angelis) but about whether Grace (Kidman) believes he did, and at what point she starts to trust him again, and at what point she stops. And then it’s really good all the way through, because everybody in it is giving a great performance, it has lavish production values, and all the twists and turns feel like they’re meant to reflect on Grace’s uncertainty instead of being cheap ways to misdirect the viewer.
The problem is, I don’t think that interpretation of the text is really supportable if you aren’t spoilered, because it requires you to consciously reject the text’s continuous, explicit invitations for you to engage with it as a whodunnit. It’d be like watching Return of the Jedi and trying to sincerely view it as an indictment of the way people who see themselves as good can commit terrorist atrocities in the name of freedom. Sure technically the destruction of the second Death Star probably leads to countless fatalities many of them surely innocent construction workers, slaves, or sentient droids, but it would be flat out bad faith to pretend that you really interpret the film through that lens.
Should You Have Known?
Probably the most balanced criticism I’ve seen of The Undoing is that it’s ultimately trying to be three things and doesn’t quite succeed at being any of them.
Most straightforwardly it’s a whodunnit: the viewer is invited to try and work out who killed Elena Alves. This is the story that’s being told by the structure of the show, with its carefully paced reveals and habit of dropping a new bombshell piece of evidence at the end of every episode hinting at a new suspect. And this story ultimately fails because unless you handle things incredibly deftly a whodunnit in which it turns out that the obvious suspect did it all along is going to leave a lot of people feeling duped. And it did.
Least straightforwardly, or perhaps most perfunctorily, it’s an exploration of social, economic, and racial privilege. Jonathan Fraser is obviously guilty, and isn’t even an especially capable criminal (he even disposes of the murder weapon on his own property) but he comes within a gnat’s crotchet of getting away with actual murder because he’s a wealthy white man and so the system is institutionally biased in his favour. Except … it sort of isn’t? Sure he gets a high price lawyer but that really is the only advantage that his class, race, and social status are shown to afford him. As one review pointed out in specific response to the “its actually social commentary” defence of the non-twist: if this is supposed to be an exploration of the way in which society and the criminal justice system is biased in favour of some people and against others then why the hell did it decide that a major plot point would be the cops quickly ruling out the victim’s black, Hispanic, working-class husband and focusing their efforts exclusively on Hugh Grant? If anything the show is deeply reassuring about the criminal justice system. Sure Jonathan can hire a swanky-yet-shady lawyer but every single other official we meet seems interested only in finding the objective truth of Elena’s murder.
And finally, the series can be what the book was: a psychological exploration of a woman who learns that her husband is a monster. And if you’ve been spoilered and are thus able to ignore all of the efforts to make you wonder if Hugh Grant really did it, this is the version of the story I think is most successful. Read charitably, all of the slightly cheap misdirection beats (every episode ends with a new piece of evidence being introduced, every episode begins with the last episode’s piece of evidence being swept away never to be mentioned again) can be seen as reflective not of intrusive writers trying to jerk the audience’s expectations around, but of Grace’s state of emotional collapse and confusion. Her flashbacks and fantasy sequences—which included PoV shots of Elena’s murder and thus quite naturally led many viewers to consider her a suspect and an unreliable narrator—become naturalistic depictions of the intrusive thoughts experienced by a woman whose whole life might be (and, spoiler, definitely is) turning out to be a lie.
The problem here isn’t just that these three identities distract from each other—that might suggest that a different approach could have woven them together into a satisfying whole. The problem is more stark: these three identities are incompatible on a fundamental level. In the book You Should Have Known (which as ever I should stress I haven’t actually read, I’m going from reviews here) it is made completely clear from the start that Jonathan murdered Elena, and the book is about how she, a therapist who specialises in telling women that they should have known (d’ya see) that their husbands weren’t compatible with them, copes with the growing realisation that she has been married to a monster for over a decade. But the key here is “growing realisation”. You can’t explore a woman’s gradual loss of the ability to deny obvious reality when the whole shape of the narrative is conspiring to make reality anything but obvious.
A great many reviews of The Undoing said they found that the show did very little to explore Grace’s psychological interiority and because I’d been spoilered those readings initially confused me. Because knowing as I did that Hugh Grant just straight up was the killer it felt to me like the show was about nothing but her psychological interiority. Even the end-of-episode evidence drops read to me not as shifting my own understanding of events but as punctuating Grace’s. She’s an unforthcoming protagonist certainly, but that’s a valid way for a protagonist to be, and I never felt that her mindset was especially hard to intuit from context. She is initially fairly convinced that Jonathan did it, but her desire for her son’s father not to be a murderer leads her to deny that instinct and hold onto the hope that he might be innocent. More interestingly it seems (to me at least) possible to track the emotional-push-pull of her feelings not only about whether Jonathan is a murderer but also about whether she wants him in her and her son’s life (which isn’t quite the same question). To a lot of people (including, initially, me) the final twist (that is, the final actual twist, the penultimate twist if you count the not-a-twist-twist) at the end of episode 5, in which we discover that Henry (the Frasers’ son) is keeping the murder weapon in his violin case, seemed one absurdity too far. Especially because all that happens with it is that the defence team (the Frasers and their excellently amoral lawyer excellently played by Noma Dumezweni) have one argument and then it gets completely forgotten about.
But if you take the all-about-Grace reading the discovery of the hammer is crucial because it cements in her mind not only the idea that Jonathan definitely did it but also—once he has the audacity to suggest that maybe it was actually Henry—the conviction that he has to be kept away from the family for good. And for much of the second half of the series it’s actually the second question—should we reconcile for the good of our son whether you’re a murderer or not—that occupies her far more than the question of whether her husband actually beat an innocent woman to death.
Except. No. Because also the hammer thing is clearly there in part to make you think “oh my God could it be Henry” in the week before the final episode. And because while I actually liked that Jonathan wasn’t particularly good at covering his tracks (making the depths of Grace’s denial at some points especially stark in a way that honestly does feel intentional), getting rid of the murder weapon in such a specifically unhelpful place feels more like it was about making sure it wound up in Henry’s hands (well his violin case) rather than actually making sense as a place a desperate not-as-smart-as-he-thinks-he-is man would stash a murder weapon.
Basically I don’t think I could have found the series half as engaging or enjoyable as I did if I’d actually been trying to work out who the killer was. It’s hard to accurately process counterfactuals of course, but I know myself pretty well and I strongly suspect that by episode four I’d have been in an “I will hate this either way” space. Because I’d have agreed with a large fraction of the internet that having it turn out to be Hugh Grant all along would feel like I was being taken for a ride, but I’d have considered it turning out to be anybody other than Hugh Grant really forced and in a lot of cases deeply problematic. Because, yes, it’s 2021 and, yes, something something soft bigotry of low expectations. But I really wouldn’t have been at home for this story about an emotionally manipulative gaslighting husband to have ended with the reveal that the rich white man was being unfairly victimised all along and the real monster was the wife or the black guy.
On which subject, we should probably talk about Elena.
And, having read back over this section, I should attach a bit of a content warning here because: spoiler, what follows is quite a detailed discussion of the way in which this show presents the brutal murder of a Latinx woman who it also routinely sexualises.
Fantastic Breasts and Where to Find Them
We first meet Elena at a committee meeting for a school fundraiser. Both Elena’s son Miguel and Grace’s son Henry attend a prestigious public school the name of which I have forgotten and which doesn’t matter (much to the chagrin of the many viewers who predicted that the principal was the real killer). Elena is immediately out of place at the meeting because everybody else at the fundraiser is much wealthier than she is. She also immediately starts breastfeeding at the meeting table. Which is fair enough, she has a kid after all, and kids have to eat. But the camera lingers on her breasts for a really long time and when that’s over Grace and her friend Sylvia-the-convenient-lawyer have a conversation about what great boobs she has.
The next day, Elena shows up at Grace’s gym and she is, like, full-frontal naked. We flash back to this scene several times.
Later she shows up at the school fundraiser (which, since it’s a rich person school in the US is a much bigger deal than your normal school fete or bring and buy sale) in a dress which once again emphasises her wonderful breasts. There she retreats crying into the bathroom and, when Grace follows her to make sure she’s okay, she kisses her.
Why? Never really explained. Except possibly she’s just a psycho (of which more later).
Then she leaves. Shortly afterwards Jonathan makes an excuse to leave as well. Then Elena shows up brutally murdered. We regularly see her in flashbacks and fantasy sequences, mostly in Grace’s scenes. In these flashes she is almost always naked, or being fucked, or being bludgeoned.
And okay, I get it. It’s Grace’s story. And this woman had an affair with her husband and was then murdered so Grace’s stray, uncontrollable thoughts about her are naturally going to drift in the direction of sex and murder but holy shit when you take a step back and look at it this is framed really unfortunately.
To make matters worse, when Jonathan is confronted (fairly early on) with Grace’s new knowledge of his affair, his story is that yes, he had sex with Elena, but it was consensual and it was actually she who was obsessed with him. He goes to great lengths to explain that Elena was a dangerous stalker, a woman determined to inveigle herself into his and Grace’s life by any means necessary.
But that’s fine, isn’t it? Because after all the whole point of the series is that Jonathan is essentially a pathological liar who has deceived his wife about literally everything, who manipulates and gaslights his way through life thinking only of his own pride and advantage. It’s not like we’re meant to see this as an accurate description of what Elena was actually like. She’s actually a much more complicated, more human figure. After all she’s an artist.
I mean sure, she definitely did blackmail Jonathan into getting her son into the same school as his kid. And work her way onto the fundraising committee at the beginning (you know, the one where she first showed her fantastic breasts). But that’s just what you’d expect from a hardworking woman looking out for her son. Grace would have done the same.
Except there’s also the bit where she shows up naked at the gym. And the bit where she kisses Grace in the bathroom. And the bit where the police find a painting of Grace in Elena’s studio which seems to date from before they officially met (it’s fine, maybe it’s a coincidence, maybe it’s not a picture of Grace at all and Elena’s just a really big fan of Moulin Rouge).
And then there is the fact that when we finally see the “real” flashback to the night of the murder from Jonathan’s perspective (the one where we actually see him bludgeon Elena which suggests it’s not being run through any kind of unreliable filter) things actually do seem to have gone down exactly the way he says: they had consensual sex that she was massively up for, after which she makes ominous allusions to how much she likes Grace and how convinced she is that Henry will make a good “older brother” for Miguel. And then he warns her away from his family and she starts doing evil voice and being all “you’ll never leave me”.
And yes, at this point he does become physically violent, beating her head against the wall several times and don’t get me wrong this is bad. But then he really is about to leave just like he said he did when she attacks him with the sculptor’s hammer. And yes, then we finally see the mask slip and he disarms her and knocks her to the ground and coldly pounds her head in but, the whole thing still comes across as, to use the technical terminology, victim-blaming as fuck.
Obviously this is difficult. I’m not suggesting that making threatening allusions to your growing relationship with a man’s wife means you deserve to have your head bounced off a wall. Nor am I suggesting that attacking somebody from behind with a deadly weapon means you deserve to be beaten to death by a psychopath while you beg for mercy in an honestly slightly sexualised way. But I am saying that the show, in its last reveal, chose to film Elena’s death in a way that strongly emphasised her own negative behaviours. In a way that ultimately carries the strong implication that everything the sociopath who murdered her said about her character and intentions was actually … um … kind of true? It’s clear from the final episode that she really was obsessed with the Frasers, that she really was stalking Grace and possibly Jonathan as well. And Jonathan really did go to her studio only to confront her, not with the express intent of murdering her. It is, as presented in the text, inarguably the case that Elena Alves would be alive to this day had she not deliberately attacked Jonathan with a deadly weapon.
I don’t think this was intentional. I think it all comes back to the three things the show is trying to be (or, I suspect, the two things it is trying to be and the one thing it is occasionally gesturing towards). While being spoilered meant I could ignore a lot of the compromises the show made in order to keep its audience “guessing”, the framing of Elena’s death is where the show’s desire to tease the possibility that Hugh Grant might not have done it right to the last possible second makes the psychological portrait interpretation feel hollow and the social commentary interpretation feel borderline insulting. Elena’s death is played out in a series of mini-flashbacks throughout the final climactic chase scene and there is a really good build-up of dramatic tension as the police close in on a fleeing Jonathan while we cut back and forth from the present day to the night of the murder. But the price of maintaining the mystery until the final moments is that everything that happens between Jonathan and Elena—his arrival, the confrontation, her angry attempt to manipulate him, his turning to leave with her very much alive—have to play out almost exactly as he said they did. Which means in turn that Elena has to be, right up until the final moment, exactly who he said she was.
And that kills the idea that this is a story about the way privilege protects the white and wealthy stone dead, because Elena really was a threat to Jonathan and his family. It also comes pretty damned close to killing the idea that this is a story about a woman whose life is a lie, because it turns out Jonathan was actually mostly telling the truth about Elena. The only version of the story that really survives the final reveal is the one where the point has only ever really been to work out who the killer was.
So I guess maybe spoilers ruin it after all?
I actually started this article feeling fairly positive about The Undoing, and I do think that the bulk of the show, if you treat it as a psychological thriller, has a lot of really good things going for it. But having sat down and actually typed out my (admittedly biased, admittedly one sided) take on the portrayal of Elena I don’t think I can recommend it without at the very least hanging a huge warning sign over it. From my position of privilege I can absolutely enjoy the good things about the series while rolling my eyes at the way it veers between romanticising, demoninsing and erasing the actual victim of its central murder. But there will be people for whom the way Elena is presented is a massive dealbreaker.
If nothing else, I find it a bit troubling that so little of the discussion of the series even mentions it. As one article in the Atlantic pointed out, this is a show that contains a graphic, ill-explored depiction of intimate partner violence (which is a real problem, three women a day are murdered by their partners in the USA, one woman every three days in the UK) that at least partially blames the victim, and most of the media coverage of the series spends more time talking about Nicole Kidman’s coats.