I Should Have Known
Reflections on The Undoing’s wild ride. Spoilers ahead!
by Sara Blad| 08 December 2020
Screenshot from The Undoing
I should have known that Jonathan Fraser (Hugh Grant) killed Elena Alves (Matilda De Angelis). After all, HBO adapted The Undoing from a book entitled You Should Have Known. Surely Jonathan, the man who cheated on Grace (Nicole Kidman) with Elena, killed Elena. Surely Jonathan, the man who fathered Elena’s newborn child, killed Elena. Surely Jonathan, after hearing and witnessing Elena trying to get close to Grace, killed Elena. Surely Jonathan, who was at the crime scene the night of the crime, killed Elena. But no, I refused such a rational answer. That would have been far too obvious. I didn’t need a six-episode limited series to produce such an uncreative, uninspired result.
Vulture TV critic Jen Chaney argues that The Undoing was one six-episode long red herring, and she is absolutely correct. This whodunnit drama threw in every possible complicating factor to suggestively frame almost every other character to distract its viewers from the obvious ... and it worked—at least for me. There is a scene in the first episode in which Jonathan, Grace, and Elena are at a school fundraising auction. A viewer at that point would not yet know that Jonathan and Elena were having an affair. One of Grace’s friends mentions, ‘Grace, I, I think [Elena] might be looking at you’. Grace responds, ‘Really, is she?’ Jonathan answers ‘Uhhhh, yeah, I think she is’. Elena was likely staring at Jonathan, who was standing almost directly behind Grace. It is this dynamic that quietly revealed the show’s true nature from the very beginning: it would always place one red herring in front of us to distract us from the obvious truth.
The Undoing’s many twists and turns baited me and sucked me into Grace, Jonathan, and Elena’s world. The mental gymnastics required to explain away Jonathan’s involvement may sound exhausting and perplexing, but I found them exhilarating. Every cliffhanger at the end of the first five episodes surprised me so much that I would audibly gasp before yelling a sharp ‘What?!?’
In our post-Netflix world, saturated with bingeable content, The Undoing’s serial format (it aired every Sunday evening) heightened the show’s suspense and intrigue. Though I love spoilers and immediate gratification, having to wait a week to learn more information gave me the space and time to let my imagination run wild. I overthought the evidence to a dizzying degree. Though this meant that the show’s final reveal was disappointing because it was the most obvious (and boring) option, I loved the ride.
Watching The Undoing reminded me of reading Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge in middle school. Like The Undoing, it was also published as a weekly serialisation, albeit in 1886. Though I can’t remember its characters or plot now, I do remember my surprise at Hardy’s many cliffhangers, each one designed to leave the reader craving the next installment. It is as if Thomas Hardy walked so David E. Kelly, The Undoing’s creator, could run. With time I may also forget Grace, Elena, and Jonathan’s names but my memory of The Undoing’s suspense will likely remain.
I have little self-control when it comes to television, so I will try to learn my lesson and watch suspense shows more mindfully in the future. Still, I can’t wait to once again let a mystery consume me as did The Undoing.