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'The Undoing' Episode One: Tell Me Lies, Tell Me Big Little Lies

By Dustin Rowles | TV | October 27, 2020 |

By Dustin Rowles | TV | October 27, 2020 |


I haven’t read Jean Hanff Korelitz’ You Should Have Known, upon which Nicole Kidman’s HBO series is based, but I have read enough books similar to it to know where it’s going. It’s Liane Moriarity’s Big Little Lies set on the East Coast crossed with a little Alafair Burke and it probably has a strain of the gaslighting genre in it. While I’m sure that it portends to provide some socioeconomic commentary, it’s really just a salacious adultery-and-murder novel, a watered-down descendant of a Graham Greene crossed with Real Housewives. This shit is catnip to me. When you throw in one of my favorite television writers, David E. Kelley (Big Little Lies, The Practice) and director Susanne Bier (The Night Manager, Bird Box), The Undoing is basically my next Marvel movie.

Nicole Kidman plays Grace Fraser, essentially the East Coast cousin to her Big Little Lies character. She’s a dutiful, well-intentioned therapist and Upper East Side mom who devotes much of her time to her son’s private school, where she’s on the committee organizing an auction benefit for a ritzy school (a glass of water is auctioned for $1,000, because these people). Among the moms is Elena Alves (Matilda De Angelis), an aggressively sexual scholarship mom, younger and more attractive than the other parents, who — during an auction committee meeting — breastfeeds in front of the other wives with an expression that seems to say, “Yes, you are wealthier and more educated than I am, but all of your husbands want to f**k me.”

Grace, however, takes a sort of pity on Elena, who is an outcast among the other moms, and Elena — in turn — seems to have a sort of vague, sad fondness for Grace, whom she seeks out at the gym (somehow, two people from wildly different socioeconomic backgrounds share the same gym). Elena is pointedly naked when she speaks to Grace, a detail that Grace salaciously shares later with her husband, Jonathan (Hugh), a charming, too-good-to-be-true doctor who dotes on Grace and their son, Henry (Noah Jupe).

Jonathan is also an oncologist, and during the auction benefit, Jonathan is called away to care for a patient at just around the same time that an inconsolable Elena mysteriously leaves the benefit. Grace rides the elevator down with Elena and even offers her their car service, but Elena declines, leaving Grace with a kiss on the lips and intentions that are unclear.

The next morning, Elena is discovered by her son Miguel (Edan Alexander) in her art studio. She’s been murdered. Meanwhile, Grace cannot locate her husband, either. He’s gone to a conference in Cleveland, but she can’t reach him, and she soon discovers his phone, cracked and broken, in their bedside table.

Who killed Elena? Where is Jonathan? Those are questions at the top of Detective Joe Mendoza’s (a very handsome Edgar Ramirez) mind, too, and he seems intent on getting those answers from Grace, who has no idea why the detectives are questioning her so diligently. She suspects nothing about her husband until that night when she discovers his phone, and she didn’t have much of a relationship with Elena, outside of a couple of awkwardly intimate encounters. So why are the police so interested in her?

To be honest, this is exactly the kind of series I need right now: A good old-fashioned rich people murder mystery, where wealth and privilege is the real villain (also whoever murdered Elena, obvs.). It’s Big Little Lies Murder Succession, and a welcome break from the real world, where people like this never experience consequences.

That said, I have some questions:

— Why doesn’t Grace reveal to the police the awkwardly intimate encounters she had with Elena? Has she spent more time with Elena than the two instances we witnessed on the series?

— I’m slightly confused about the grief f*ck between Grace and Jonathan. Did Grace imagine Jonathan was caring for a child with cancer? Or was he actually caring for a child with cancer, and if so, and if the child died, why did Jonathan want to go to bone town?

— Were we supposed to infer something about Grace’s marriage with Jonathan based on her counseling sessions with the gay couple having an affair?

— It’s nice to see Lily Rabe outside of a Ryan Murphy series, and she’s definitely going to end up playing the Laura Dern role. Meanwhile, it’s also nice to see West Wing’s Janel Moloney period. I haven’t seen her since The Leftovers.

— Donald Sutherland also makes a brief appearance, playing Grace’s father. I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of him, although I suspect it will be more in a red-herring role.

— It feels like some hallucinations and/or disassociative episodes may be in play here. If we get an Identity-ending, I will riot.

— I don’t think that Henry killed Elena because the murder is way too grisly for a kid. That said, why cast Noah Jupe — one of the best kid actors around these days — unless Henry plays a major role here. He did seem to be awfully interested in what the detectives had to say, and I am pretty sure he knows something.

— Look, I know exactly what The Undoing is — a poor man’s Big Little Lies — but I’m gonna stick with it, and probably continue writing about it weekly, because I need the distraction.

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.

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