Of all the downright absurd yet reliably entertaining things to happen in the finale of The Undoing – David E Kelley’s latest melodramatic murder-mystery – one particular moment stands out, in which Nicole Kidman gives new meaning to the phrase “helicopter parenting”.
Late on in the episode, as Jonathan (Hugh Grant), certain to be convicted for murdering his former lover Elena (Matilda De Angelis), snatches his son, Henry (Noah Jupe), from under the nose of his wife, Grace (Kidman) – not that she had been paying attention to him, mind – and makes an OJ Simpson-esque break for it in his Range Rover. Grace follows in hot pursuit in an actual helicopter (her father’s) and lands on a bridge where, convinced the jig is up, Jonathan threatens to throw himself off as his son looks on. In the finale of a show that was ultimately about obscene wealth, trauma, terrible parenting and not much else, this climax ticks every box.
While much of the conversation surrounding the show has focused on crimes in the fashion and grooming department – Nicole Kidman’s divisive vintage coats and Hugh Grant’s sandpaper skin – the real criminals here are the parents. Throughout its run, children are at best an afterthought, at worst a patsy, such as when Jonathan, turning on his own son with laughable ease, attempts to cast suspicion on him upon the discovery of the murder weapon in his violin case, telling Grace, “Everyone assumes they know their own kid, maybe they don’t.”
The show seems to take place in a world where child welfare does not exist. It begins early on in the series, with Miguel, Elena’s young son. He is the poor soul to discover his mother’s body in her art studio. Then, he is placed front and centre in the courtroom to watch the trial unfold in grisly detail, as the prosecution roll out grotesque photograph after grotesque photograph of Elena’s dead body, her face smashed in like an Easter egg (no amount of therapy in later life will ever get rid of that image from his poor little head). In the finale, as the cherry on the cake, the defence – a supposedly brilliant lawyer played by Noma Dumezweni – calls him to the witness stand in a desperate attempt to “muddy the water” and direct some suspicion toward his father. Not one person, not least his shellshocked father, chimes in to suggest that maybe, just maybe, Miguel should be protected and kept very, very far away from the court.
Henry, too, sees things no ten-year-old should ever see. He spots his father, pre-murder, having an intimate conversation with Elena from across the school yard and later discovered the bloody murder weapon (terribly hidden, it should be said) in the garden of his grandfather’s beach house. Both Grace and Jonathan claim to be entirely devoted to him and yet they are never seen doing any actual parenting and allow him to consume hours and hours of cable news about his father’s ongoing murder trial. Even if Grace truly believes Jonathan to be innocent, surely her motherly instincts would tell her that Henry shouldn’t be present in court to hear all of the gory details of his father’s infidelity and alleged murder. While it might be unreasonable of us, the audience, to expect Grace, an unreliable narrator who takes blackout strolls through the New York City streets in the middle of the night, to actually parent her child, surely the court or some other outside forces in her life should demand it.
And then there’s Jonathan himself, who was responsible for the death of his sister – not his dog, as he had initially told his wife – at the age of 14. He was babysitting her and accidentally left the door open, allowing her to walk out into the street and get run over by a car. You’d think the lesson here would be the longstanding impact childhood trauma can have and yet, as Jonathan’s mother tells us, he felt nothing at all when his sister died, so that theory is out the window.
What, then, is the reason behind all this unnecessarily bad parenting? Are the young boys just pawns in the story, to be shuffled around in various patterns in order to cause grief and aggravation to their parents? Henry, long set up to be a suspect – there were tons of not-so-subtle villainous glances in the first few episodes – was really just there for misdirection, to make us think someone other than Jonathan could have and would have murdered Elena. And, you know what? It worked.
© Photographer: Niko Tavernise
As with every whodunnit, many viewers thought they had picked the murderer early on. Rarely have I heard people discuss with such certainty that they had solved the mystery. And they were wrong! Kelley pulled off the show’s great double-bluff: Jonathan, who was the very, very obvious suspect from the very beginning, really did kill Elena. Everything in between – and I mean everything – was just smoke and mirrors. None of it meant anything, borderline child abuse included.
The most frustrating about The Undoing, which has been sufficiently enjoyable and quite successful if the hysteria surrounding it on Twitter is anything to go by, is that despite all of its flaws and its silly idiosyncrasies, it succeeds with its ultimate goal – making you question the identity of the killer until the very end – by relying on the good faith of the audience. The double-bluff only works because we assume that the writers would not be lazy enough to reveal the murderer in episode one. We expected better. More fool us.
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