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In The Undoing, a Grisly Murder Rocks High Society Manhattan

Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant play a wealthy couple with a nasty secret in the HBO miniseries.

Courtesy of HBO

Everybody loves to watch “smug marrieds”—to borrow Bridget Jones’s phrase—fall apart, and if they’re rich, then all the better. That lust for schadenfreude is what sells tabloid stories about celebrity breakups, but it’s also been at the heart of some of the best-scripted screen psychodramas of the past decade. In hit book adaptations like Gone Girl and Big Little Lies and crime series like Broadchurch and The Fall, a parade of contented spouses have been shattered by the revelation that their husband or wife was simply not who they said they were but in fact a violent criminal.

Why are these stories of marital reversal so engaging? Part of it is our simple appetite for a fall from grace, but another part is the way other people’s misfortunes seem like vindications of our own, different choices: I would have known, we think to ourselves, safe in our confirmation bias, and nestle further into the couch. 

That fatal assumption is both the subject and the title of Jean Hanff Korelitz’s 2014 novel You Should Have Known, now an HBO miniseries starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant and airing under the title The Undoing. The plots of the book and the show differ to the extent that one doesn’t spoil the other, but the premise remains the same. Grace Reinhart (Kidman) is a happy relationship therapist living on the money-slicked Upper East Side of Manhattan with tween son Henry and pediatric oncologist husband Jonathan Sachs (Hugh Grant). She stalks the city clad in a revolving series of jewel-colored, expensive-looking coats, exuding an air of well-manicured comfort and satisfaction at the outcome of her life. Henry plays the violin. Every apartment building she enters has multiple doormen. Between scenes, shots of sunlight glinting off Manhattan architecture add to the sense of being granted access to a secret, rich-people New York, where everything is different. In details like this, director Susanne Bier and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (Slumdog Millionaire) turn what could have been a workaday whodunnit into a show that practically smells of Central Park East.

Your hackles rise without you noticing it, such is the deft work of screenwriter David E. Kelley (who also made Big Little Lies, which also starred Kidman). The true action kicks off when Grace attends a meeting to plan a fundraiser, the kind with an auction, in aid of her son’s exclusive private school, the Dalton-alike “Reardon.” The moms in attendance are all sleek older professionals with high-dollar husbands, except for one—a young woman named Elena, clearly of lesser means, who seems eager to join in but painfully out of place. The very next morning, Elena’s son finds her dead on the floor of her Harlem art studio, with a jammy splatter where her face used to be.

Look away now if you don’t want to read about the first of The Undoing’s many hairpin twists, because Grace is soon smacked with a second wet fish: Elena was not the interchangeable scholarship mom she’d presumed, but her husband’s mistress and potentially the mother of his newborn love child. From his pedestal as a cancer-curing saint, Jonathan Sachs has overnight fallen to the status of prime suspect in a murder case of the New York Post’s wet dreams. Grace is the laughingstock of the city. The woman who was so proud of her perfect marriage that she made a career out of dealing out relationship advice proves mortal, after all, and “MURDER DOC” is too good a headline to resist.

The Undoing is about love and willful blindness but also class. By the same logic that Austen’s marriage plots were always about money, because her heroines’ marital choices dictated their material futures, The Undoing is about how economic inequality in New York City flows through the prisms of gender and race. Kelley weaves class distinctions into the texture of the show, with details like Grace’s one-on-one pilates class and her studied over-friendliness to Elena, drawing boundaries along economic lines that thrum just below the level of your attention.

Grace is isolated and afraid—in the novel, she’s confused that the police don’t feel sorry for her—but, more importantly, her humiliation is total. She’s lost standing as a professional, since she’s a couples’ therapist, and her husband has made a fool of her in the eyes of prep-school society. In the original novel, Korelitz has Grace recall something said by a long-ago patient, who “had once described her thoughts on first meeting her future husband as:  ‘Oh good. Now I can stop dating.’” It’s exactly the kind of illogical reasoning her own therapy practice preaches against, but when Grace met Jonathan in her twenties “that, too, had been a part of her own moment. Finis! she had thought at the time, though that small voice of practicality had nearly been drowned out by her instantaneous, accompanying hunger for him.”

These memories shatter Grace’s faith in her own instincts. Jonathan’s deception requires she reconfigure her understanding of herself, from a much-loved wife to an exploitable resource. And because she experiences that humiliation via the pointy end of class (Henry gets booted out of Reardon, for example, and the police persistently outrage Grace by talking to her like a common criminal), the narcissism of her one-percenter obliviousness mirrors the narcissism of her belief that her husband could never lie to her. And once we learn that the source of all this money is her father, played with Mephistophelian intensity by Donald Sutherland, the theme of unfairly inherited wealth builds through the show like an evil buzz, confusing the distinction between the good guys and the bad.

Kidman plays icy privilege cracking under pressure like nobody else, and her expensive-looking beauty matches Grant’s charisma perfectly. The story’s sense of moral unease is heightened by the fact that the camera spends all its time exulting in Kidman’s face, while Elena—the “real” victim, if the story has one—falls to the plot’s wayside. The question of the murderer’s identity quickly pales into relative insignificance as the parallel blow of Jonathan’s infidelity hits Grace’s life with more force. It’s harder to realize that she has lied to herself than it is to accept that Jonathan has lied to her; compared to either, accepting Elena’s death is easy.

As a couple, Grant and Kidman’s chemistry is strong, and there’s even a sense of meta-commentary on each actor’s own careers going on here. From her hairstyle to her unflinching eyes, Kidman looks a lot like she did in Eyes Wide Shut, another New York–wife role, but this time she strides to the center of the story. Jonathan is written as American in the book, but Grant uses his own accent in the show, to unexpectedly great effect: By deploying the same posh-boy, doe-eyed charm at other characters that he himself used on the public in his Richard Curtis heyday, Grant pastiches his own former typecasting while showing, autopsy-style, exactly how terrifying it can be. 

In the novel, a minor character says to Grace, “[W]e are the protagonists of our own lives, so naturally it feels like we’re at the wheel. But we’re not at the wheel. That just happens to be where the window is located.” The Undoing’s appeal lies in its story, which is smart but undeniably reliant on the desire we all harbor to watch successful people fail. It’s a dark impulse, but the show manages to feed on it without giving in to schlock; a harder feat, perhaps, than choosing the right person to marry.