The Undoing wasn't created to be a statement piece about the extreme privilege of upper-class society membership, but much of HBO's tense and unnerving new mystery-drama exists within a haves-versus-have-nots framework that comes through even clearer in an era of sustained unrest over the inequities of justice and economic disparity.
The limited series, which David E. Kelley adapted from Jean Hanff Korelitz's 2014 novel You Should Have Known, stars Nicole Kidman as Grace Fraser, a wealthy therapist and socialite whose idyllic Park Avenue lifestyle is upended when a vicious murder leaves her questioning her husband Jonathan (Hugh Grant). From there, the show evolves into a Big Little Lies-meets-The Night Of-style narrative, with Grace haphazardly stumbling upon one shocking revelation after the next, including some long-overdue exposure to the struggles of people outside of her economic bubble.
"When we first set out to make this, it was very much committed to being a sort of thriller — hopefully, an addictive, compelling thriller," Kidman told a select group of reporters, including TV Guide. However, she also conceded, "Everything that's happened in 2020 has now put a different lens on the series."
Grace's undoing first begins with her introduction to Elena (Matilda de Angelis), a woman from Harlem whose son attends the same elite private school as Grace's on a scholarship. Elena takes a special — and, at times, erotically charged — interest in Grace that both disturbs and delights her. Grace's cozy, sheltered worldview is soon shredded as dark secrets are revealed about both Elena and Grace's loved ones.
In another climate, Grace might be more relatable as her picture-perfect world suddenly unravels; in this one, though, the breadth of her sheltered naïveté is maddening — especially when, without spoiling anything, she seizes on an opportunity to throw money at her problems because that's just how the world works for her. Whether or not Grace is easy to root for, though, The Undoing is still effective in presenting a provocative and suspenseful series of events, which is exactly what director Susanne Bier set out to accomplish with it.
"I wanted to do a really delicious show which was also claustrophobic and scary at the same time. And I wanted to depict that sort of paranoia that comes with thinking you know someone and then you really don't know anyone," Bier told TV Guide.
Perhaps the most intriguing character development of the series is that of Elena, who, for reasons that become clear in the early episodes, becomes something of a mystery to the audience. What is evident about her from the start is that, even though she does not have Grace's money or access, she does have a stronger sense of self-confidence and, as actress Matilda de Angelis described it, "a strange social intelligence."
"Yes, she is poor. And of course she struggles to be in [Grace's] environment, [but] she knows how to deal with people," de Angelis said of her role. "She knows that sexuality can help her in winning people over." De Angelis said she had the challenge of creating "a very complex character, which is really mysterious and cutting [but also] has this sweetness and loneliness that guides her in everything she does."
Indeed, throughout the series, Elena's story becomes slowly but irrevocably intertwined with Grace's, and their contrasts become even more striking as the story progresses to what can only be a bitter end.
The Undoing premieres on Sunday, Oct. 25 at 9/8c on HBO.