The Undoing: How I Knew Whodunnit Before I Saw It
How did a second-rate potboiler become a global phenomenon?
This week ‘The Undoing’ undid itself in the final episode of the six-part limited series from HBO. The hybrid murder mystery/courtroom drama, very similar to the much better novel and film ‘Presumed Innocent’ by Scott Turow, is a compendium of scenes from other crime novels and shows, with early tiger-mum scenes reminding us of ‘Big Little Lies’. It’s from the kind of paperback you’d find lurking in WH Smith Gatwick or a Majorcan hotel that you’d read on a sunny afternoon and chuck away.
But in lockdown it became a virtual water cooler moment thanks to its starry cast, bizarrely gigantic Ivanka-style NYC apartments, Kidman’s coats (she’s had her colours done, leaving her with a beautiful but somewhat regimented choice of red or green) and the fact that it aired day and date around the world. HBO’s smart move was to drop the episodes one at a time, teasing out the tension, which was just as well, as all tension vanished in the last ten minutes of the drama. That’s no crime, of course; most mystery novels evaporate when the outcome becomes clear.
The plot is straightforward: Hugh Grant is a Uriah Heep-like pediatric oncologist, Nicole Kidman is a psychotherapist with an immobile Botox face, their boy goes to an exclusive (ie expensive and hateful) school and Grant’s mistress, when she’s not inappropriately swanning around nude for no reason, is a married artist who gets hammered to death. Who did it? The roster of suspects parade and we have our suspicions manipulated scene by scene, sometimes shot by shot.
Believe me I’m not bragging about this because I wanted to be surprised, but the killer’s identity was obvious before I saw a single frame of the series. But not just me, presumably every crime writer knew the answer. We’ll get to that.
The action: Kidman breathes heavily and wafts about the New York streets, a bony clothes horse at sea in a role that requires nothing from her other than extreme ambivalence for six hours. Grant peddles charm, gradually becoming wizened, like a Celtic tree. Underused Sophie Grabol from ‘The Killing’ pops in for a few lines as the prosecutor, Noma Dumezweni is brilliant as the stern, unscrupulous defence lawyer and Donald Sutherland phones in a role as Kidman’s wealthy father, who at least gets a speech to the school principal banning his grandson; ‘I’m a cocksucker. Not in the gay belittlement sense, an old-fashioned cocksucker who will fuck you over’.
Random shock moments are inserted that signify nothing. A scene where the mistress suddenly kisses the wife is never mentioned again. Nor is the fact that she spends most of her thankless role without clothes on. Repeated shots of the girl being bludgeoned add nothing but gratuitously violent punctuation points.
Battle lines are drawn, Grant charms and hugs and demands love from everyone and Kidman has a last-minute revelation because she’s a psychotherapist. The story is very now, very much what you would expect, so that when the denouement arrives it’s what you knew already. And here’s how I knew who done it;
The title of Jean Hanff Korelitz’s original book is ‘You Should Have Known’, which instantly reveals the killer’s identity because the title can only be addressed to Kidman about her husband, and it fits with current suspicions about male privilege. Also, there’s a rule of thumb we mystery writers work by;
The killer is the person you know the most about after the detective.
We’ve gone full circle; this is where I came in. When I started out writing the racks were awash with B-movie plotted paperbacks. In this novel the killer husband barely features, but you can’t cast big and not give them anything to work with (on this basis Sophie Grabol should sue) so we get a lot of shamefaced hang-dog emoting from the Aztec statue Mr Grant, while the unwrinkleable Ms Kidman has the camera lens repeatedly shoved into her eyeballs, the only part of her face that hasn’t been ironed out.
It never entirely matters who done it so long as the ride is fun, and fun here is a cheesy lifestyle magazine. Sutherland’s ludicrously high-ceilinged home has rooms big enough to land aircraft in – luckily he owns his own helicopter, so he can participate in a preposterous eleventh-hour chase. But nothing adds up or feels remotely real. Would a child be allowed in a courtroom showing graphic scenes of his mother’s death? Why hide the murder weapon at home when you live beside a river? Witnesses pop out of the woodwork and revelations abound but basic police work is non-existent.
Then it dawns on you; this is a murder mystery for the new world order, where feelings and emotions and beliefs carry more weight than truth or data or facts, a touchy-feely puzzle where the characters are more likely to ask, ‘But how do you feel about what happened?’ instead of ‘Why has the murderer left his DNA everywhere?’
As a middle-aged man I’m increasingly drawn to the real, the factual, the statistic-heavy. I’ll end up being one of those readers who only buys books about the Crimean war or Oliver Cromwell. But on the evidence of the alternative, that’s fine with me.