I woke up to a flood of cryptic messages that forced me out of bed in the wee hours of the night. From celebrities to media outlets to colleagues and friends, everyone seemed to be on a collective quest to find out “Who killed Elena Alves?” At first glance, I thought this was just a mere publicity tactic to promote this show as it was plastered on every entertainment personality’s social media status from Kim Kardashian, Kerry Washington, Hailey Baldwin, Megyn Kelly, and Ava DuVernay to name a few. As a crime show junkie, the curiosity and intrigue compelled me to binge-watch this 6-hour series in one sitting to get to the bottom of the hype and why its reveal led to mixed reviews from audiences worldwide.
A Killer Hidden in Plain Sight
The Undoing (2020) is a six-episode limited series that gave us a front-row seat and a fascinating take into the mind of a charming psychopath. Grace Fraser (Nicole Kidman) is a distinguished clinical psychologist in New York City who is married to a pediatric oncologist, Jonathan (Hugh Grant), and a mother to a young boy, Henry (Noah Jupe). She lived a picture-perfect life and was highly respected in the elite society of the city, until her husband’s dark secret emerged and destroyed their family, halted her career, and risked their son’s education. Behind the charming and charismatic persona of Jonathan is a cold-blooded and manipulative cheater and murderer who mercilessly beat his mistress, Elena Alves, to death.
The mind is the most complex and mysterious structure. Just like notorious serial killer Ted Bundy, it’s hard to wrap your head around a person who is captivating, intelligent, and amiable being capable of committing a vile and heinous crime such as murder. Jonathan was no exception, he was a successful doctor, a family man, and was living a comfortable life in his upscale apartment in Manhattan. Right off the bat, Jonathan was the established primary suspect, but because he is too good of a man on the outside, there’s nothing about him that would cloud your judgement. In fact, for the most part of the investigation, you are rooting for his acquittal.
But as the story progresses, the series did an exceptional job of deflecting and using clues and evidence to make the audience believe that anyone could actually be a suspect. It’s one of those whodunnit stories where you’re utterly convinced that there’s a shocking twist in the end. However, this one was given to us on a silver platter. Looking closely into it, it’s not so much about figuring out who the killer is, but rather an in-depth understanding of how and why the most intelligent people such as an esteemed psychologist like Grace who is professionally capable of seeing such flaws or red flags, fail to see through her monstrous husband.
Just like notorious serial killer Ted Bundy, it’s hard to wrap your head around
This is what the series has beautifully explored and it gave a fresh perspective on how people or society are often blinded by appearances and how our deep personal connection with a person sometimes gets in the way of seeing their true colors and the essence of their being. “The whole point of the series is that thing of even if you are a hugely intelligent, sensitive person, you are actually capable of not seeing what’s in front of you. Then we had a lot of fun with the dance of trying to seduce the audience to use their imagination and think other things. But, just like Grace, the audience got somehow fooled by Jonathan, by his charm, by his likability, by a whole lot of things. And none of us really wanted to think it was him,” director Susanne Bier expressed at an interview.
In the finale, the peak of Jonathan’s sociopathic outburst was cleverly revealed as he tries to escape with Henry after Grace’s betrayal during the trial. This triggers a heart-racing car chase with the police, somewhat reminiscent of OJ Simpson’s infamous escape. To raise the stakes, we see them speeding along the freeway like a mad man, almost giving us the impression that he is going to take the life of his son and that he is not the noble and admirable person we thought all along.
As law enforcement starts to close in on him, he admits to Henry that he was indeed the one who killed Elena at her art studio. How the murder unfolded was vividly captured and every thump of the hammer hitting her skull even after she was already dead was extremely sickening but effective in emphasizing how evil Jonathan is beyond the façade. Also, analyzing closely, he keeps justifying himself that it was not the loving father who killed her but another version of himself that he cannot control. This is a familiar rationalization that most psychopaths have in common. On another hand, it’s worth noting how powerful the last scene was when Grace and Henry walked away from Jonathan as the police arrested him, and to not look back at all was a good indication that they are no longer oblivious to the fact that the man they loved was guilty.
A Psychologist’s Take on a Psychopath
While the series had mixed reviews about its narrative, the story undoubtedly works on a psychological level. Jonathan’s character is a representation of a person with psychological problems. However, there are a few technicalities that the series got wrong in relation to addressing medical terminologies. According to Psychology Professor Craig Neumann, the term sociopath is problematic because of the controversies and misunderstandings associated with it. In reality, the technical term used in diagnosis would be antisocial personality disorder.
There are also traits in Jonathan’s character that needs to be fleshed out further from a psychological standpoint to make him more authentic and believable. Neumann mentioned that an incident is not enough to show Jonathan’s “callous unemotionality” towards his sister’s death or equating his narcissistic behavior as psychopathic. There must be a sequence of instances where the different characteristics of psychopathy are manifested in his actions. Perhaps, a scene at the hospital where he encounters a child at risk but chooses to be negligent or a patient who passes away but he doesn’t show any remorse or empathy.
While the series had mixed reviews about its narrative, the story undoubtedly works on a psychological level
When it comes to discussing sensitive topics in regards to mental health or psychological issues in films or series, it is important to remain authentic, delicate, and truthful as it has the ability to shape and influence minds. Neumann suggested that aspects such as recurring red flags, disturbances in identity, excessive grandiosity, using other people for personal gain, and lapses in intimacy and empathy are always important to get right when developing characters.
If The Undoing (2020) took more time in telling the story, there could’ve been so much more potential for character development and opportunities to exhaustively explore the family dynamics, Grace and Jonathan’s relationship, his psychological problems, or past traumatic experiences that could give us a better understanding of how a well-respected and intelligent pediatric oncologist who took an oath to protect lives became a hardhearted murderer.