A Psychological Review of "Undoing"

The ending was underwhelming, agreed. At times I found it a bit sleepy, especially for a murder mystery. But, what meaning can we wrestle from the Undoing about married life, and our own murderous wishes?

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The Undoing, a new drama on Sky Atlantic, features the seemingly perfect couple, played by Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant. They ooze the Upper East Side version of the American dream, even though the husband (played by nowadays sinister Hugh Grant) has a jokey-posh English twang.  

No it’s not the latest John Lewis Christmas advert, but a whodunnit/murder mystery.

But hang on a minute. Isn’t this all rather familiar? Isn’t Hugh Grant revisiting old territory? In 1995 he was dating model Elizabeth Hurley, when he was arrested for having sex with prostitute Divine Brown (Estella Marie Thompson) on Sunset Boulevard. His relationship with Hurley ended, but he was able to resurrect his career.   

It seems twenty-five years later, as an actor, he is still mining some of these recurring themes of sex, transgression, regret and reparation, but with better lighting effects, costumes, and being handsomely rewarded for this efforts! Freud would have called this “repetition compulsion”, where we are drawn back to recreating the same situations, again and again, in order to somehow finally get a grip on them. 

A million dollar kitchen in Manhattan

Their kitchen is so spacious and well-thought-out for such a prime piece of real estate, but not too obscene! The breakfast scenes look more like a soft-focus medieval painting rather than a snap shot of a busy two parent working family in the middle of Manhattan. 

Psychologically speaking, this might represent the first phase of a relationship, where everything is surface, veneer, polish and projection. There are no shadows. The kitchen cupboards haven’t been chipped. The worktops haven’t degraded by lemon juice and turmeric.  It is the marriage of two egos; the conscious, visible, and obvious. Health abounds. There is no sickness in sight. The murderous, rageful and deceptive aspects of any character or couple are hidden from sight.

Where did she get that ruffle green double breasted coat with hood?

They have it all. They radiate charm, beauty and wit. They are intelligent and emotionally-attuned! They have socially approved professions. No hedge fund managers or property developers here. Jonathan (Hugh Grant) is a loveable healer of children, through his work as a paediatric oncologist. Grace Fraser, (Nicole Kidman) is an astute adult therapist, providing valuable insights to neurotic divorcees and same sex couples. 

Perhaps they are on first name terms with “healer” and President elect, Joe Biden?

Grace’s dream-like red lustrous wavy hair speaks volumes, bouncing through the frames, signifying her high status, her dynamic living and being. She wears a boutique double breasted chameleon ruffle textured green coat, designed by Danish costume designer, Signe Sigmund. It has a hood, but it’s not a hoodie!  However, beneath the pristine surface, chaos reigns.

The dark feminine

A mysterious working class, ethnic, possibly Latina woman, Elena (Matilda De Angelis) enters their rarefied life. Elena’s son gets a place for her son to the elite Reardon school, because of a scholarship place. Elena joins the fundraising committee, and the other mothers notice something “passive aggressive” about her breastfeeding during their meeting. 

She doesn’t say very much in the opening scenes, although she does speak through her body, striking a strident pose, in front of Grace, fully naked, when she bumps into her at the gym. 

Elena, enters their marriage like a tempest, wreaking havoc.

How can Grace, with her charmed life, and her training as a therapist, rich father, active sex life, great kitchen and coats, have been so totally deceived? How did she not know that her husband was having an affair for several months, and that he had lost his job and money? 

How could it be that he even had sex with Elena and her on the same night, without her noticing? She is supposed to be sane. But is she crazy? Does she know who she is? Does she know who her husband is? Does she know her own father and her own parent’s marriage?

The shadow marriage

As a long-term relationship progresses, we may become aware of the destructive, even murderous thoughts and wishes within ourselves and our partners. The Undoing is about whether we choose to stay engaged with what we find within ourselves and our partner. 

This psychological process is as grisly as stumbling upon the crime scene in The Undoing

Grace is good at noticing the patterns in her clients struggling relationships and infidelities. Indeed she sees infidelity as a form of communication.

She is gifted at seeing things out there, but catastrophically unable to register what is going on closer to home.

During the same therapy session, she breaks out of the therapeutic frame when her phone buzzes mid-session. This is rather unusual. It’s a call from the school. No therapist would pick up their phone mid-session. 

However, maybe we can see this call as communication from her unconscious. The very issue the client has brought has revealed a fault-line in her own life.

She is no longer sitting assuredly in her expensive consulting room, offering life changing insights. 

Is her husband the murderer? Is she the murderer? Is she aiding and abetting a murderer? Is it Elena’s partner? Is it an unknown “other”? We all have our theories and hunches.

Perhaps, rather like good therapy, we just don’t know. We just have to tune in every week, and see what happens.

Ajay Khandelwal PhD

Ajay Khandelwal is an experienced psychotherapist and consultant. He welcomes contact and enquiries and is accepting new clients via zoom during the shut down.

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