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‘The Undoing’ Gave the People What They Wanted

Well, the finale didn’t—but overall, there were a handful of factors that led to the HBO thriller becoming a post-Thanksgiving sensation

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Spoiler warning

There are a dozen reasons why the finale of The Undoing was not a great episode of television. (This piece is about to go into detail about the finale of The Undoing. Spoiler-phobes, close the tab now or forever hold your peace.) For one thing, it’s 67 minutes long, a slack and bloated end to an already distended story. For another, its central mystery turned out not to be a mystery at all—the lack of surprise was arguably a surprise in itself, but still disappointing to thousands of Reddit sleuths. Mostly, The Undoing’s finale underwhelmed because The Undoing itself underwhelmed, botching the foolproof formula of movie stars, gilded scenery, and twisty plot with a final product that’s dramatically inert. Great coats, beautiful coats!

But that hardly matters. For HBO, The Undoing was a certified hit, growing its live viewership with each passing week; as of November 10, the premiere had a total audience of 6 million in delayed viewing. The network also touted fluffier metrics like “most social prime-time premium cable series,” a vague achievement made more tangible by the avalanche of tweets that crashed down every Sunday night—especially this Sunday night, when people needed somewhere to process poor dishwasher protocol. Were the ending even slightly less definitive, as earlier drafts apparently were, it would surely have provoked a flurry of Season 2 speculation, as all “limited” series (read: trial balloons) in 2020 tend to do. (Oh, whoops: I spoke too soon.) The Undoing wasn’t great, except at giving the people what they wanted.

The gap between critical and popular acclaim is hardly new; there’s already a brewing discourse about the grassroots hype for Hillbilly Elegy, as if people enjoying a feel-good story by a crowd-pleasing director on a massive entertainment platform is somehow a surprise. The Undoing is somewhat unusual because it was nominally aiming for a prestige audience with its Oscar-winning lead—Nicole Kidman, as affluent therapist and cheated wife Grace Fraser—and premium outlet. But even HBO isn’t immune to the occasional populist play. All due respect to Dwayne Johnson, but Ballers is no one’s idea of Emmy bait.

In fact, The Undoing’s sixth and final episode’s sole surprise was how it didn’t aim for fan-servicing fireworks. Contrary to the fifth installment’s cliffhanger, in which Grace discovered—in her teenage son’s bedroom—the hammer used to bludgeon her husband’s mistress, the question of Who Killed Elena Alves turns out to be answered with a quick cut of Occam’s razor: It was Hugh Grant’s Jonathan Fraser, the pediatric oncologist who got involved with the mother of a patient and killed her before she could blow up his life. (He did that just fine all on his own.) The man to whom all the evidence pointed, the man who was on trial, was indeed the one who did it. This anti-reveal marks The Undoing as a bait and switch, not just in terms of story but also genre. We thought we were watching a soapy thriller in which the murderer would turn out to be someone ludicrous like the private school principal. We were actually watching a muted character study about a woman coming to terms with the depths of her own denial.

Except The Undoing was often so busy hiding the ball it never did the actual work of studying its protagonist’s character. Its primary journey, that of Grace slowly recognizing her husband’s sociopathy, is entirely internal—difficult stuff to draw out and capture in action on the screen. Instead, writer David E. Kelley and director Susanne Bier buried their finer points in luxurious outerwear and endless flashbacks of Jonathan and Elena having sex. We may have watched Grace endlessly prevaricate, pacing Central Park in a fugue state, but when her father says things like “you’ve always seen things so clearly,” we have no basis for determining whether that’s true. Meanwhile, the entire point of the Jonathan character is that he’s a cipher, blandly genial on the surface and straightforwardly selfish underneath. Once he’s unmasked, there’s not much more to do, which is why The Undoing dawdled for as long as it did.

And yet what hurt The Undoing as a show may have helped it as a phenomenon. It’s true that the camp qualities of Big Little Lies, Kidman and Kelley’s previous effort, were intentional while The Undoing’s were accidental. But whether camp is accidental or not matters little to the viewer guffawing at the star of Notting Hill admitting he “killed the family sister.” Even though The Undoing quickly sidelined the social satire of moneyed Manhattan socialites, it offered up plenty of goofy details to ironically obsess over. Kidman’s pre-Raphaelite wig restoring her hair to ’90s glory! A nonsensical grab bag of accents! Leisurely East River chats about a murder trial, somehow sans paparazzi! And it offered them up week by week, culminating on the weekend after Thanksgiving, the most couch-bound days of the year—even by shelter-in-place standards.

Scheduling may be as unsexy as Grant using pediatric cancer as a pickup strategy, but it’s still important. HBO is one of very few networks that still leverages the week-to-week rollout to build buzz (though there are increasing exceptions like Industry). The anti-binge still distinguishes HBO from competitors like Netflix, and makes for an ideal match with plot-forward dramas, which The Undoing appeared to be until it wasn’t. For every Sharp Objects, whose steamy brooding frustrated audiences over time, there’s a Succession, which needed a slow burn to build hype around a tough sell. Likewise, The Undoing had more than a month to draw viewers in, and then timed the finale for a holiday weekend seemingly designed to wolf down silly crime serials in a tryptophan haze.

The Undoing may have been unable to sell its final reversal, in which Grace manipulates Jonathan’s lawyer into effectively letting her testify against him, sinking his defense. But it did sell millions of people on the idea that the TV equivalent of an airport novel was a worthwhile use of viewing hours. Thanks to production delays and schedule reshuffling, the fall TV landscape is not as packed as it otherwise might be on streaming and cable; broadcast channels are a confusing jumble of stories either about, set during, or just pointedly ignoring the ongoing pandemic. The Undoing, with little competition, provided the purest form of escapism: a story so ludicrous it briefly drowned out the absurdity of real life.