On TV, Having Wealth Means You Get to Suffer Beautifully

Hugh Grant and Nicole Kidman in a scene from HBO's "The Undoing"
Niko Tavernise / HBO

Is any capitalist endeavor more menacing than the control of nature itself? The conquest of occupied lands, the rerouting of rivers, the hoarding of purified air—the American elite has always maintained itself in part by manipulating the environment. The wealthy characters on The Undoing, a new HBO miniseries set in New York City that premiered Sunday, can’t harness the East River. They don’t set about planting flags in Central Park or claiming Fifth Avenue. But with a selective private school, Reardon, as their home base, they still exert a nearly godlike rule over their surroundings and those who dwell there.

The show begins with a premise that’s most easily summed up as Big Little Lies: Manhattan—a murder mystery that takes place in the land of the uberrich, where daunting architecture is set against the backdrop of a concrete island rather than an ominous sea. Nicole Kidman plays Grace Fraser, a successful family therapist; her husband, Jonathan, is a children’s oncologist, played by a characteristically charming Hugh Grant. Their family, which includes their 12-year-old son, Henry (played by Noah Jupe), seems happy—picturesque, tidy. In addition to sharing a star (Kidman) and a lead writer (David E. Kelley), Big Little Lies and The Undoing are also both adapted from novels.

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Like Big Little Lies and other shows about flawed people of means, The Undoing soon punctures its protagonists’ facade to critique their many privileges. The morning after a school fundraiser, a young financial-aid student at Reardon discovers that his mother, a working-class artist named Elena Alves (Matilda De Angelis), has been murdered. When Jonathan disappears following Elena’s death, he becomes the lead suspect. In its retracing of the Frasers’ relationship with Elena, and its depiction of her murder trial, The Undoing reminds viewers that the family’s wealth gives them extraordinary power. No matter how much chaos they sow, or how much they suffer emotionally, the Frasers and their world remain unblemished—a fact that makes the story aesthetically satisfying but morally queasy. Thrillers and prestige series have never been paragons of ethical behavior. But The Undoing’s glossy tale is an uneasy fit for a time when the real-life rich continue to line their pockets, and the less fortunate work to sustain their employers’ glitzy lifestyle and die in record numbers.

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The Undoing leans into the opulence that makes it so compulsively (and frustratingly) watchable. The series seems to be under the spell of the alluring world it depicts. Even the sites where its characters agonize are beautiful: Early on, Grace seeks refuge at her family’s beach house; later, she weeps in her father’s marble-studded Upper East Side castle. These settings are immaculate, the details a baroque feast. Father and daughter meet in museum halls; they strategize over intricate chessboards. But as the show unravels, the threat the Frasers pose to others becomes starker. Directed by Bird Box’s Susanne Bier, The Undoing is visually jittery when the camera moves from the pristine scenery to the characters themselves; blurred shots and repeated close-ups convey a sense of unease. That impending horror never fully destabilizes the Frasers themselves, though, or their affluent peers.

Indeed, the show seems to relish the disorder that the Frasers cause in other people’s lives, the pain they mete out. Throughout it all, the family remains static: glamorous, somehow still in control. In this, The Undoing deviates from—and falls short of—productions such as HBO’s Succession and Rian Johnson’s whodunit, Knives Out, which don’t spare the prosperous families at their center from shame and degradation. These works skewer the uber-wealthy, in part, by subjecting the rich to indiscriminate terrors, including insects and lesions and reflexive vomiting. As my colleague Megan Garber wrote of Succession’s bodily horrors, “The show counters hubris with humiliation. Its wealthy world is full of rot.”

For viewers tired of extreme wealth inequality, seeing rich people subjected to the same natural forces as everyone else can be perversely entertaining. But The Undoing’s monied families are never debilitated in such a visceral manner. As they attempt to claw their way out of a nasty situation, their disgusting acts accumulate. In one brief fight scene, Jonathan nearly bites off the finger of a man who attacks him, and spits out a thick stream of blood. Describing a different misdeed, Jonathan explains his actions by admitting simply, “I was a mess.”

The central murder itself exemplifies this radiating destruction. Elena isn’t killed neatly: As one pundit observes when speaking about the case on the news, “The woman’s face was nearly liquefied.” The murderer continued striking her with the weapon long after she had died, a fact the prosecutor underscores when she addresses the jury. “Murder is ugly business. Whatever you’ve heard, whatever your predisposition, this one—it’s worse than you think,” she begins. “Elena Alves was bludgeoned so badly, so viciously, she was unrecognizable … He turned her skull into mush.” (The show often cuts back to images of the slain Elena, the camera close enough to her body to make out the mangled remains of her face.)

Along with the lopsided infliction of pain, one of the main points of the show is the Frasers’ Teflonic invincibility. The Undoing never stops highlighting the family’s capacity for evil and their willingness to hide it using an arsenal of tools available only to them: high-powered legal teams, pockets deep enough to afford astronomical bail, and the goodwill that comes from being seen as the best society has to offer. By contrast, Elena’s husband and children are never given much to do beyond mourning their loss. Because Elena’s family lacks real development, and the police seem to needlessly antagonize Grace, the show risks asking viewers to root for the Frasers, who get to keep their hands clean by paying others to do much of their dirty work. As Jonathan’s lawyer, a steely Black woman, tells Grace in their first meeting, “People hire me to create muck. Muck up the state’s case, so they can’t get their verdict. That’s what I can give you and your husband: muck.”

To be sure, a big reveal in the finale could  disrupt and stain the Frasers’ lives forever. (Critics were given five of the miniseries’s six installments.) But so far, the family faces no permanent consequences for the distress they cause. In this, The Undoing replicates the most common pitfall of shows and films that attempt to humble their rich characters: Even when wealthy people encounter misfortune on-screen, they’re suffering on yachts. They’re crying in multimillion-dollar brownstones, tears staining their Egyptian-cotton sheets. They’re staring tragically out of floor-to-ceiling windows. Such scenes may be intended to critique the affordances of immense wealth, but they come off as a little too self-satisfied. No matter how unpleasant their circumstances, the show reminds us at every turn, these characters still lead enviable lives. As long as the money remains, the world is theirs—and so is our attention.