The Dangerous Blind Spot of The Undoing

The show treats domestic violence like a striptease.

photograph of Elena Alves looking in the mirror
Niko Tavernise / HBO

Updated at 9:46 p.m. ET on December 2, 2020.

This article contains spoilers through the series finale of The Undoing.

The Sunday finale of The Undoing was the most-watched episode of any HBO show since the last episode of Big Little Lies. The Undoing is a whodunit about the murder of a woman found, by her fourth-grade son, with her décolletage displayed and her face in pieces. Sex sells, according to the old advertising adage. Clearly violence does too. And the intermingling of sex and violence is a winning formula for HBO.

Art depicting intimate violence has found an audience since ancient times. Take the third-century-B.C. sculpture of a Gaul killing his wife, or the two miniseries released in 2016 about O. J. Simpson’s role in the murder of his ex-wife.* Despite the A-listers who star in it, The Undoing is no more than a costly, glossy, schlocky melodrama. But perhaps because of its cast, and the enviable lifestyle reproduced on camera, the show is attracting a lot of attention.

Although Nicole Kidman, playing Grace Fraser, is the lead actor of The Undoing (and the producers do gratuitously show her showering in episode one and with her husband’s hands around her throat in episodes two and three), she is not the sex object. That role was awarded to the Italian actor Matilda De Angelis, whose portrayal of the Latina vixen-victim Elena Alves humanizes the chalk outline of a character. Elena, a young mother of two and a sculptor, first meets Grace at a planning meeting for an auction to raise money for the swanky school both their sons attend. As we quickly learn, Elena is having an affair with Grace’s husband, a pediatric oncologist named Jonathan. The series tells the story of the aftermath of that affair.

But before we get to see the murder, we get to ogle Elena. In the first episode, Elena bares a single breast to feed her infant daughter; we view the suckling from six angles for more than 20 seconds. Then Elena approaches Grace in a luxe gym locker room. We see Elena fully nude, front and back, for about 30 seconds. In the second episode, we’re barraged with flashbacks to the scene of the murder: multiple angles of Elena, in a gown with dramatic cleavage, begging for her life before getting hammered in the face. Then, when the not-so-good doctor is on the stand during his trial for the murder, we see Elena, in his memory, dancing in her underwear and shedding her bra. On cross-examination, the prosecutor asks the accused to look at a poster-size screen displaying images of the sculptor’s smashed-up face. We get seven shots of the screen.

The storytellers pace this series like a striptease. By the time we get the full picture of Elena’s murder, in the finale, we’ve seen flashes of her slaughter at least nine times. The big reveal starts with sex. Elena and Jonathan, in evening wear, energetically and wordlessly entangle. Their intercourse is shot from eight angles, with rapid cuts. It seems that, like the lovers, the storytellers can’t get enough of this action. Then, suddenly, Jonathan smashes Elena’s head against the wall nine times. He seizes her sculptor’s mallet and strikes her with it at least 11 times. It is as sickening as television gets.

Yet, aside from the garb and other glamorizing details, this scenario is as everyday as plots get. In 2018, an average of three women were murdered by an intimate partner every day in the U.S.

This is likely the umpteenth piece you’ve seen about The Undoing, but the spotlight turned on the series has shone everywhere but domestic violence. Vogue writes about “The Secrets Behind Nicole Kidman’s Natural Makeup Look in The Undoing.” Time writes about Donald Sutherland’s eyebrow acting. And New York writes about Grace’s coats.

Why aren’t critics talking about violence against women and Hollywood’s habitual commodification of it? Maybe because knowing how common it is for a woman to be beaten to death might disturb our enjoyment of watching it happen, again and again and again. And who wants to ruin a distraction by focusing on reality?

The sexualization and selling of violence against women is important to see with open eyes and critical distance. The Undoing is based on a book called You Should Have Known, and it’s true: Everyone should know that “violence against women is a global problem of pandemic proportions,” as the World Health Organization says. Awareness is key to funding services for domestic-violence survivors and mobilizing the will for the political changes necessary to address violence against women.

One way to educate the public about these harsh realities is through pop culture. The Undoing does a horrible job of it, but other series, such as Netflix’s Unbelievable, the second season of BBC One’s Criminal Justice, and the stalwart Law and Order: SVU, sensitively portray sexual violence and its aftermath. HBO’s Big Little Lies, in which Kidman’s character is abused by her husband, was praised by critics and domestic-violence nonprofits for how it handled the complex issue on-screen.

Meanwhile, for The Undoing, HBO didn’t even insert an afterword about domestic violence or list resources victims could call upon. The cable channel had the opportunity to highlight an enormous problem. Instead it perpetuated a big, dangerous blind spot.

* Due to an editing error, this article previously misstated that O. J. Simpson was accused of killing his girlfriend. In fact, he was accused of killing his ex-wife.