The Undoing: Episode 2 introduces key departures from HBO series' source, and not entirely for the better

In Episode 2 of HBO's The Undoing, shocking revelations about her husband Jonathan (Hugh Grant) keep piling up for a stunned Grace (Nicole Kidman) over the course of a day.

Rohini Nair November 03, 2020 08:00:16 IST
The Undoing: Episode 2 introduces key departures from HBO series' source, and not entirely for the better

Still from The Undoing, Episode 2 | HBO

The following post contains spoilers for Episode 2 of The Undoing.

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Two episodes into its run, and HBO's The Undoing already seems to be veering away from its source material — Jean Hanff Korelitz's 2014 best-seller, You Should Have Known. While the trailer (which includes flashes of a courtroom trial that certainly never takes place in the book) indicated that the David E Kelley-Susanne Brier show would take some liberties with Korelitz's plot, episode 2 is where the divergence begins.

A little hazy on what happened in Episode 1? Skim through our recap.

Episode 2 catches up with an increasingly anxious Grace, who is unable to reach Jonathan in Cleveland, where he said he'd be attending a medical conference. Elena Alves' murder is on the news, and the scene at Henry's school, Reardon, the next day, is of a media frenzy. The mothers drop off their children, and discuss the latest developments: Elena's husband has turned himself in to the cops. Cue bitchy gossip from one of the women about how she once spoke with Mr Alves and "assumed he was the janitor".

During the course of her day (still no word from Jonathan), Grace heads to the hospital where he's employed. She meets his boss, who absolutely refuses to talk her, making cryptic remarks about being "constrained" from doing so. Grace barely has a few minutes' mental reprieve at her father's home, where she takes Henry after school, when the police detectives assigned to the case ask her to go down to the station for questioning.

Grace is then informed of several things by the detectives: that Jonathan was fired from the hospital three months ago, after a disciplinary hearing for improper contact with a patient's family member. The patient is Miguel Alves. The family member is Miguel's mother Elena. That they believe Grace is deliberately withholding information about Jonathan's whereabouts.

The revelations continue the next day: her friend Sylvia tells Grace that Jonathan had sought to hire her to represent him during the hospital's disciplinary hearing. However, she didn't hear from him later and assumed the matter had been settled. She suggests that Grace get away from the city for a while — advice that Grace's father (played by Donald Sutherland) also reiterates.

With the police searching their apartment and seizing Jonathan's things (they're also investigating if he could be the father of Elena's younger child), Grace and Henry go away to the family's beach house; she has a sense of being watched by an intruder. Surprise: it's Jonathan, looking to tell Grace and Henry "the truth". He and Elena had an affair, Jonathan claims, and then she grew obsessed with him, his life, Grace. He became worried on learning of Elena's attempts to get closer to Grace — first on the school auction committee, then at the gym, and finally on the night of the fundraiser. He admits to having seen Elena at her studio that night, leaving her for a while as he got a drink at a bar, and returning to find her murdered. He turns from a disbelieving Grace towards a more welcoming Henry, and the episode ends as Grace calls 9-1-1.

In You Should Have Known, Jonathan never sees Grace after disappearing on the night of the fundraiser. He writes to her later, admitting to some of his misdeeds, feeding her some possibly false information about his location, all of which she hands over to the police. The book is not so much a did he-didn't he murder mystery, but rather an exploration of what it means to discover that everything you thought you knew about a person is a lie. Especially when that person is part of your innermost circle — your partner/spouse, with whom you've built a life. The mystery in You Should Have Known is not "who killed Elena" (or Malaga, as the character is known in the book), but "who is Jonathan", and Grace realises that she — Jonathan's partner of more than a decade — doesn't know the answer. Her confusion, the slow stripping away of all of her certainties, is what makes the story compelling.

With the ending of Episode 2, however, it seems that The Undoing will be taking a more conventional whodunit path, with the audience being put in the place occupied by Grace in the book — that of confused onlookers wondering how much of what we know and are being told/shown, is reliable.

As a storytelling device, one sees why this shift might be necessary — a TV show or film cannot be as interior as a book, you can't possibly have several hours of screen-time solely depicting Grace's mental agitation and feelings — no matter how convincingly Nicole Kidman carries off the role of betrayed wife.

What's harder to understand is the near exploitation of Elena Alves as a character. In You Should Have Known, Malaga is a bit of a blank — in the way victims in a murder story often end up being depicted as the least important characters of that story. That very blankness — all we really know about her is that she's a beautiful woman — lets the reader (and Grace) project various attributes onto her as Jonathan's numerous perfidies are exposed.

The Undoing, however, does something a little more uncomfortable with her character; the gaze — both the camera's and the other characters' — seems exaggeratedly sexual. She is even more a body than being merely "the body". If episode 1 shows her in the nude or partly clothed in key scenes with Grace, then in episode 2, Grace imagines her in cinch with Jonathan, having sex with Jonathan, being bludgeoned (perhaps by Jonathan). Elena, in the ways we see her, seems not to transcend her physicality.

Doubtless this specific manner of depicting Elena has a point. But while The Undoing gets there, all a viewer can do is squirm.

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