Watching the Tower Fall & “The Undoing”

(This contains spoilers for THE UNDOING on HBO)

Of all the cogs that make up noir storytelling, the larger socioeconomic elements and social clashes are what tend to drive it forward conflict-wise. Looking at noir crime fiction, the unspoken issues of living a world of social strata and the eternal struggle between the haves and have-nots are what drive every murder, kidnapping, extortion, and more in crime fiction as we tend to see it in the 21stcentury. 

And in there, we see what is (at least appears to be) one of the constant of the genre, which is that our protagonists are always either straddling social classes or from “lower” social classes and ultimately coming up against the almost-unseeable and definitely-immovable forces that those “upper” classes represent and project. Noir is about the down-and-dirty, the hustler and the crook, the dark corners and dirty secrets, among a world where people worry about bills and worry about consequences in a very real way. 

What I found interesting about HBO’s The Undoing (the 2020 miniseries adapting the novel You Should Have Knownby Jean Hanff Korelitz) though is how it reverses that, not just in being set in the world of money and privilege that such socioeconomic wealth and placement that wealth brings, but in, through the story, giving us the mirror of the noir story as all that privilege that would make these people usually be the antagonists in a more traditional noir story.

The fundamental drive of the short series is questioning whether or not wealthy and beloved family man and doctor Jonathan Fraser (Hugh Grant) did in fact murder Elena Alves (played by Matilda De Angelis), an artist and mother of a child at Fraser’s son’s school. All of it is told through the perspective of Grace Fraser (Nicole Kidman, supported by a growing Internet meme of fashionable winter coats), devoted and loyal wife, herself also of a background of wealth and privilege (countering against Alves, who is not) as her life seemingly falls apart. She questions everything put before her, as any noir protagonist would, but rather than doing so in an attempt to solve the murder, does it to re-evaluate almost every single aspect of her life. She is the cliché of the loyal debutante wife that holds the key, so wrapped up in her perfect life that she’s blind to the true nature of her socioeconomic privilege. Oh, of course she attends the fundraisers for the elite school her son attends that raise money for scholarships so that children like Elena’s son can attend, and she prides herself on her ability to read people as a therapist, as well as the independence she feels she has from her wealthy power broker father, who prides himself on being an “old-school cocksucker,” but deep down, when it all hits and she realizes just how naïve she really is, it begins to crack everything in her world.

If this was a Chandler or Heffernan work, the dogged detective(s) Mendoza and O’Rourke would spend the story as the focus trying desperately to figure out how this upper-crust of Manhattan elite, fueled by the wealth of Grace’s father Franklin Reinhardt (played by Donald Sutherland and his eyebrows) could be cracked to solve the murder of a woman from a less-ritzy part of town who left behind a confused and broken husband and mourning son, as well as a baby that could or could not also be a clue. Grace would, in this story, be nowhere near the focus, and at times might balance between antagonistic but also somewhat-pathetic, a trophy wife either willfully-blind or naively-unaware of the nature of her husband, revealed to be a sociopathic habitual liar. In reversing this though, making Grace our protagonist, she’s now in the detective role considering the possibilities of conspiracy and gears (though not the noir-esque gears of society and wealth and privilege) turning against her and her family. And she struggles with this, because so much of the evidence lines up against her husband and her family. Her husband lost his job after one too many sexual harassment claims at his hospital, he was having an affair with the victim (and in fact her newborn baby was his daughter), he did see her the night she was murdered, and he did take off and run after claiming to have discovered her murder. It doesn’t look good, at all, but of course in a murder story it’s darkest just before the dawn. Grace doesn’t see herself as a character in a story, and there is no metatexual elements to The Undoing, but we as viewers are always aware of those sorts of things. Why wouldn’t there be a twist?

But of course, he did do it. He is revealed to not only be the murderer but that, somewhat-unsurprisingly, to be accused of sociopathy by his long-estranged mother, nowhere near what Grace has thought of him this whole time. There is no real brutal twist here, (the only brutality being the arguably-unnecessary depiction of Elena’s murder) because he did it. He did it an deep down we’re left at the end of the story wondering how we could have allowed ourselves, like the characters in the story itself, to be so fooled byte larger myth that there could be something complex, an unseen machine working against our protagonists Instead, there’s just the brutal reality, which is that a rich white man whose lift was falling apart lied and lied until he could no longer lie, and committed a horrific murder that broke not only his victim’s family, but his own family as well, comfortable in the privilege he had thinking he could get away from it down to the end even as the truth closed in from all sides, even the allies he thought he had like his seemingly-devoted wife and son.

It’s no perfect, of course. It’s hard to portray crime storytelling through privilege and money and power and have any leeway to portray the characters as sympathetic. But The Undoing tries at least be less a rubbernecking look at the “lifestyles of the rich and famous” (but murder!) and more about trying to show just how easily someone could be swayed into complacency through their privileges. And regardless, it’s a ride. It is definitely a ride to follow as a murder-mystery, in true airport-paperback-thriller fashion, which is something I am always a fan of.

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