Class Anxiety, Murder, and The Undoing of the Elite

TV Features The Undoing
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Class Anxiety, Murder, and <i>The Undoing</i> of the Elite

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For a show like HBO’s The Undoing, sculpted in the shape of a whodunit, the finale did not deviate from its genre: The killer was revealed. Yet, as The Undoing unmasked its secrets to the viewer, or rather assuaged the viewer’s prior suspicions, the final confirmation of Elena Alves’s murderer disappointed. On one level, the letdown stemmed from the lack of originality. The circling back to the original suspect, the most guilty-looking suspect, as a true-blood sociopath weakened the series’s respectability as a mystery thriller. But ultimately, I found my lack of zeal for Dr. Jonathan Fraser’s downfall connected to different revelation; locating the murderer was never the source of The Undoing’s central tension. Class anxiety was.

Screening The Undoing works akin to browsing a catalog from Barney’s: something you can look at alone, knowing you’ll never touch or own any of the luxuries within. Prior to the finale, the only online buzz for the series manifested as coat lust. Grace’s (Nicole Kidman) luscious coats exude glamour in a wash of jewel tones, a type of custom item that only serious money can buy. Lucky for the Frasers, they have that money. Grace’s family is old money, her father (Donald Sutherland) oozing the power of a man who can turn any misfortune into an opportunity. Jonathan represents the flip side; a new money classed through an American lens: a well respected doctor, who—through grit and sweat—“earned” his laurels in the upper class. The Undoing shows us the most diversity within the moneyed class than any other demographic within its NYC setting. But above all else, Fraser’s moment in the spotlight destabilizes that privilege.

When their lawyer, Haley Fitzgerald (Noma Dumezweni), questions Grace’s motivation to go on the stand for her husband, she states plainly to her, “What is your truth, I’m having a little trouble tracking it.” At once, that’s a line that speaks to the undoing central to the plot of the show: Grace will sell out Jonathan. But on another level, it spoke to me critically about the ethos of the show itself and the story it wants to tell. During Jonathan’s futile run from the law before his inevitable conviction, the flashbacks confirm his guilt. This didn’t thrill me—that the confirmation of the violence against Elena was by his hand. It didn’t even feel like the show’s true climax. Mining for the core of Jonathan’s desperation and Grace’s decision to betray him does: both want to remain within the upper echelon, unscathed.

Some could speculate Grace backstabbed her husband’s chance at freedom for a multitude of reasons: for her son, for spite. In gauging her son’s wish for a reunified family (“do you hope for that?”) Henry spits back the same question. I’m inclined to see her actions as a good part in self preservation. Her own father remarks on her ability to “always see things so clearly” and a final imperative: you must “see exactly how it will play out.” She reacts on those grounds, choosing the path that gives her the most access to her lifestyle—monetary or social—unmarred. In a way, her disgraced sociopathic husband runs a similar calculus. “So remember, it’s you, my patients, and your mother—that’s my legacy,” he implores Henry before his failed attempt at suicide. With his financial resources, even tangential connection to Grace’s family, and as a white man bestowed with his career credentials, Fraser as a convict serves to have better privileges than nearly any other incarcerated person. It’s not avoiding responsibility but directly losing access to what made him better: the beautiful wife and child, the career that engenders a God complex, the ease with which he could sink into silk bed sheets—with or without a woman who is or is not his wife. It’s that power of living this way, and thinking that living in that manner is the only form of living.

In contrast, the Alves family remains a husk of characterization. We know Elena was beautiful. As viewers, we both see and hear descriptions of her body more than anything else. She and her husband fight in a flashback; he’s shirtless and grabs her by the neck, clad in a cheap t-shirt. The room is yellow, tinted in the way contemporary war movies signal a locale in Mexico and the Middle East—where brown people live, where danger could lurk. The flashback reeks of caricature of poverty. This all arrives to the audience through Miguel, the cancer-remissioned son, as he speaks on the stand. Grace looks on in pained sympathy and I flashback to the premiere: the school auction for disadvantaged children. A bunch of white families spend a thousand dollars for a glass of water, chump change. But for the Frasers, who could save their marriage, overcome or work through a conviction, rally for their son, the thought of a dent in their money-greased lifestyle rings as a life worth not living at all. That family already exists through the Alves. But through the choice not to show a full life through them, the show agrees with the Frasers’: those people deserve simpering smiles and teary eyes for their trouble, but no warmth or depth of real humanity. I’m sure they had it. For them, warm living must be easy, like slipping on and off a luscious coat.


Katherine Smith is an editorial intern and writer at Paste Magazine, and recent graduate of the University of Virginia. For a deeper dive into her current obsessions and hot takes follow her at @kat_marie_tea

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