Who Gets to Be a Sympathetic Character in The Undoing?
On Victimhood as a Privilege of Whiteness
Rarely have I encountered a character more obviously fated to become a murder victim than in The Undoing, HBO’s new six-part miniseries. This doomed person is Elena Alves, the mother of a scholarship student at an elite Manhattan prep school—the kind of outsider who, in the first episode, brings her newborn baby to a fundraising committee teatime and then disturbs the members (all Upper East Side moms) by breastfeeding the infant right there at the table. Because of this behavior Elena is construed as uncouth, suspected of being “off,” and even called “hostile”—labels the mothers seem all-too-ready to apply because of what else Elena seems to be. She is a whole collection of qualities construed as both shocking and out-of-place in this setting: young, sexy, Latina, working-class, mentally ill, and (probably) bisexual.
The series ravenously constructs her as a disruption in all these ways and more, always the only character going against the behavioral grain. Buck naked, she approaches our protagonist Grace in the locker room at their gym. She shows up at a school fundraising gala in a tremendous dress, garnering as much attention from tuxedoed young men as she draws gossip from the other mothers. She cries in a bathroom stall at the event. She kisses a stunned Grace on the lips during an elevator ride. She appears in myriad erotic flashbacks, having sex with someone else’s husband. She flees from the party, early and alone. It’d be ludicrous to simply say she doesn’t fit in; the show takes advantage of every possible opportunity for her to stand out.
And, long before the first episode even ends, Elena is found dead in her pale-pink party dress, lying in a puddle of her own blood, her head bashed in to the point of facial unrecognizability—a development only too inevitable after being presented as kaleidoscopically troublesome to this rigid societal world.
The series seems to be attempting an indictment of this society: Elena’s attractiveness and her social differences conspire to threaten the order of this wealthy, white-supreme echelon—and so she must be destroyed by it. From the moment she walks onscreen—shy, gravelly-voiced, thickly-accented, utterly gorgeous, and batting her eyes at Grace—she is so clearly going to die, and die viciously, as a kind of punishment for being all these things.
The Undoing attempts to be a show that criticizes white, privileged society and exposes the disingenuousness and contempt this society has for, to use the patronizing words of a committee mother, “the less fortunate”—and even more so, the people in that very category who do not submit to the roles that this society designs for them. Elena’s ultimate fate is Exhibit A in support of this thesis.
Unfortunately for the series, though, it employs far too simplistic a methodology in its attempt to produce any real meaning in this vein; if The Undoing initially suggests that Elena’s death reveals the monstrousness of the upper-crust (particularly white, wealthy men), and therefore promises to critically dismantle and denounce the social politics of the 1%, it fails spectacularly at doing so.
This is because Elena is no different in the eyes of the show than she is in the eyes of the wealthy Manhattanites around her. Nothing makes this clearer than the fact that her death is treated as the ultimate inciting incident for a different story: a tragic event that leads to the ruin of someone else’s life, a red flag moment that ignites someone else’s journey of self-discovery and redemption. In The Undoing, this ‘someone else’ is a wealthy white lady. And the constantly-“othered” Elena is at best a metaphor and at worst a plot device.
The Undoing is based on Jean Hanff Korelitz’s 2014 novel You Should Have Known and adapted for the screen by David E. Kelley (of Big Little Lies Fame, so, to all the folks wondering why The Undoing went so far off the rails in attempting a socio-economic critique… you should have known). It tells the story of a successful New York city therapist, Grace Fraser (Nicole Kidman), whose life unravels following a tragic killing connected to her son’s school. And when her pediatric oncologist husband Jonathan (Hugh Grant) vanishes shortly thereafter, she learns that he is the lead suspect in the murder investigation.
The Undoing is a domestic thriller that starts out as a murder-mystery and ends as a courtroom drama. Throughout, Grace becomes many things: a blindsided wife forced to confront that her beloved husband might not be the man she thinks he is, a pseudo-detective who begins looking for clues about his identity, and a legal mastermind who uses her testimony to unearth the truth about his real nature.
Her trauma, her investigations, and her strategies have nothing to do with the actual crime that has taken place—the brutal murder of a young woman—and all to do with her domestic crisis. Make no mistake, in The Undoing, the murder victim Elena is not the story’s actual victim. The real victim in this series, to this series, is Grace. The “undoing” in the title refers to the busting of Grace’s family’s domestic bliss, not that of Elena’s skull, and certainly not that of her own family.The Undoing is a domestic thriller that starts out as a murder-mystery and ends as a courtroom drama.
I’ve repeated myself, but I’m going to do it one more time, just in case: yes, the victim in The Undoing is Grace, who is a white, wealthy woman with a PhD from Harvard, a multimillionaire father (Donald Sutherland), and no other hardships whatsoever, aside from lately discovering that she may have overlooked signs of her husband’s sociopathy in their fourteen years of marriage. The victim is not Elena (the Italian actress Matilda De Angelis), the young mother who dies a terrifying and painful death. The victim is not even her little son Miguel (Edan Alexander), who finds her body, or her grieving husband Fernando (Ismael Cruz Cordova). The show is about Grace coming to terms with who her husband really is—excavating signs that she may have dismissed throughout the years, that suggest he really is a murderer.
But what is Jonathan’s possible motive for possibly murdering Elena? Well, as it turns out, Jonathan had an affair with her, after they met while he was curing her son of cancer. Jonathan insists that he broke off their affair after she became obsessed with him, his life, and his family. He’s gotten her son into the prep school, at her behest, and now she only wants more. But it seems Elena wants to combine their families, somehow? In other words, if her behavior is why he killed her, it’s motivated by his fears of her desired upward social mobility, her attachment to people and a life she is not supposed to have.
The series allows his concerns about her attachments to seem plausible; we’ve seen Elena stare at Grace, bare her body to her, confide in her, kiss her. We’ll discover later that Elena, an artist by trade, has been painting Grace—a vibrant oil-on-canvas that makes Grace look like a goddess. Elena’s forward and a tad creepy, there’s no doubt about it.
It’s unclear what all this means… if Elena is into both Grace and Jonathan, or if she wants to become Grace. But it doesn’t quite matter. Both her sexuality and her mental health are categorized pejoratively by the series itself, especially when it’s revealed that she has previously sought psychological help, a development which is supposed to confirm her off-ness, and present her as even more of a threat for potentially being unhinged. All of this information about Elena is supposed to give credence to Jonathan’s desire to discard her, one way or another. What it does, of course, is render her more of a cliché and, in turn, unmask the show’s targeted indictment as nothing more than tepid, and nothing less than hypocritical.
The series wants us to suspect, to be wary of its encroaching Latin characters. It spares no sympathy whatsoever for Fernando, making him a rather menacing character rather than simply a grieving one—an element which seems an attempt at drama rooted in malevolent stereotypes of Latin American men. He mysteriously stalks Grace, erupting in rage whenever he can. When he follows Grace in the park (pushing an UppaBaby stroller), he’s represented to us as a possible menace—accompanied with foreboding music and given the ability to shift in and out of shadows.
After he confronts her in her office, Grace even feebly tells the detectives on the case that Fernando’s been “stalking” her. In one scene, after we have watched him follow her on a dusky walk through Central Park, she faints, collapsing to the ground. During the trial, Jonathan’s legal team (hired and funded by Grace) is all-too-willing to suggest that Fernando murdered his wife, instead, and the audience is clearly supposed to find this believable.
It’s not entirely possible, in the atmosphere of the show, to give Fernando credit for simply being heartbroken, just like it is not possible for the show to respect the work of its other Latin character—NYPD Detective Joe Mendoza (Edgar Ramírez), whose doggedness and suspicion of Grace’s family are presented as nuisances to her life and well-being. We’re supposed to feel for her when she slams him, time and time again, for looking into her and Jonathan’s life. If the show is critical of these rich white people for being so insular, so haughty, so detached from the real world, it doesn’t reveal this, because it so clearly makes all of its Latin characters interlopers. Or, you know, maids.
Critically, in this regard, Elena is not greater than the sum of her parts, merely an assemblage of titillating, sensational “otherings” cooperatively masquerading as character-complexity but which really exists to qualify the behaviors of the Frazer family. We know so little about what she’s actually like. For a moment (in the first episode), this feels fairly familiar; after all, the series begins as a kind of whodunit, which is then subsumed by the domestic drama about the state of Grace’s marriage. This change in genre should lead to a change in how Elena’s character is handled. In murder mysteries, the dead bodies are merely plot devices, no matter how much research into their past lives the detectives complete, no matter how much of their humanity is reconstructed. The murder mystery is the someone else’s story, the detective’s playground—a puzzle for a great mind to solve.
In the traditional murder mystery, the dead body is the least important character in the story and the most important, well, “event.” A corpse is, above all else, an excuse for the detective to do the detecting. In the beginning of the twentieth century, during the craze of Detective fiction writing we now refer to as the Golden Age of Detective fiction, numerous writers and critics began putting together rules or “commandments” for these stories. T.S. Eliot wrote one in 1927. Ronald Knox, a member of the mystery writer’s guild known as the Detection Club, which included luminaries Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and G.K. Chesterton (someone please let me write this pilot), wrote one in 1928.
Neither of these lists, which include recommendations about how to plot, build suspense, and how supernatural stuff is not allowed, mention the figure of the dead body, though there always must be one. The only list of this era that did was published by the writer S.S. Van Dine, that same year. He offered a simple recommendation about the lifeless victim: “There simply must be a corpse in a detective novel, and the deader the corpse the better.”
The point of the corpse is that it’s there, and it’s not human. It exists for someone else’s spotlight. Elena’s body fulfills this requirement for as long as the show is a murder mystery. But when it shifts to a melodramatic domestic suspense story, Elena’s role should shift too. After all, most postmodern domestic stories involving suspecting a husband of murder take a cue from Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel Rebecca, whose dead pseudo-“other woman” character does not have any sympathy, sure, but does have so much complexity and power that the novel is literally named after her.
The move away from the traditional murder format, towards the framework of household-dynamics, should actually increasingly humanize the outsider Elena. After all, she and Grace are primed to be parallel figures—most notably, in that they are both represented as mothers who would do anything for their young sons.
But the show’s blatant choosing of Grace over Elena does even more than accidentally submitting the whole series to the problematic attitudes promoted by the snobby UES residents. Inadvertently, through this all, The Undoing represents sympathetic victimhood as a privilege, itself—and a privilege given to white women rather than Women of Color.
We know this concept to be horrifically true in real life. There are many cases, most famously that of Breonna Taylor, the young Black woman who was shot dead while sleeping, who was reframed by various media outlets as having once dated a shady person. Trayvon Martin, the unarmed Black teenager who was killed while walking down the street, was posthumously labeled “no angel” by the media. Ahmaud Arbery, the young Black man out running in Georgia who was chased and killed by white vigilantes, was later revealed to having wandered onto an abandoned property during that same outing, a detail that preposterously caused many outlets to regard him dubiously.The Undoing represents victimhood as a privilege, itself—and a privilege given to white women rather than Women of Color.
It’s twisted that, in American culture, to be considered a sympathetic victim of violence after violence has obviously, destructively been perpetrated, is a kind of privilege. Being murdered and then having various institutions look for excuses of some kind to mitigate the horror or justify it in some way, as both Jonathan Frazer and The Undoing do to Elena, is not something that happens to white (heteronormative) people, only People of Color. Conversely, Kyle Rittenhouse, the white teenager who murdered two protesters in Wisconsin in August, was just released on $2 million bail (very coincidentally Jonathan’s bail amount, also ponied up) in the end of November, with money raised in a bail fund by various white conservatives.
In The Undoing, Grace is clearly framed as being the one who doesn’t deserve the lot that has befallen her. When she walks into the dimly-lit and dirty police station, with police officers who want to interrogate her, the camera pans over a loud and unruly stranger. Grace, in her long green designer coat, shudders slightly as she passes—she too sticks out like a sore thumb, but it’s to signal that she doesn’t belong in this bad, uncivilized place.
Indeed, Grace’s white femininity is represented as the most fragile, jeopardized entity of the show—when she collapses on her walk, the episode ends, on a cliffhanger about her well-being, whereas the discovery of the show’s other prostrate female body, Elena’s, is the scene that opens the entire show. Elena’s murder launches the story, but Grace’s health is the story’s concern.
Partially why Elena is not allowed to be a victim is that she must be a figure of blame. The show fantasizes that it indicts men for violence against women. This hope is typified by how one of its good guys, the loyal friend Sylvia (Lily Rabe), says “it’s always the husband” a million times when imagining who could have killed Elena. None of the women, not even Grace (who is suspected by the police) are conceivably suspects (the show might want Grace to be, but it doesn’t drive this home enough). The series seems to believe that, this way, it is condemning men. But it doesn’t.
Elena’s body is represented time and time again as causing her death. In Buzzfeed, Shannon Keating notes that little Miguel’s horrifying discovery of his mother’s physical remains, a scene which is replayed and replayed across the six episodes, is communicated as her way of her traumatizing him with her body. Miguel finds her in her art studio,
“…where she indulged in her own pursuits and slept with other men, away from the family home and her motherly responsibilities. Her wanton lust led her to birth Jonathan’s baby daughter, a scandalous interruption of familial norms. In the end, she’s the floozy who, in death, has forever traumatized her son — the perfect foil to pale, angelic Grace…”
Grace gets to be a good mother, but Elena doesn’t. Grace gets to be a good wife, valuing her husband enough to hire a powerful defense attorney (the scene-stealing Noma Dumezweni), but Elena doesn’t, because she devalued her husband enough to cheat on him. Grace’s name, after all, means… “grace.”Elena’s namesake, by the way, is Helen of Troy, a woman whose beauty fired up a lot of men and so started a lot of trouble.
The only thing that does more for the story than Elena’s dead body is Elena’s live one. After she is killed in the first episode, we only see Elena again in (many) highly sexualized flashbacks—memories, but mostly fantasies that Grace has as she wonders about the events that transpired. Elena’s grotesquely-mutilated body is not a site for necrophilia, but it is a site of a kind of titillation, just the same. In 2003, Susan Sontag noted that “the appetite for pictures showing bodies in pain is as keen, almost, as the desire for ones that show bodies naked.” Indeed, just as much as we see Elena having sex, we also see her literally being murdered—lying on the ground, staring up at the camera (which, with a subjective angle, is the gaze of the murderer).
She begs not to be killed, before a hammer smashes into her cranium, tearing apart her face. The camera, forcing the viewer to identify with the killer, stares down on her through the whole hit, even as her now-braindead head wobbles to the side. Why? Why do we have to watch her die? Does the series expect to locate a kind of satisfaction in this, this scene we’re not supposed to see just as much as one of her sex scenes? I think it does.
In the show, in the moments where Elena isn’t sexualized, she is nonetheless a sexually-viable entity, there with her newborn baby, whom she has had with a wealthy white man and who embodies a kind of permanent takeover, a little bit, of this society. Elena’s body—all of it—is the threat, here. It’s everywhere. Her breasts appear during a staid luncheon. Her ass appears at the gym. Her body appears where it does not belong, does things it’s not supposed to, looks too good for how disposable it should be. In The Undoing, the greatest pleasure at work among the characters is being able to do things to Elena—welcome her, label her, have sex with her, kill her. Like a game of whack-a-mole, doing things to her body is the only way the characters can cope with how much it keeps popping up.Like a game of whack-a-mole, doing things to her body is the only way the characters can cope with how much it keeps popping up.
The series attempts to justify this a little bit by suggesting that Elena wants to use her body, and have it used. Quite possibly the only moment of power she has across the series is when Elena approaches Grace while naked at their gym. She stands tall and beautiful, bearing her backside to the camera, enjoying her own exquisiteness, possibly even mooning the viewers. The Frasers both have a lot of concerns about her intrusions, but this is her only moment of actual power.
Indeed, in 1908, Freud noted that exposing one’s ass for view is a gesture of “defiance or defiant scorn.” Elena’s wagging her body around the stunned Grace tracks with a reading completed by Columbia professor Frances Negrón-Muntaner in 1997, in her analysis of the discourse surrounding Jennifer Lopez’s body (also through the lenses provided by both of the philosophers mentioned in this paragraph). She noted that ass-accentuation has unbelievable power for the long-oppressed Latina body: “‘…showing ass’ as a sign of identity and pride, ‘kiss my ass’ as a form of revenge against a hostile cultural gaze, and ‘I’m going to kick your ass’ vis-a-vis the economic exploitation implicated in racism.” Here, Elena gets to invert her sterotyping (as the sort of pervasive “hot Latina” archetype also written about by Negrón-Muntaner) and objectification while it’s happening.
But the series does not ever give Elena’s body its full power—just its full impact. Because this is never not Grace’s story, Elena’s confidence is construed as a kind of antagonism, transforming her into the confident temptress that the other Fraser partner has already seen, attempting to use her body to subvert her position regarding a particular social station. As Mikhail Bakhtin wrote in 1965, “The rump is the ‘back of the face,’ the ‘face turned inside out.’” And, so, to castigate Elena for enticingly undressing her ass to get what she wants, the show has her face be smashed in, pulped beyond recognition.
Elena is, with all her clichés, a convenient scapegoat, for all the UES parents—an Icarus figure who tried to fly too far from her rung and ultimately met her doom in doing so. The series, itself, does not offer a different take, chalking up the provocation she bore to her provocativeness, shaming her for putting herself in the position that she did. The show doesn’t go so far as to insinuate that Elena, and not Jonathan, ruined Grace’s marriage. Grace, as well as the series, does come to take him down. But in this, Jonathan, a likely murderer, gets way more psychological complexity, profiling, and sympathy than the woman who likely lost everything to him.
Elena contains within her multitudes of judgements and not one shred of personhood or a personality. She is, for someone who does so much climbing, rarely anything more than a convenient stiff.
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