Warning! Spoilers for “The Undoing.”
HBO’s hit miniseries “The Undoing” is an unexpected exploration of the ugly underbelly of wealthy Upper East Side New York families amid a murder investigation.
Like most people, I am a sucker for a dramatic, soapy HBO series. Their sky-high budgets and incredible production crews have created award-winning programs that enthrall millions of weekly viewers. HBO’s newest project, “The Undoing,” is no exception. The hit miniseries premiered its final episode in November and garnered some of HBO’s highest views since “Big Little Lies.” Though “The Undoing” evokes the feeling of a whodunnit, its subplots highlight a slew of questions about how privilege and judgment hide in plain sight amid wealthy communities.
Helmed by “Big Little Lies” director David E. Kelley, many fans were anticipating familiar stylings such as a picturesque location, gossiping socialites and a mystery to be solved. For the most part, these signatures ring true in this show. However, despite being created in the same vein as past HBO wealthy people murder mystery shows, “The Undoing” features an interesting twist. Instead of a narrative centered on the extravagance of the characters and their affluent community, “The Undoing” indirectly explores the differences in privilege between its two central families.
The Fraser Family
From the get-go, viewers quickly realize both Grace and Jonathan are a wealthy Manhattan couple that both come from upper-crust, educated families. Grace is a practicing therapist and Jonathan is a pediatric oncologist. Together they have a young son, Henry, whom they annually front hundreds of thousands of dollars in tuition for him to attend an elite private institution, Reardon. Their picture-perfect, manicured world comes crashing down when fellow Reardon parent Elena Alves is murdered and Jonathan becomes the prime suspect.
Grace’s character development throughout the series is hindered due to the confines of a six-episode miniseries, but her character provides an interesting perspective into how privilege shapes denial. For half the series Grace vehemently denies that her husband committed the crime. She sets out to prove it was anyone other than him, and she has the privilege of both time and financial resources to do so. When confronting people she believes may have had a role in Elena’s murder, she is unwavering and speaks with an entitlement that is only felt by those who have never encountered instances where their credibility is questioned.
The same goes for her husband, Jonathan. To be completely frank, Jonathan’s character is white privilege personified. Throughout the show there are constant allusions to Jonathan’s “charm” and he frequently uses the way he is perceived by others to his advantage. There are multiple instances of Jonathan getting away with behavior that would have immediately been deemed unacceptable if it came from anyone other than a rich white man. This treatment extends into the legal proceedings when his attorney even acknowledges Jonathan’s awareness of how he is viewed by others.
The Alves Family
Our first introduction to the Alves family is when Elena Alves volunteers to help the Reardon mothers plan an auction event celebrating diversity at the school. Shortly after, Elena is immediately judged by the other women when they discover her son, Miguel, was admitted into Reardon with a scholarship, rather than paying for the full tuition. This judgment sets the unfortunate tone for the way the Alves family would be treated the rest of the show’s run. Not only are Elena and her husband, Fernando, significantly younger than the other parents, they are also working-class people in a community of people born into affluence.
Soon after her gruesome murder, Elena is quickly vilified by the gossiping mothers of Reardon, who discuss her character prior to her death. This only worsens in Episode 2 when it is revealed that Jonathan pulled strings to have Miguel selected for a scholarship as a way to keep Elena quiet about their affair. Once this comes to light, many are quick to slander Elena’s character and accuse her husband of committing the murder in a fit of jealous rage.
Throughout the show, the Alves family is continually disrespected despite the horrendous situation they are in. In Episode 2 it is quickly discovered that Fernando has a solid alibi for the time of his wife’s murder, but Grace is still adamant in her belief that he was the perpetrator. When Fernando grows tired of her accusations and confronts her, she immediately tries to report him to the detectives even though she herself was the one in the wrong.
A Hidden Narrative
If you were to examine the story on paper, you would immediately think all of the sympathy would be granted to Elena and the Alves family. After all, they are an underdog family that is dealt a horrendously painful loss and subsequently made to face an immense amount of scrutiny. However, “The Undoing” limits us to Grace’s perspective rather than the true victims of the story. On one hand, yes, Grace is a victim in the context of her marriage. Her husband was both unfaithful to her and may have committed murder — but that cannot overshadow the loss that the Alves family is suffering.
The direction and narrative focus of “The Undoing” lets it speak volumes for how privilege runs rampant in situations similar to the show’s plot. The series is without a doubt another fascinating watch from the brilliant writers at HBO, but there is much that could have been improved if it wished to address privilege, status and judgment in affluent communities. “The Undoing” is supposedly the story of Elena Alves and her tragic demise, but the show reduces her character to stereotypes of Latinas and women of color in the media.
After the first episode, we only see Elena in brief scenes that are either her body or her death. Fernando Alves is limited to the role of a brooding, stoic man instead of a grieving husband left to care for his family alone. It felt as though Elena and her family took side stage in a story about their own tragedy — something all too familiar when you consider how POC are treated in real-life criminal investigations and legal proceedings.
It goes without saying that “The Undoing” was an entertaining watch. I’m someone who loves a good nail-biter court drama with characters dressed to the nines. Seeing these classic HBO elements intertwined with such morally ambiguous themes and characters was a foreign, but welcome, twist from David E. Kelley. I sincerely hope “The Undoing” serves as a catalyst for more stories that highlight how detrimental unspoken privilege can be in the midst of already tragic circumstances.