The Undoing episode 1 recap: HBO's Nicole Kidman, Hugh Grant thriller sets up murder mystery amid NYC's elite

Rohini Nair
·6-min read

The following post contains some spoilers for episode 1 of HBO's The Undoing.


In Jean Hanff Korelitz's 2014 thriller You Should Have Known, Grace, a New York-based therapist, is leading a charmed life with her son Henry and husband Jonathan, a paediatric oncologist, until a homicide investigation crops up, with a connection to Henry's tony private school.

This isn't a murder mystery, however. The identity of the killer €" the victim is the mother of one of the younger boys at the school €" becomes evident fairly early on. The 'why' takes a little longer to unravel. You Should Have Known is an exploration of what it means to have the foundations of your life €" all the beliefs and assumptions on which it is grounded €" dissolve from under you. It's about the confusion and unmooredness that results when your idea of the 'truth' turns out to be false, and whether or not you can find your way back to something approaching certainty once again.

Grace is a dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker; she lives in the same home she grew up in (a gift from her father after Grace's mother's death and his subsequent remarriage), Henry goes to the same school €" Reardon €" that Grace herself is an alumna of. Jonathan works at Sloan Kettering, is considered a deeply empathetic doctor, and has even been the subject of a prestigious magazine profile. Grace herself is a therapist, on the verge of publishing her first book €" a self-help relationship advice manual titled 'You Should Have Known'. Grace's hypothesis is straightforward: when things go wrong in a relationship, it's because you chose the wrong person, and that you already have this knowledge because of cues you picked up when you initially met them but have since ignored.

Korelitz's story gets the David E Kelley treatment in the new HBO series The Undoing. With direction by Susanne Bier (The Night Manager, Bird Box), The Undoing stars Nicole Kidman as Grace Fraser and Hugh Grant as Jonathan; the first episode is now available to stream on Disney + Hotstar in India.

The opening moments of this 54-minute episode see Grace, Jonathan and Henry having a regular weekday morning. Grace is preparing for a "ladies tea" €" an auction committee meeting with other Reardon mothers to plan the school's upcoming annual fundraiser; Jonathan for a day at the hospital, and Henry for school. It's a picture of cosy domesticity, schedules and rituals aligned through years of practise.

We see Grace in a session with a client, and then with the other moms at the meeting. These women are all from a similar upper class milieu, they speak the same language, communicate in the same idiom. But there's a new member in their midst €" Elena Alves, the mother of a fourth grade boy called Miguel, who has brought along her baby to the meeting. Elena is an outsider, and not merely because she's a relative stranger to the others: She doesn't belong to the same milieu, she doesn't communicate in the same idiom. The others make strained and polite overtures, but Grace is the only one who infuses a degree of warmth in reaching out to Elena.

The women quickly get down to business, discussing the various items that are up for auction, while Elena €" in an action that reads almost as a challenge €" opens her blouse and breastfeeds her infant. It makes an impression on all the women, who interpret Elena's action in different ways. Theirs is a tight-knit, insular circle into which Elena's arrival acts as a rock heaved into a pond. She's a disruption, one they cannot make sense of.

Elena seems particularly interested in Grace. When Grace is at her exercise studio the next day, she runs into Elena in the changing room. The younger woman, unselfconsciously naked throughout, initiates a conversation with Grace; Grace's discomfiture with Elena's nudity seems not to register with the latter.

The two women meet again, this time at the Reardon fundraiser. As Grace and Jonathan hobnob with the other parents at the soiree, Elena has a flock of admiring men around her. Later, Grace finds Elena weeping in the bathroom; Elena confesses to feeling overwhelmed. She leaves the party, refusing Grace's offer of being dropped home, but thankful for her kindness.

The next day, with Jonathan away at an oncology convention in Cleveland and Henry at school, Grace receives a message from Reardon: there's been a tragedy concerning one of the students, the institution extends all its support etc. Grace's friend soon informs her that the tragedy in question is Elena being found dead by her son Miguel.

Grace is shocked by the news. When the police begin their inquiries and question her as part of the proceedings, she is further unsettled. Her calls and messages to Jonathan, to apprise him of the situation, have gone unanswered, and she's becoming just a little frantic about not being able to reach him. Finally, about to turn in for the night, she realises there's a buzzing sound coming out of one of the drawers in the bedroom €" it is Jonathan's cell phone, tucked away at the back, all of Grace's calls and messages with requests to contact her soon, reflecting back at her, unread. Jonathan hasn't told her which hotel in Cleveland he's at, apart from the fact that it's a Hyatt. Grace calls all the Hyatt hotels in Cleveland; there's no Jonathan Fraser at any of them (or at least not a Jonathan Fraser that's her husband). The episode ends with Grace, panic mounting, not yet sure of just what this might mean.

This first episode has several divergences from the corresponding portions of You Should Have Known (and the trailer indicates that the show may continue to chart a different arc than the book), but the most significant of these departures seems to be the depiction of Elena. The Elena Alves in the book seems to be almost unconscious of her sensuality, and doesn't seem especially curious about Grace or single her out for attention. In The Undoing, Elena comes across as more of a femme fatale, aware of the effect of her appearance. And she seems drawn to Grace in some (at this point in the story) inexplicable way.

The Undoing's episode 1 only just takes us to the cusp of its central mystery, but Kidman and Grant's pairing works, as a comfortable, affectionate couple with their gentle grumblings and easy connection. The glimpse into the world of the Reardon mothers €" the class consciousness, the gossip, the competitiveness and bitchy elitism €" is also deftly delivered. Episode 2 €" when the narrative takes on its true contours €" will be the test of just how good an adaptation The Undoing is, how well it takes viewers down the path of what Grace really should have known.

Watch the trailer here €"

Also See: The Friday List: From a Halloween special murder mystery to Mirzapur Season 2, your weekly calendar of virtual events

Lovecraft Country's unintended racial horror: How the HBO series uses Black trauma as narrative currency

HBO, WB movie channels to get discontinued in India from 15 December, WarnerMedia announces

Read more on Arts & Culture by Firstpost.