If there is one rule of 2020, it is that every month of our newly locked-down lives requires at least one zeitgeist-y small-screen diversion. So far, Tiger King, The Vow, I May Destroy You, The Haunting of Bly Manor, The Boys and Ted Lasso have fit the bill. And now, as the darkest winter in recent memory approaches, it’s a bake-off between Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit and HBO’s The Undoing. Both series centre on strong-willed female protagonists and feature spectacular set design, and are imminently binge-able.
Yet it is The Undoing, a collaboration between Big Little Lies writer David E. Kelly and The Night Manager director Susanne Bier, that scratches the more refined of pandemic itches. In its obsession with the super-wealthy, its lurid affair-gone-wrong plot and its devotion to ending every episode on a jaw-dropping cliffhanger, The Undoing makes for the richest of pandemic distractions.
And Sunday night’s penultimate episode was a doozy, ending with the revelation that Henry (Noah Jupe), the tweenage son of perpetually stressed-out therapist Grace (Nicole Kidman) and oncologist-slash-murder-suspect Jonathan (Hugh Grant) was hiding the weapon used to bludgeon Jonathan’s mistress to death.
To dissect the twist of the season, The Globe and Mail spoke with Bier, who directed all six of the series' instalments.
I want to start by talking about the twist at the end of the fifth episode. With Henry revealed as the killer ...
He’s not revealed as the killer! He’s revealed as having the weapon. Not the same thing.
So there are more twists to come in that final episode then?
I guess so. [laughs]
This is why it’s so hard to talk about the overarching narrative of this show, as it’s built on so many twists and turns. But on the question of Henry, it’s interesting how you set his character up, and the family dynamic you build around him.
It is a kind of complicated family unit, isn’t it? I think that in any family, there is someone hiding or harbouring deep secrets. It’s never what it seems. And people sense that. Henry is this very kind of endearing and pre-adolescent character, someone who is very close to both of his parents and who just wants to recapture what he assumed was a happy life.
It’s interesting to consider Henry as a continuation of Jonathan, who we learned in the same episode has a tendency toward sociopathy. An ability or willingness to reset a tragedy that rocked his own seemingly perfect family life when he was young.
Jonathan had a tricky adolescence for sure, and somehow Henry has that as well. But I can’t really speak about it, because I’d reveal too much.
Fair enough. I did read, though, on the notion of revealing things, that you filmed this miniseries as one long movie. Yet each episode offers a cliffhanger moment. As a filmmaker, how challenging was it to structure that narrative?
That’s the fun, actually. It’s fun to enforce those cliffhangers and make sure that they work. The thing about cliffhangers is this: They need to be ingrained in the material. You can’t just do something that totally comes out of the blue. You need to do something shocking that’s somehow a logical conclusion of whatever has come before it.
This story takes place in a very specific, rarefied environment of the Upper East Side. It’s similar to the milieu of your film After the Wedding.
Any sort of world in which you cannot enter as a normal mortal intrinsically draws you in. That notion of, “Behind these walls, something is going on which I can never be a part of.” And once inside, it’s totally fascinating in how enclosed it is. Where you have these beautifully groomed kids being taken to school by a limousine. It’s fascinating placing a bomb, figuratively speaking, underneath that world. You can only see it if you can shatter it.
It’s a specific kind of wealth we’re seeing here, too. Especially with Grace’s father, played by Donald Sutherland. It’s an old-money world.
And then look at that fundraiser scene from the first episode, where it’s completely different money. It’s more out there and showy. Donald Sutherland’s character, his world is having money but being slightly more discreet about it. Yet if you just crack his character a bit, he has an intrinsic sense of entitlement, and he’ll do whatever it takes. There is a brutality to the refinement of that world. A brutality that is somewhat enticing but not necessarily sympathetic.
That intersection of money and power seems to be the driving force of the action.
We were filming when Jeffrey Epstein got arrested, and it was amazing because I kept thinking about how well-protected he was. Many years ago, he should’ve been arrested, but somehow the system protected him. If you have connections, you can buy yourself the best defence in the world. Your chances of being treated differently are remarkable.
You capture New York with such an interesting eye. The interstitials of city life are not mere stock footage but carefully composed portraits of a city in miniature. It reminded me of the way Kenneth Lonergan used the sounds and static shots of Manhattan to fill in the larger world of his movie Margaret.
It’s hugely important, and part of the attraction of the project was being able to use New York as a character in its own right. Literally a year ago, we finished shooting and then the pandemic happened. I went back to Copenhagen and finished my edits, and then in August I went to London, because things were opening back up in Europe, and saw all six episodes on a big screen for sound mixing. Watching it, there was this weird sense of nostalgia. It was only a year earlier, but people are kissing, holding hands, not wearing masks. It was bizarre.
I already know the answer, but are there any hints you can offer on the last episode?
All I can say is that it’s all going to be revealed. We are not cheating anybody.
The series finale of The Undoing airs on Crave/HBO Nov. 29 at 9 p.m.
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