Warning: spoilers for “The Undoing” finale, “The Bloody Truth,” ahead.
Leading up to the Sunday finale of HBO’s hit limited series “The Undoing,” countless theories about the prestige whodunit sprouted up on the internet, namely concerning the question: Who killed Elena Alves (Matilda De Angelis)?
Did renowned pediatric oncologist and seemingly devoted father Jonathan Fraser (Hugh Grant) really murder his paramour? Or was it his 12-year-old son Henry (Noah Jupe)? Or could it be that his psychotherapist wife, Grace (Nicole Kidman), and father-in-law, Franklin (Donald Sutherland), were hiding their own dark secrets?
Well, in a not-so-surprising reveal, it turns out the intelligent, rich, white, cheating husband actually did do it.
Jonathan, despite his charming disposition and empathetic persona, turned out to be a sociopathic madman. He brutally bludgeoned Elena, then tried to place blame on his innocent son before kidnapping him for a suicide mission, which led to a helicopter-filled car chase.
If that all sounds over the top, then director Susanne Bier did her job bringing showrunner David E. Kelley’s thriller ― loosely based on Jean Hanff Korelitz’s 2014 novel “You Should Have Known” ― to life.
In this interview, the Danish filmmaker ― known for her work on “After the Wedding,” “The Night Manager” and “Bird Box” ― talks through the finale, the series’ star-studded cast and displaying the seemingly limitless wealth and power of the privileged New York elite.
How does it feel to have the top-secret final episode out in the world?
It feels great. But it’s weird because I’m in Denmark and they still haven’t seen it here ― they’re watching it tonight.
The show took a different approach to the book it was based on, so the audience really didn’t know what to expect. How has it been for you to see people theorizing about the killer? I’m sure making this a series versus a movie allowed you to play around with every character’s guilt a bit, right?
Yes, exactly. It’s been a lot of fun and it’s kind of interesting. Essentially what we wanted to do was give the audience an experience which is similar to Grace’s experience. In a way, you, if you take a step back, you can see that all the evidence sort of points to Jonathan, but we don’t want to believe it. We really don’t want to believe it exactly like Grace didn’t want to believe it. Hugh Grant [Jonathan] is so charming and we recognize that he’s done something bad and he’s been unfaithful, but he’s so full of remorse, so our empathy plays tricks with us. We do kind of want to forgive him and we want to look for another culprit, and that brought that whole sort of craze of “is it this one, or is it this one?” into motion.
Yes. A lot of us assumed Jonathan was this sociopathic murderer, but, again, we’re questioning it alongside Grace. Did you and David ever consider revealing him to be the killer sooner and taking a different approach? Maybe focusing on the aftermath of it all?
Not really. We were very clear about the story. I think one of the things David told me when we spoke for the first time was that he was going to use the book for the first two episodes. The book is more about the aftermath and David felt like it would be easier to have a clearer dramatic structure. Having said that, the book is called “You Should Have Known” and the series is built exactly on that conceit ― you should have known. You should have seen what was really there. It’s essentially all ingrained in our human nature ― that we want to see what we want to see and we change our perception of reality accordingly. It’s exactly what Grace does. In spite of being this brilliant, brilliant therapist, she does it like we all do.
You were so smart to put Hugh Grant in the role of Jonathan. Did you want someone familiar, who was known for being a charming, romantic-comedy kind of guy, in order to dupe the audience?
I mean, I wanted Hugh Grant because he is who he is and he is charming and he has a kindness to him, he has a softness to him, he has a sadness to him. But I always, always thought that he had another side to him as well, and I think so does he. And so we had a lot of fun with calibrating his performances and the audience’s expectations and that whole thing with who Jonathan is. And I want to say that I think Hugh Grant has always been an incredible, complex actor who happened to become very, very popular in a very specific genre. That doesn’t mean he can do one thing, it’s just when you become popular in one thing, that is what people seem to think of you, which isn’t necessarily the entire truth.
Yeah, absolutely. And it was so great to see him opposite Nicole Kidman. A lot of people assumed they had worked together before since they’re a part of the same generation in Hollywood, but they hadn’t. As a director, it must have been amazing to see them perform scenes together and really bring the story to life.
Yeah, it was wonderful. I mean, I was sure they would have great chemistry, but the one thing that made me not worried about it was that they both told me they’d been partying many, many years ago together and they’ve had a lot of fun. I was like, “Yeah, I think you’ll be fine.” [Laughs]
Especially in the lavish New York fundraising circle!
Yeah, no, they can party.
Let’s get into the helicopter-car chase scene. Wow. “The Undoing” really turned into an action flick! What was it like for you to shoot that ending sequence?
It took a lot of work. The crucial thing was that it needed an action beat but it also needed to be totally cohesive to the story. The most important thing and the reason why making that action beat was that we needed to understand how insane Jonathan actually was; how much of a sociopath he was and how delusional in a way he was. I mean, kind of kidnapping his own son to take him on this last ride, it’s just such a crazy, but also oddly human thing to do. It seemed like the right thing to do.
You truly see this toxic father-son dynamic play out in this scene between Noah Jupe and Hugh. You’re witnessing Jonathan’s “undoing,” particularly when he throws Henry’s name out there as a possible killer before he kidnaps him. How did you want to capture their relationship during this car chase?
Well, you kind of wonder, did Jonathan ever love his family? Or was it more their love for him which sort of fed him in the way sociopaths occasionally function? And I think that was the case. He, in his own delusional self, thinks that Henry is enjoying this. You know? When Henry even says, “You murdered a person,” Jonathan says, “Well, it wasn’t really me.” How crazy, how insane is that?
It goes back to the idea that we only see what we want to ― Henry really wanted to believe his dad was the good guy. But, nope, the cheating husband did it.
Tell me about capturing that essence of New York ― that wealthy, Upper East Side feel was palpable the entire run. It all feels nostalgic now, in light of COVID.
It’s funny you say that. We were very, very careful with every decision, and we had some very good inside sources that belong to that world that were helping us. I mean, it was down to what brand of gym shoes Henry would be wearing to school. So we were very, very meticulous about every single decision.
But we had almost finished editing in London when the pandemic struck and I went back to Copenhagen. The editor had a little edit [suite] in his apartment in London, and so we finished the edit by FaceTiming. And then in the late summer when the pandemic seemed to be quieting down and travel opened up again, I went back to London in order to mix the whole series. So I sat in the cinema and watched all six hours in a row and it was oddly nostalgic. Even if it was shot one year earlier, it felt so nostalgic. People were kissing, they weren’t wearing masks, they were touching. And it was just such a different world and felt completely different with everything [the city] had gone through. It was very weird and kind of oddly romantic, actually.
Yeah, because now we’re seeing so many shows made in or featuring the pandemic, with characters wearing face masks, etc. “The Undoing” was one of the only prestige limited series to come out in 2020, but it also took place in the Before Times. So, it just felt extra special. Did you feel that way too, just seeing the response from viewers who tuned in every week?
I just felt that excitement, whether it was because of that or the story or the characters? It’s just been crazy; it’s been growing every single week. I’ve had so many people asking me [about it] ― even my parents who would never watch anything like that. My father will only watch sort of documentary things and my dad had a new theory every week about who had done it. [Laughs]
We watched the life of the privileged unravel on this show, which is a compelling concept. We saw how the Frasers used their power to get what they wanted ― prep school admission, beach homes, helicopter rides. I mean, thanks to his wealthy father-in-law’s top-notch lawyer (played by the wonderful Noma Dumezweni), Jonathan almost got away with the murder!
He almost got away with it! That’s why Édgar Ramírez, who plays the detective, is so fed up with this sort of upper class privilege. He’s so annoyed with Grace and kind of aggressive with her because he’s so fed up with feeling that they’re being resistant. I mean, he’s trying to solve a murder case and they are trying to save their own asses, excuse my language.
I think you captured the life of the Franklin Reinhardt types very well. Lastly, could you see a second season coming out of this or do you respect the limited series approach?
Here’s the thing: For me? I would love to. But at this point, there has been no conversation about it at all. From my point of view, it’s just wishful thinking and, I mean, I’m capable of wishing Father Christmas is real so … [Laughs] I will allow myself to be that wishful thinker knowing that’s exactly what it is.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
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