This interview includes spoilers for Sunday’s finale of “The Undoing.”
Sunday night’s finale of HBO’s “The Undoing” finally wrapped up its modest mystery (Who murdered Elena Alves?), tickled us one last time with Nicole Kidman’s fab winter coats and seized the attention of the internet. (“Based on Twitter I’ve deduced that a fancy coat played by Hugh Grant killed a baby,” one writer quipped on Twitter.)
Grant himself planned to avoid social media after the show’s conclusion, he said on Monday morning, “but then I took a quick look and two hours later, I’m still scrolling.”
“There are plenty of people who are telling me how old I look, and they’re not wrong,” he added. “But the fact that they liked the finale is huge.”
If “Undoing” didn’t quite reach the “Who Shot J.R.?” or “Who killed Laura Palmer?” level of fevered fascination, the six-week limited series did qualify as event television in the pandemic era, something to obsess about while the world was on pause. Socially-distanced viewers with time to kill gathered around the social media water cooler to lust after the resplendent clothes and spin increasingly implausible theories.
Grant’s Dr. Jonathan Fraser was the main suspect, but was that too easy an answer? What about the son, Henry (Noah Jupe)? Or the father, Franklin (Donald Sutherland)? Not even the police detective (Edgar Ramírez) was completely above suspicion. Celebrity fans like Kerry Washington, Ava DuVernay, Kourtney Kardashian and Carole Radziwill joined the de facto national jury, while Kidman and Ramírez encouraged guesswork.
But after a red herring buffet, the final twist served up the person originally positioned as the obvious suspect; Jonathan Fraser turned out to be — yes — a killer. Jonathan murdered his mistress, Elena, partly because she wanted to befriend his wife, Grace (Kidman), and partly because he was just a narcissistic sociopath who happened to have a sculpting hammer at hand. Could it really be that simple?
“One of our goals was to have the audience experience him as Grace did,” the showrunner David E. Kelley said. “Our starting point was to give you the truth of Jonathan, and then dare you to discard that truth along the way.”
The timing of the show, he added, fits the national mood. “The ferocity and the willingness of people to believe in a narrative when the facts are telling you otherwise?” Kelley said. “We’re all a little too familiar with that.”
In separate phone interviews, Grant (from England) and Kelley (from California) discussed how they shaped the finale, including the pivotal murder scene flashback. These are edited excerpts from the conversations.
Part of the show plays with our longtime perception of Hugh Grant and what we might think of as typical Hugh Grant roles. “The Undoing” weaponizes that charm against us.
HUGH GRANT Honestly, I wanted to get away from those characters. I’m more comfortable if I’m playing a character that’s far away from me than some version of myself. This was subject to some debate because I could tell that [the director Susanne Bier] wanted me to do just what you said and bring some of the old Hugh to this. I think that was quite clever of her. She thought: “What fun to have this guy. People will say, ‘Not the guy from “Notting Hill”! Not the guy from “Love Actually”! He can’t swing a hammer 14 times into someone’s face.’”
DAVID E. KELLEY We put this wonderful, charming man in front of you, and the show pointed to him, and it’s a testament to Hugh’s ability and Susanne Bier’s direction that the audience held tight to the “what if?” of it all: “Maybe he’s innocent.”
GRANT I think Jonathan is one of those narcissists who simply cannot believe that anything negative can happen to them. It cannot have happened because bad things do not happen to the great Jonathan Fraser. I mean, some might say Trump knows intellectually that he lost the election, but when he’s arguing that it was fixed, he believes every word of it. That was the fun of the character.
I read up on the differences between a narcissistic personality disorder, psychopaths, and sociopaths, and I can’t even remember the differences now. You can get your head quite scrambled by all that stuff, and you’ve got five and a half episodes of trying not to give the game away. You can’t do some flicker of quiet anxiety across his face. In the margins of my script, I referred to him as two characters. One I called J.B., which was John Boy, which is the name I made up for this spoiled man, and then there was I.J., Innocent Jonathan, which was an act.
Jonathan’s mask falls when his wife testifies against him, in an interesting twist to get around spousal privilege.
KELLEY We wanted the audience to believe that when Grace took the stand, she could still be corrupted by her own biases. Part of the title of “The Undoing” refers to the undoing of her marriage, her family and her life, but ultimately it also refers to her salvation. Her husband’s attorney had put on a masterful defense, and she was going to orchestrate the undoing of that defense. There is no rule that wives and husbands can’t testify against each other, but spousal privilege can be waived if the defense calls her to the stand. And nothing she testified went to privileged communications. We wanted to be accurate, to be able to justify the mechanics, but we were not intent on explaining them all.
Do you see the show as commentary about how the wealthy navigate the legal system?
KELLEY We really did want to suggest the power that goes with Franklin’s influence. Power and money accomplish results that are not available to ordinary people. And that did offer us a nice helicopter scene!
Were any lines ad-libbed in the finale?
GRANT When I make Henry sing, that was a song that my family used to sing in the car on holidays by the seaside. Effectively, that is an improvisation.
Not the strange bit about clams?
GRANT Clams is very David E. Kelley. There is a fish theme running through all his series. He lives somewhere in Northern California with Michelle Pfeiffer and spends all day out on a boat catching and stroking and loving fish. I occasionally would email David about lines, but he’s never in the office. He was always out fishing, and he had to confess to his fish habit.
KELLEY Is Hugh suggesting I was playing hooky from my job? [Laughs.] I wouldn’t say I have a fish theme! Fishing just comes up but not in any overriding thematic way. It’s probably unconscious wishful thinking on my part that sometimes when I’m at my desk, I secretly wish I were on a riverbank.
How did the murder, finally revealed in flashback, change in the telling?
GRANT It was kind of ambiguous at first.
KELLEY From the original concept, Jonathan was always guilty. That didn’t change. But the severity of culpability did. Originally, Jonathan snapped — one swing and suddenly she was dead. And Hugh really did not want it to be gray. He wanted Jonathan to be a monster. I looked him in the eye and I said: “Really? Because we can go down that route.” Most actors want to push you the other way: “I’m willing to behead seven people, but can I at least be sympathetic?” Hugh had no such compunction. He really wanted to go for it. He urged us to make him a monster.
GRANT It’s more fun if he’s definitely a killer. And then Susanne Bier wanted to flesh out the murder scene. That was never in the script. When we cut away to the actual killing, that was something she and I put together because David was off fishing.
KELLEY The murder itself was always part of the architecture. It was scripted, but it was not scripted with a huge amount of detail. That was for Susanne and Hugh to figure out. It can be folly to marry yourself to the scripted words because this is such a heated moment.
GRANT I can’t stress enough, this is David’s script. I’m just throwing a few currants on top. We had a long exchange of emails, and then we had to make Matilda [the actress Matilda De Angelis, who plays Elena] comfortable with the rubbish I’d written. We were just trying to find out what tipped Jonathan over the edge. We came up with a thing where she says that Henry and Miguel could be friends, she and Grace could be friends, they could all meet up and have hot chocolate or something. And that’s what caused Jonathan to snap, like a dog in a car when someone approaches. I wrote in my notes that it wasn’t his first violent episode. There had been a couple that had been hushed up, I think.
We went into a rehearsal room with a hammer, and we just experimented. It could not have been more awkward because it was the first week of shooting, and this poor actress, the first thing she has to do in America is kiss an old man and then be beaten to death: “Kiss me. Smash me on the head with a mallet.” I felt really bad for her. And I just didn’t know how the car ride with my son intercut with brutal sex and murder would go down. It was nail-biting!
Let’s address a few loose ends. What did Jonathan do with the $500,000 loan? A small chunk was used to pay for Miguel’s tuition, but what about the rest?
GRANT I think he might have been in quite a lot of debt. I wonder if Fernando [Ismael Cruz Córdova], once he found out that I was having an affair with his wife and that the baby was mine, if the loan was used as hush money.
Jonathan’s a doctor, yet he never seems to use condoms. Shouldn’t he know better?
KELLEY I don’t know! [Laughs]
GRANT I asked myself that question, too. Why do Grace and I have only Henry? I wondered if there had been a problem. And I think in one draft of the script, there was a mention of some drug that helps you conceive, and you’d see it in the medicine cabinet. One of the appeals of Elena was that she was sort of fecund in a way that maybe Grace wasn’t.
Why didn’t Jonathan dispose of the murder weapon in a body of water? Why leave it on his family’s property?
GRANT Do you remember a moment on the beach when Grace looks up, and she sees a figure in the distance? I told myself that she’d seen Jonathan, and so he quickly got rid of the hammer in the fireplace instead of doing something better with it. What a moron.