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LIFESTYLE & ENTERTAINMENT

Ever found yourself empathising with a murderous psychopath? Me neither

HBO limited series The Undoing does a stellar job of creating elements that make the red flags easy to ignore as the target of your suspicions change with each episode
Thu, Dec 10, 2020

I believe it was a great philosopher in BoJack Horseman who once said, "When you look at someone through rose-coloured glasses, all the red flags just look like flags".

This is a sentiment which has proven true in both reality and fiction time and again. As the self-proclaimed queen of psychological thrillers, I have always been weirdly fascinated or intrigued with understanding the psyche of the characters that are portrayed in texts.

Think Dr. Hannibal Lecter (The Silence of the Lambs) or every third man's role model, Patrick Bateman (American Psycho). My personal favourite will always be Heath Ledger as The Joker. More recently, Darren Criss blew me away with his portrayal of Andrew Cunanan in The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story. This week it was The Undoing's Dr. Jonathan Fraser.

The common link here is that these men were considered psychopaths.

When we think of that word, we tend to associate it with evil or darkness because these men also happened to murder for sport. How does one arrive at that point? At which point do they become unhinged? From the perspective of my ongoing fascination alone, it's safe to say that these characters have a knack for revealing fundamental truths about ourselves as well as our morality.

The mind is an incredibly powerful instrument and how we perceive people (or rather choose not to), often has the potential to land us in more trouble and trauma than one could have bargained for. That is the point, plot and premise of The Undoing.

The captivating six-episode murder mystery inspired by the book aptly titled You Should Have Known follows the story of Grace Fraser (Nicole Kidman) – a Manhattan based psychologist whose life begins to spiral when her husband Jonathan Fraser (Hugh Grant) is implicated as a key suspect in the death of Elena Alves, a young mother at their son's school who is also later revealed to be Jonathan's mistress.

The more I giffed and live-tweeted through it, the more I realised the point was to destabilise audience members as we speculated over who killed Elena and the suspicions changed with every episode, like we did not have a key suspect with motive from the very beginning.

The first two episodes do a brilliant job of putting us in Grace's position, where nothing is adding up despite all the red flags that keep appearing. We are doubting Jonathan, speculating and fact checking with her and the whole process is so incredibly stressful and chaotic as we try to understand the mindset and motive of the suspected murderer.

Did Jonathan kill his mistress, or is he just an inconsiderate ass***e who happens to be positioned at the centre of the crime? And he is the very same charming Englishman some of us have come to know and love over the years. Classic Hugh Grant – charming, witty and intelligent with a dash of romance that could throw anybody off their axis.

This kind of plot device, often without realising, diverts our focus away from him and onto Grace as we lean into her internal conflict. It will result in the confusion of suspecting her, her father, her friend Sylvia and even her son Henry at some point – basically everyone except the suspect that was presented to us from the beginning, which is the entire point.

The man, when all escalates, admits to his affair, to sleeping with both Elena and then his wife the night of the tragedy along with a whole host of other revelations – but does that make him a murderer? The Undoing does a stellar job at tugging at the elements that make the red flags just look like flags and that would be the conflict between emotion and reason.

The portrayal of psychopathic characters often forces us to confront how much we care for and are even willing to make excuses to justify why someone would be incapable of doing something like that. This is the basis of where psychopaths draw their strength and keep you entangled in a game with them. It is just that – an endless game of proving to themselves just how far they can push you while you demonstrate how much you care about them.

Trying to solve the mystery from Grace's perspective reinforces that there is nothing that can physically alert you that the person is dangerous because they come to you in the form of the charming, convincing and emotionally invested Hugh Grant, and that man will be believable every time until he blows his own cover and you're able to get out.

As the episodes progress, you find yourself looking for anyone to blame it on but him and for the most part it works. It positions us as the partner who ignores every sign no matter how many more are placed in front of her.

So, where you are expecting plot twists or vindication for believing what you choose to, expect to sit in silence for at least 10 minutes after the finale when you realise that the analogy about something quacking like a duck is one of life's unwavering truths.

It is always a duck.

  • The Undoing episode 3 plays on M-Net (DStv 101) on Monday, 14 December at 9.30pm. Episodes 1 & 2 are available on DStv Catch-Up and Showmax

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