Eden Mackenzie

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Nicole Kidman and The Undoing of the Damsel in Distress Archetype

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everywhere! at home, at work, in the garden, in the beach. just not in the park, I swear.

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In HBO’s new series, The Undoing, Nicole Kidman stars as Grace Fraser, a therapist, mother, and wife who finds herself embroiled in the chaos of a murder investigation and subsequent trial. The defendant: her husband, played by none other than Hugh Grant, former rom-com superstar, who proves that his acting chops extend far beyond loveable womanizer and comedic leading man. Kidman’s performance packs a punch and her killer witchy wardrobe is so good that the witch she played in 1998’s Practical Magic would be jealous.

How does Kidman flip the archetype of damsel in distress on its head? Well first off, stop reading if you want to avoid any SPOILERS and take my word for it that the series is worth a binge (it’s only 6 episodes!)

Did he? Did he not? At first, we are along for the ride, mixed up in the confusion wondering how and when Jonathan Fraser (played by Grant) could have become a suspect. After all, he’s a pediatric oncologist helping cure children of cancer and a loving husband! (Showcased by a sexy shower scene). Despite years of marriage, the two seem madly in love and Jonathan seems incapable of violence.

And then things start to unfold. He was having an affair. He no longer works at the hospital after a series of complaints were filed against him. As the viewer one starts to think, is he really who he says he is? Is he capable of this?

What’s most alarming is that Grace is a therapist.  She meets with clients every day to help them overcome their personal issues, and in two separate scenes, she calls clients out on their B.S. proving she’s a smart and perceptive woman. Which begs the question, shouldn’t she know who her husband is?

Grace seems lost and unable to get a hold of her bearings, which is when her father comes into the picture.  He provides Grace with a support system and even agrees to help her finance a lawyer and post bail for her husband.  He does this even though he believes Jonathan to be a monster.   Yet, Grace seems like the good and loyal wife, who is going to stay true to her husband and is lucky enough to have a Daddy to bail her out of the mess.

Psh, don’t be fooled! Grace then finds the murder weapon… in her son’s violin case. (WHAT?!) As a viewer, maybe this is when you start thinking wait did the son do it? Have I been wrong in assuming Jonathan’s guilt? After all, it’s a challenge to let go of the idea of their seemingly perfect relationship.  We want Jonathan to be innocent. We want Grace to be able to save her relationship and her family, but at what cost? Could her son, Henry, have done it?  Jonathan asks the very same question: is our son a killer?

What does Grace do? She loses it! Never for a minute does she entertain this question that both Jonathan and us viewers have posed. She knows her son. She knows he would never do something like this.  So now what? Who could have killed Elena Alves (the murder victim, played by Matilda De Angelis)? If not Jonathan or Henry, then who?  Deep down in our heart of hearts, we are hoping that someone is pulled out of the woodwork to prove Jonathan’s innocence. Grace is going to fight for him by taking the stand.  What ensues is pure maniacal genius.

So let’s step back for a moment.  The murder weapon ended up in Henry’s violin case because he put it there.  Wanting to protect his father, he ran it through the dishwasher twice to destroy all DNA evidence, and then he hid it.  In turn, he became an accessory to murder. The Fraser family lawyer, Haley Fitzgerlad (played by Noma Dumezweni) makes this point clear to the entire family once they are presented with the issue of what to do with the murder weapon: do they hand it in or make it disappear?  The state can and will go after Henry, she cautions.  Needless to say, they don’t turn it in.

As a last ditch effort to save Jonathan, Grace now makes it clear that she’s willing to take the stand. A good and loyal wife, she has to save her husband. Oh, but wait. In actuality Grace is the one to put the final nail in Jonathan’s coffin.  “Who do you love the most?” The prosecutor asks her.   Though Grace admits to loving her husband, she says her son more than anyone else.  As a viewer, that should tell us everything, but are we evening really listening?

Since the defense called Grace to the stand, the potential for mistrial is thrown out the window.  We as the viewer for a moment think: Is this all revenge for his infidelity? Why is it that we are we still trying to find ways to justify Jonathan’s innocence?

Maybe, that’s what series creator David E. Kelley wants.  After all, how many times have you heard the statement you never really know someone.  We as viewers empathize with Grace and want to find any way to justify Jonathan’s innocence.  After all, it’s Hugh Grant, a former king of rom-com, he’s not a murderer!

Kelley is allowing us as viewers to feel the sense of confusion that comes with trauma.  Everything feels upside and sideways.  If you’re stuck underwater, how do you find the surface?  Kelley could have left us drowning in the deep end, but he was kind enough to offer us a lifeline and an explanation of what happened: Jonathan did it. Grace is now no longer the vindictive wife, by the savior of her child.

By the end, we are left thinking, wow at what point did she know? How were we not in on it? Well she’s a psychotherapist with a degree from Harvard, and as she so coyly tells the prosecutor, “I know my husband. I know who and what he is.”

Grace might have struggled through the six episodes trying to get her bearings, but you best believe, she is anything but a damsel in distress.

featured photo: https://ew.com/tv/tv-reviews/the-undoing-hbo-review/

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