Coming undone: ‘The Undoing,’ ‘Big Sky,’ ‘The Deceived’ and the limits of MeToo
Grace’s Manhattan in ‘The Undoing’

“The rich are different,” said Fitzgerald, in a languishing dreamy tone. “Yes,” replied Hemingway brusquely, “they have more money.”

It is difficult not to recall this exchange when watching HBO and Sky Atlantic’s David E. Kelly mini-series The Undoing, which in this year of an ever more rapid COVID-induced transfer of wealth from the lowest to the highest income brackets, thinks it is giving us, in the guise of a murder mystery, a female emancipation series when in fact it is simply glorifying and asking us to adore the wealthy.

The series illustrates not the triumph of the MeToo movement but the nightmare of what it always threatened to become: emancipation for rich white women, here in the form of Nicole Kidman’s determined stride in a green greatcoat along the avenues of Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Along with that comes its converse, continued eroticizing and exoticizing of minority and working-class women in the form of the murdered Latina wife and mother who dared to mix with the rich, women who are the victims of both the wealthy patriarchy and matriarchy.

On the other hand, the promise of MeToo is displayed in, oddly enough, another David E. Kelly series Big Sky (on ABC and Prime Video), where male energy in the pilot yields in a dramatic reversal to female and transgender bonding in a series that upends many of the tropes of the misogynist serial killer genre. A new kind of MeToo clichéd formulation unfortunately coalesces in the BBC gothic thriller The Deceived and undercuts what might have been a necessary corrective in this Gallic remake of Hitchcock’s Rebecca.

The triumphs of the MeToo movement are many, and its strength and power are especially evident in the entertainment industry and in politics, two of the most visible areas of American life. Victories include: the trial and conviction of the powerful self-styled studio mogul Harvey Weinstein; the promotion of more women to positions of power within the industry; and the increased participation of women in public office, which has included women of color and given rise to the misogynist president’s worst nightmare, The Squad, a group of articulate, outspoken minority women in the House of Representatives who have brought new and much needed energy to an atrophied institution.

But there was always that other darker “leaning in” side of MeToo, the idea that it would simply leave in its wake a shuffling of gender seats at the top where the faces but not the policy decisions would change. Biden is currently taking advantage of this with his minority and female appointments, the latest of which is an African-American general from the powerful arms contractor Raytheon and from his own private weapons contracting firm as the head of the Defense Department. It is useful to remember Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who defended the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children by U.S. sanctions and who, at a 2016 presidential rally, introduced candidate Hillary Clinton, whose famous statement on the bombing and devastation of Libya to secure its oil fields—rationalized as regime change to get rid of Muammar Gaddafi—was, “We came, we saw, he died.” The cartoon where one Middle Eastern resident says in effect to the other, “It’s so much nicer being bombed by women and people of color,” again points to the problem of a tokenism which leaves the criminal structure intact, but which has the appearance of change.

Which brings us back to The Undoing. Nicole Kidman, in a role now reprised and refined in an earlier, better series, Big Little Lies, is a psychoanalyst and marriage counselor who, it turns out, can’t see the trouble in her own marriage to Hugh Grant’s supposedly caring pediatric cancer specialist. Her journey to clarity is the subject of the series as much as it has a subject. Its actual subject is a supposedly tantalizing look at the lives of Manhattan’s superrich. Kidman’s Grace is from a wealthy family whose patriarch (Donald Sutherland) is a ruthless old man who, far from getting his comeuppance in the series, instead becomes Grace’s steadfast supporter as she labors to get out from under the spell of her husband while in effect returning to the patriarchal womb of her wealthy family.

We are supposed to be adoring of Grace’s wanderings through Central Park, her meetings with her father in the Metropolitan Museum, and her playing a grand piano with him in one of the rooms of his cavernous mansion. It’s the same kind of idle rich worship practiced in the 1950s in such films as Imitation of Life, where the Broadway star Laura’s (Lana Turner) Connecticut home is a dreamy setting for her to play out her supposed caring for her Black maid while all the time ordering her around as if the place were a Southern plantation.

Eroticized Latina Elena Alves (Maltilda de Angelis)

Just a stone’s throw away from Grace’s hermetically sealed existence are neighborhoods in the predominately Latino section of the Bronx, ravaged by COVID and now with an unemployment rate of over 25 percent. That world is only figured briefly in the series and only in the highly exoticized form of the Latina who has an affair with Grant’s doctor and then attempts to seduce Grace.

The rich in The Undoing do suffer, though. Grant’s privileged pediatrician’s affair with the Latina woman from Harlem ends in her death. The authorities have the audacity to then arrest him for the crime, causing undue grief to the family. It’s not supposed to, and doesn’t usually, happen this way. We are reminded of the Sackler family, the executives of their drug company Perdue, and their public relations firm whose combined thirst for profits caused the Oxycontin plague that contributed to the deaths by overdose of 750,000 people and who were never even threatened with jail.

Later in the series, Grace’s son knocks into the son of the woman his father is accused of murdering. He is then called in to the principal of the exclusive private school he attends and told it would be better if he were home schooled. The parents then righteously defend their son for his bullying and accuse the school of pandering to the press. It’s yet another example of how the rich are singled out and abused just because they cannot control their disdain for everyone else in the midst of a recession and a pandemic. Shocking!

The series has little in the way of plot twists. Episode two with the Grant character pursued for the murder has an entirely predictable ending, and the last episode concludes with a rerun of the O.J. Simpson helicopter pursuit finishing in a ludicrous and utterly unsuspenseful confrontation. A second season is being contemplated, and who would want to miss it!? There are so many lavish Manhattan blocks that we haven’t yet seen Grace forging through in her greatcoat.

The antidote in Big Sky

The antidote to this nonsense is another David E. Kelly series Big Sky. Kelly is an excellent writer and since he wrote both series one has to conclude the difference is the source material, the novels on which both series are based. Big Sky, set as the name implies amidst the lush green wilds and the decaying human ruins of Montana, adds an entirely new MeToo wrinkle to the serial killer genre.

The first episode is all male energy as what appears to be a serial killer kidnaps a sex worker at a truck stop and then two teenage girls who challenge him on the road. Meanwhile, the African-American employee at a detective agency, Cassie, has been having an affair with the male head of the agency (a star turn by Ryan Phillippe) resulting in a barroom brawl with the other female member of the agency, Jenny, the agency director’s wife. Though the filming of the fight stresses the physicality of the confrontation, the scene, as does a later one where Jenny “goes undercover” as a prostitute, still elicits male prurient interest.

The pilot, though, ends in one of the most startling surprises of the season in any series, and episode two restarts the series with the two female detectives beginning to bond. More startlingly, we watch the three victims of the would-be serial killer, who we find out is instead the procurer for a trafficking ring, themselves coming together to challenge their captors. One of the victims turns out in a wonderfully human moment to reveal herself to be on the LGBT spectrum, a revelation that is queried and then accepted by the teen prom queen whose experience is the opposite.

Female bonding in ‘Big Sky’

The bonding of both sets of women, inside and outside captivity, as well as their continual challenge on the inside to their kidnapper and on the outside to the police officer whom they suspect as the ringleader puts active female contestation at the heart of a genre that most often was simply about females being slaughtered in ever more inventive ways with only, as in the screen series Scream, a “final girl” surviving to ultimately wreak revenge.

Big Sky substitutes active resistance for passive slaughter and, in its insistence on female bonding across class, racial and gender divides against an ever more violent patriarchy, provides an antidote to Grace’s lonely walks and retreat to her heartless father.

The show, a mini-series of ten episodes, is a fit sequel to its network ABC’s last season femme breakthrough Stumptown, a too quickly canceled series about a military ex-cop and would-be female private detective who struggles to integrate herself into the Native American community of her dead husband while contesting the brutal pull the military exerts over her attempt to find the truth about his demise.

Horror, horror everywhere in The Deceived

The BBC’s Deceived, a series which begins promisingly by invoking Hitchcock’s gothic thriller Rebecca, ends up as simply too formulaic in its simplistic characterization of male power. No cliché will be spared.

The series begins with its ingenue, Ophelia, in voiceover describing the horror she felt in a Gothic mansion as the camera pans up the pathway to the house. The shot duplicates that of the opening of Hitchcock’s Rebecca. This time Mandalay instead of in England is in Ireland in Donegal, where Ophelia seeks out her Cambridge English teacher Michael, whom she has an affair with, to tell him she is pregnant.

Ophelia (Roisin Mulvery) ‘deceived’ by her English professor (Emmett J Scanlan)

Hitchcock used the Daphne du Maurier novel to explore the subtle sadism inherent in Lawrence Olivier’s Maxim de Winter, a British nobleman who tortures his new bride by bringing her home to what amounts to a tomb for his dead ex-wife and then pretending nothing is askew. The master director pulled his punches, though, and exonerated the aristocrat by deflecting the evil of the house entirely onto Judith Anderson’s devilish housemaid.

Deceived does attempt to correct this sleight of hand but goes too far this time, approaching the loony, in Michael’s increasing dastardliness in the face of all the women in his life coming together to crush him. He is haunted by the death of his ex-wife, by a former student, by his ex-wife’s mother, and by his own conviction that his writing career is a sham.

Ophelia, echoing her namesake in Hamlet, is increasingly driven insane by the doings at the mansion which may or may not be haunted by the ghost of Michael’s ex-wife. The problem in the series, which by the way is still far better than the insipid picture postcard that is the current Netflix remake of Rebecca, is its Manichean quality, with absolute evil accruing to Michael and absolute good in the hard-fought formation of the female collective.

The lack of nuance ultimately damages the argument of the series and instead substitutes a paint-by-numbers solution that because it so stretches plausibility fails to make its case, replacing complicated class contradictions with caricature.

Thus are the vicissitudes of a powerfully activist contemporary feminism that in its complacent instance is capable of turning reactionary and elitist, a tendency best alleviated by reaching across the race and class boundaries installed by a capitalist patriarchy.


CONTRIBUTOR

Dennis Broe
Dennis Broe

Dennis Broe’s latest book is Diary of a Digital Plague Year: Coronavirus, Serial TV and the Rise of the Streaming Services. He has taught at the Sorbonne and is currently teaching in the Master’s Program at the École Supérieure de Journalisme. He is an arts critic and correspondent for the British daily Morning Star and for Crime Time, People’s World and Culture Matters, where he is an associate editor.

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