‘The Undoing’: How to Subvert Subversion

The HBO limited series The Undoing, based on the 2014 novel You Should Have Known by Jean Hanff Korelitz, ended with a bang last Sunday night, raking in the highest audience in HBO’s history since Big Little Lies. For those of you who haven’t been following the six-episode miniseries, The Undoing is a classic whodunit murder mystery, following a family whose father figure is accused of brutally bludgeoning a woman with a sculpting hammer (and for those of you who are unaware, a sculpting hammer is quite a large instrument). However, the difference between The Undoing and every other murder mystery – from Sherlock Holmes to Scooby Doo – is this: that the first suspect is the criminal.

Jean Korelitz, author of the book that the hit HBO miniseries is based on | Image via Los Angelos Times

Yet how can this possible be a twist, you might ask? Isn’t the reason that it’s never the first suspect because, if it was, the mystery and suspense would be shattered? That’s not necessarily the case, and allow me to ask you something as an example: why did the chicken the cross the road? We all know the answer, yet have you ever wondered why people thought that joke was funny in the first place? I have, and after some research, I’ve come to the conclusion it’s because the natural structure of a joke is the subversion of expectation (that’s what necessarily makes something funny) so, when we’re provided with a matter-of-fact answer, one that gives a straightforward (and, arguably, the right answer) and nothing more, that subverts our expectations to be subverted, and is therefore unexpected.

The same thing happens in The Undoing. I haven’t read You Should Have Known yet – and I say yet because apparently only for the first two episodes does the miniseries follow the events of the book; the adaptation allegedly veers so far from its novel counterpart that not even the killer is the same. Therefore, I can’t speak much on Jean Korelitz’s murder mystery, however, the same formula of the most classic joke ever told is used in the HBO show, and it’s frankly quite brilliant, in my opinion.

It’s almost universally understood that, in a whodunit, it’s never the one you most suspect, yet in The Undoing that’s exactly who it is. No surprise witness, no suddenly unearthed evidence, the man who is the most suspicious from the beginning is the killer, and throughout the series I found myself so adamantly defending him to my parents because I was following the basic rule of – not just murder mysteries – but every mystery I have ever seen or read. The Undoing seems to know that we all know this, and so, in making who the killer is painfully obvious, they ironically provided me with one of the best twists I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing in the last five years.

featured image via medium

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