The Undoing: a psychologist on the character of Hugh Grant
Warning: This post contains spoilers for The Undo.
In HBO psychological thriller The defeat, Manhattan therapist Grace Fraser (Nicole Kidman) continues to make disturbing discoveries about her husband Jonathan (Hugh Grant). He is the prime suspect in the brutal murder of a young mother from the elite private school their son Henry (Noah Jupe) attends. Four episodes in, We, alongside Grace, learned that Jonathan was unfaithful, was fired from his job as a pediatric oncologist, and borrowed half a million dollars from Grace’s father. The penultimate episode just delivered another deeply disturbing revelation: When he was a boy, Jonathan’s 4-year-old sister died while he was supposed to watch her. Grace never knew.
Well, she had heard a version of that story. Jonathan had described the exact same situation to him, except in his version, it was the dog that died. She never even knew he had a sister. “How come you never told me that?” Grace asks him, surprised. She later comes into contact with Jonathan’s mother, who shares that he has never suffered from guilt or grief over the death. “Jonathan doesn’t know how to suffer,” she said, explaining that he never even said he was sorry.
Grace describes the situation over the phone to her friend Sylvia (Lily Rabe), who claims it is the behavior of a sociopath. But how is it that Grace, a trained therapist, is completely unaware of her husband’s messy past? Is it really possible to be married to someone like Jonathan and miss all the signs? For answers, TIME turned to Craig Neumann, a psychology professor at the University of North Texas who studies psychopathy and other types of personality disorders. (We spoke after Episode 4 aired on HBO; TIME described the plot of Episode 5 to Neumann based on an advanced screen.) We wanted to know how plausible this situation would be, what he thinks about Jonathan’s behavior, and what’s important about how personality disorders are portrayed on screen. Edited excerpts from our conversation follow.
TIME: We learn in tonight’s episode that Jonathan’s little sister died while in his care, and his mother said he had no remorse about it. What do you think ?
Craig Neumann: One of the things they play in Jonathan’s character is his narcissism. They really don’t play on his lack of remorse and empathy, and in fact, as a pediatric oncologist, they continue to show these episodes of what appear to be incredibly empathetic interactions with children with cancer. This insensitivity doesn’t just go under the rock.
He could show his empathic behavior – we see Grace and other parents are there – and act empathetically for the needs of manipulation. But Grace would have probably seen an example of a patient’s death and suddenly the show is off, the lights are off. She would have seen an example of absolute coldness. That she had never seen this is a bit suspicious. The other thing, where I was going with narcissism, is that these individuals pride themselves on their ability to fool and swindle and run away. That’s what they play in this character. So suddenly switching to, he doesn’t feel a thing, it’s kind of a cliché.
How? ‘Or’ What?
You don’t approach someone who may be clinically depressed and say “have you been sad for a few weeks? And they say ‘yes’ and you say ‘yes this is clinical depression’. This is not how it is. It needs evaluations, which must be carried out by trained people.
I am on the side of the barrier that psychopathy is a pathology of the personality. There are individuals who believe that psychopathy is some kind of evolutionary adaptation, and the problem with that is that if it were adaptive, we would see a lot more of it. We can think of psychopathy dimensionally as hypertension. It is not “yes” or “no”; it is not “pregnant” or “not pregnant”. It’s a question of how hypertensive are you? Mild, moderate or severe. It is possible that individuals who are much higher on these traits will fool us, but over time the pathology appears and if it were evolutionarily adaptive we would see many more cases of it. I really like the writing, but it’s no surprise that they give us this unique piece, and all of a sudden “he’s a psychopath”.
Hugh Grant in “The Undoing”
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The show actually explicitly uses the term sociopath. What is the difference between a sociopath and a psychopath?
Some people would meet the Diagnostic Statistical Manual’s psychiatric criteria for something called antisocial personality disorder. We could use the term sociopath, but the technical and psychiatric diagnosis would be antisocial personality disorder. Most of these people’s diagnoses miss out on what psychopathy really is. You can have individuals who are chronically antisocial but not psychopathic. The term sociopath is problematic. It raises a whole lot of controversy and misunderstanding when you use the term sociopath.
Okay, so let’s not call Jonathan a sociopath. What do you think this new revelation about her sister means about her behavior?
The sister revelation is a huge flag. With children, we never even use the term “budding psychopath”. We use the term “insensitive and unemotional”. So Jonathan was showing signs of a lack of callous emotion, but the problem is, when you look at him longitudinally, those traits diminish for most people. So the question is, yes, that one thing that happened is important, but do we see a continuity? I would have to see that there were elements of disorderly behavior in Jonathan’s past. I should see the continuity of these traits over time because for most individuals they don’t continue. And for those where it continues, this is a problem. There must have been more. This incident is not enough.
The deceased sister was one of the many parts of Jonathan’s life that he hid from Grace. She didn’t know he had lost his job and emptied their bank account. Do you really think it’s possible that she never understood that something was wrong with him?
You are really good at pointing out that he lost his job and that he was cheating on her about it. You could say it’s male pride, but that’s another good thing. The other thing is to drain the money to the bank and not talk about it, that’s another fact. And the other piece of data that I really want to understand better is her father who I actually thought was a psychopath. I want to know more about this $ 500,000 loan. I want to know if that $ 500,000 was real or if the father was just saying that to manipulate the girl. Because if it’s real, and Jonathan got that $ 500,000, where the hell did that money go? It would be another sign, another datum.
The doctor Grace spoke to spoke about Jonathan’s narcissism and that’s right, but narcissism is not psychopathy. It overlaps, but it’s only part of the psychopathy. I need to see cases where he should have taken better care of a child and he didn’t. Like, if a kid died and didn’t really react. I would need to see more data before I could diagnose it.
Nicole Kidman in HBO’s “The Undoing”
We also see that Grace walked around the night of the murder, but has no memory of doing so. What do you think of his behavior?
I don’t mean that in a humiliating way, but why is she wandering the streets? Why did she take these walks? Is there something she knows but doesn’t want to know? I would really like to know more about how their relationship started. Because a lot of times psychopaths can just throw you off your feet, but the story hasn’t unfolded enough that we can see it.
Can you really be married to someone like Jonathan and miss all of these signs on his behavior?
Kidman plays that psychotherapist with this [presumably, based on her age and social milieu] Over 20 years of therapeutic practice and charges a pretty penny for his fees. So she must have a fair amount of clinical skills. But individuals with psychopathic propensities target people who have some vulnerability. So I would have to assume that this psychotherapist, however skilled this person is, has a potential vulnerability. Because over time, we begin to recognize it. A narcissist is often seen as charming and charismatic. These things don’t hit you in the face right away. But over time red flags start to appear and you notice them. And if you don’t notice them, that’s part of the reason there’s a certain vulnerability in the individual who doesn’t. want to to see something.
What does your average psychopathic therapist know about psychopathy?
If they are not trained in forensic pathology, not enough. Not at all, not enough. One of the things I would really love to do if I had the time is develop a website for judges, lawyers, and other professionals to really understand, because a lot of it is just caricatured and misinterpreted in the media, in films.
What is the most important thing to do when portraying a psychopath in a TV show or movie?
What we need to see are repeated red flags, repeated disruption of identity, excessive size and the use of other people for your own game. And we need to see some real and fundamental gaps in the game. intimacy and empathy. If people don’t recognize him, they turn a blind eye to him. Why? There is a certain vulnerability, something that they want to be true, but is not.