the undoing

Could My Exceedingly Charming Spouse Be A Secret Psychopath?

Photo: HBO

The finale of The Undoing provided one very important answer (who done it?), but the show that divided Twitter, confirmed that Hugh Grant could play unlikable, and should probably get an Emmy nod for best supporting coats also left us with a whole bunch of questions: What was Jonathan (Grant)’s psychological condition? Did all that hair-tousling amount to actual love for his son Henry? And how in the world does a Harvard educated psychotherapist stay married to a murderer for 17 years?

Since these are questions best put to professionals, The Cut reached out psychotherapists Dr. Akua Boateng and Dr. Matt Lundquist (both of whom had a lot to say about the show; neither of whom has treated fictional doctor Jonathan Fraser).

Was Dr. Jonathan Fraser a psychopath? A sociopath? Some other form of devilishly charming Englishman? 
It’s true, the Brits do seem to have a monopoly on dangerously magnetic cads, but as far as The Undoing’s antagonist is concerned, Lundquiest believes we’re likely looking at antisocial personality disorder. “This would be the clinical diagnosis, which is listed in the DSM,” he says. Terms like “psychopath” and “sociopath” get thrown around a lot, but neither has been an official diagnoses for a long time, the idea being to move away from pejorative labels and focus on the behaviour. Note that “antisocial” has a different meaning in a psychiatric context: In everyday usage, it describes someone who avoids people, doesn’t like parties. In psychiatry, anti means against, as in against society. “This is someone who operates in ways that don’t conform to societal norms and who is not capable of typical human emotions—what historically was called sociopathy,” Lunquiest says.

So socio, not psycho? What’s the difference? 
This is a bit of a moot point, according to Lunquist (as both fall under the ASPD umbrella). But since you asked: Some experts say that sociopaths are hot-headed (think Penn Badgley in You) whereas psychopaths are cold-blooded (Christian Bale in the accurately named American Psycho). The former can be “somewhat capable of empathy,” and as such might be a better description for Jonathan, says Boateng – or not. “We do get a sense that Jonathan has a soft spot for his son Henry, so that could be a sign of real emotion, or it could just be his narcissism which would be tied up in wanting to be seen as ‘the perfect dad’ in the eyes of his child.” To be sure, Boateng would want to ask Jonathan a few questions. Crucially, how did he feel after murdering his innocent girlfriend? “If he is a sociopathic he may have been feeling some regret or at least anxiety, where someone who is psychopathic would have been very calmed or felt nothing.”

How significant was the episode 4 reveal when we learn about the death of Jonathan’s sister?
Very, according to Boateng, who says that a lot of film and TV involving mentally ill characters fail to write in the appropriate back story (Silence of the Lambs, for example). Whereas the brains behind The Undoing “satisfied the indicators that any professional would look for in the individual’s early childhood.”

To recap: On a FaceTime chat with her husband’s estranged mom, Grace (Nicole Kidman) learns that Jonathan’s younger sister died when he was supposed to be watching her. At first Grace thinks maybe this childhood trauma could be an explanation or a cause of her husband’s mental issues, but turns out, not so much. “What happened in early childhood brought to the surface Jonathan’s inability to feel guilt and remorse in circumstances that would normally elicit those emotions,” says Boateng. Other common red flags include children who light fires or harm family pets.

In childhood this is called oppositional defiant disorder. In some cases, the behaviors are something a kid can work on and essentially grow out of it. In others the disturbed child will grow into a damaged and dangerous adult with a really nice apartment on the Upper East Side.

Were there other signs of the “real” Jonathan?
The notion that Jonathan, a revered pediatric oncologist, exhibits signs of narcissistic personality disorder comes up when Grace takes the stand in the final episode. “Antisocial personality disorder and narcissistic personality disorder don’t always overlap, but it’s not uncommon,” says Lundquist, and certainly that’s what we see with this character. “God complex” is another term not generally embraced by medical pros, but it is useful in understanding the mindset of someone like Jonathan who “believes he has capacity to do good in the world that is vastly superior to other people.” Grandiosity in this context is more than just thinking you’re great, Lunquist says, “It’s thinking that you’re great and therefore you don’t have to follow the same rules as other people.” See: Jonathan’s willingness to break a very clear professional boundary by having an affair with a patient’s parent, the fact that he never told his wife he had been fired from his job, and then borrowed half a million dollars from the Bank of Donald Sutherland without telling her. “This is someone who is clearly prone to taking risks, which is another common behavior for both NPD and ASPD,” Lundquist says.

Are people with antisocial personality disorders more successful than your average rule-abiding schmo?
There is evidence that powerful, successful people—including great American presidents—tend to score higher than average in terms of psychopathic traits: comfort with lying, coming off as arrogant, cutting moral corners. “I would add lawyers, bankers and doctors to the list,” says Lundquist. It’s easier to become a success if you don’t have to bother with pesky concerns about doing the right thing. “If you wouldn’t flinch at stealing an internship from a friend, cheating on a test—that is going to be helpful in getting ahead,” says Boateng. Similarly, it’s easier to manipulate people when you don’t give a shit about them. “We see that Jonathan is very capable at telling people what they want to hear—when he does the TV interview and then when he testifies in court.” He doesn’t have any allegiance to what’s true or what’s best for the people he cares about, “so he’s able to just focus on the performance—what people want to hear.”

He does seem to love Henry though. Or is that just another performance? 
It’s true there were loving moments (some fatherly bathroom humor and at least one jaunt in the park), but let’s not forget the scene where Jonathan learns that Henry has been hiding the all-important murder weapon and attempts to send his own son up the river. It’s confusing, says Lundquist. “You will hear the partners of people like this say things like, ‘but he was so obsessed with our baby, or our eight year old—he can’t be a psychopath.’” The reality is that the obsession has to do with being seen as someone who is a devoted parent. Appearance is everything to these individuals, which is why you might see someone with ASPD donating to charity. Or taking their son out on a joy ride that turns into a high speed helicopter chase. “That scene is really great. We see how concerned Jonathan is with Henry thinking he’s a great dad, but that is not the same as what any truly loving parent in that situation would do for his son,” Lundquist says.

How likely is it that a Harvard educated psychotherapist could have spent 17 years under the same roof with Jonathan and never had any idea? 
Worth noting here that the book The Undoing is based on is called You Should Have Known. “It’s not that people aren’t capable of denial and in fact that’s something we see Grace talk about with one of the women she is treating,” says Lunquist. “Still, it’s implausible that there wouldn’t have been some signs, some history.” Boateng agrees that Grace’s ignorance doesn’t ring true, though the writers do provide some hints at an explanation. Grace is “pretty obviously invested in her husband’s status as a healer, which could contribute to a tendency to turn a blind eye.”

What are the chances my own extremely charming partner is secretly a murderer?
Presumably pretty unlikely, but just in case, here are some things to look for: Is the charm strictly surface—something that goes on and off like a light switch? Is your perfect partner prone to the occasional rage-fueled outburst when they’re not “on stage”? Do you catch them doing things that would qualify as sneaky (a secret bank account, cheating, an SEC trading violation)? It’s true, not all philandering, thieving a-holes are capable of murder, even though this was pretty much the plot of The Undoing. Honestly though, if you’re dating a “maybe” there is no need to stick around for the final episode. “I say this all the time … If the hairs on the back of your neck are standing up—pay attention,” says Boateng.

Could My Exceedingly Charming Spouse Be A Secret Psychopath?