Trigger Warning: This article contains mentions of domestic violence and substance abuse
When I think about the portrayal of women in thriller series, I often think about their commonality. I think about how they are framed; as scorned women who don’t know their own minds, women who have been slighted by their husbands, women who are fuelled by their emotions.
The Undoing and The Flight Attendant both feed into these tropes but with outcomes which are more geared to an everchanging feminist landscape.The shows encompass violence which is often used to highlight a woman’s ability to overcome but also depicts the internal struggle that is often missed in similar shows when women fight back against the men in their lives. The centring of female characters gives way to a sub-genre of feminist reading in both shows.
The Flight Attendant and The Undoing are whodunnits centered around female protagonists tasked with unravelling the truth of the circumstances they find themselves in. In both series, the women find themselves in these circumstances via betrayal by the men in their lives.
Nicole Kidman’s character, Grace (The Undoing) embodies the ‘traditional’ role of a woman we see in many glossy American based series. She has an established career as a therapist, and comes from money. She is a parent who is active in her child’s life and has a seemingly perfect marriage. But all good things fall apart and Grace becomes the archetypal ‘slighted woman’, her husband having an affair with a much younger, freer woman.
In contrast Kaley Cuoco’s character Cassie (The Flight Attendant) is the type of relatable I like, (if you excuse the alcoholism) she’s effortless, cheeky and she has a job which gives rise to all kinds of amazing experiences. But Cassie’s betrayal, we learn as the series progresses, is partly that of herself, and her past which is heavily centered around her father. Cassie is forced to confront the reality of her past, if she wishes to defeat her own demons. As a result she embodies the “scorned woman who doesn’t know her own mind” trope (quite literally).
The back and forth between present and past is distinctly different in both shows, with The Flight Attendant Cassie is constantly thrown back into the past as she tries to solve the crime of who killed her one night stand. But the past is less linear and in some ways speaks to the breakdown of her psyche as the show progresses. The more she comes to remember the more the audience gets a real feel of who she is as a character. In the beginning Cassie is almost a marmite character, you either love her or you don’t. The things she does are self-destructive and leave you wondering why ANYONE would self sabotage the way she does, but as the plot thickens so too does our understanding of her choices and we are left rooting for her by the end of it all. The stand out thing about Cassie is that she was never guilty. Despite her lapses in judgement we wholeheartedly believe that the only thing she is guilty of is not making the best choices, which exclude murder.
Alternately, Grace was guilty for me throughout the series, I desperately wanted her to be the underdog so to speak (not that I believe Elena (Matilda De Angelis) deserved the hand she was dealt at all) and wished for an ending which depicted her enacting some kind of anti-feminist vengence aganist her husband’s lover.
The characterisation of the ‘dominant’ men in both shows; father’s and husbands, deems them to be manipulative and controlling.
Grace’s husband is shown throughout the show is not the man he outwardly appeared to be - his ‘family man’ persona is a popular trope in the thriller universe and it’s always unearthed to be a facade through some violent act or another. In this case - we are shown glimpses of Johnathan (Hugh Grant) being abusive toward his wife as well as his lover. He is revealed to have an obsessive tendency which is almost ‘God-Like’ in its complexity given the job he possessed literally places the lives of children in his hands.
In Cassie’s case the power dynamic that men possess is obvious. Flashbacks shown slowly peel back the layers of a relationship that Cassie’s mind has distorted in order to protect her psyche. Her father is a drunk who favoured Cassie, over her brother due to Cassie desiring to be more like him. Cassie’s father, we come to learn, is the reason for her dependencies as an adult. Her father is the reason why she drinks and why she has a poor relationship with her brother in later life.
The ‘whodunnit’ genre of media is a steadfast favourite- they are so unique in their stylisation because you can root for anyone, whether good or bad - the sole focus is in figuring out who committed the murder so the villain is at fault regardless of the transgressions of those that surround them.The tension between myself and any character I deem to be guilty feels palpable throughout the 6-8 episodes of television I watch.
In both shows no one is above suspicion, even those who are innocent of murder are flawed beings and ultimately it is up to both women to pull together the pieces of their individual lives after the dust has settled. The rise of the female protagonist taking onus of her future after being left to the wolves by the hands of men is a much needed angle we need to see more from tv shows. The fact that women are coming to claim space for themselves in these tv shows makes them even more likeable to me.
Grace has to come to terms with her husband’s guilt and makes a choice which will change her life forever and Cassie starts to deal with her own demons (let’s hope she makes it back to AA in Season 2).
The Flight Attendant is available to stream via HBO Max and The Undoing is available to stream via Amazon Prime