From the author of The Handmaid’s Tale comes another harrowing story of the impact of a corrupt patriarchy on the wellbeing of women. Adapted from Margaret Atwood’s novel of the same name, the Netflix miniseries Alias Grace looks at the plight of women in Victorian era Canada and beyond, and presents their stunning lack of economic, social, and political freedom for the nightmare it surely was. Featuring standout performances and a rich portrayal of the visual and thematic aesthetics of nineteenth-century life, Alias Grace brings the true story upon which it’s based into compelling entertainment.
The story centers around Grace Marks (Sarah Gadon), a poor Irish immigrant who winds up narrowly escaping the death penalty after allegedly murdering her two employers as a teen. After spending 15 years in prison, the show starts in 1859, where a psychologist, Dr. Jordan (Edward Holcroft), has been tasked with determining whether Grace is insane, in hopes of gaining a pardon for her. Grace works as a domestic servant in the home of the Governor of the penitentiary by day, so Jordan agrees to meet with her there and hold talk sessions with her in hopes of learning her story and determining whether he can write a professional opinion in favor of her release. Battling the endless stream of narratives stemming from lawyers, popular opinion, sympathizers, detractors, doctors, and the press, Grace’s words and story have ceased to be her own. The ambiguity around both her innocence and her sanity plague viewer and character alike, as Grace must wear the label of “celebrated murderess” even through her enduring struggle to be cleared of her charges.
Grace is normally terrified of doctors, which is her initial opinion of Dr. Jordan. In an age where death and disease are everywhere, the presence of a doctor could seem more like a death omen than a sign of hope for better health. Perhaps the worst memory of doctors for Grace was the time she spent in the mental asylum, which was a cruel, violating, abusive place where no one actually listened to anything Grace said. Split-second flashbacks of her time there, complete with a terrifying solitary confinement box, staff that pushed her around and tackled her, and an endless amount of pained, anguished screaming, were grim reminders of her experiences interspersed among her storytelling with Dr. Jordan. Even though Jordan doesn’t have any archaic metal tools to measure Grace’s head or cut into it, viewers grow more weary of him as Grace’s background with doctors comes to light.
In a fascinating, slow-burning thriller such as this show, there isn’t much room for comedy. At virtually every turn, women are suffering for some aggravating reason or another. The only relief viewers get from that are brief anecdotes of Grace’s happier memories, or Grace changing the subject after growing weary of telling her grim narrative. However, perhaps inadvertently clownish is Dr. Jordan, who becomes infatuated with Grace and daydreams about caressing her roughly once per episode. The effect is eerily amusing, as even though Jordan tries desperately to be a man of science, seemingly convinced she’s a liar when discussing her case, he seems to lose that resolve when in Grace’s presence. This dynamic becomes more aggravating in the context of all the tragic, misogynistic events of the show, but at least initially, Dr. Jordan is difficult to take seriously. It doesn’t help that he starts several sessions holding a fruit or vegetable and asks Grace what she remembers of it. Of course, the apples and parsnips do remind Grace of the cellar pantry where her dead employers were found, but she tends to keep that information to herself in favor of explaining the minutia of parsnip freshness and cooking instead. As open as Grace seems to be about her dreary past, she supposedly cannot remember anything about the day of her employers’ deaths, which maintains her status as an unreliable narrator, and undermines Dr. Jordan’s perverse curiosity with Grace’s tragic story.
The show thrives on the endless amount of dread it creates. The viewer doesn’t get to meet Nancy Montgomery, one of the murder victims, until halfway through the miniseries. But they have been exposed to her smiling face through fragmented flashbacks of her tumbling down a staircase, gash across her forehead, early in the show. After seeing patterns of women’s’ reputations and livelihoods threatened or destroyed by men, the viewer’s dread snowballs with each development of the story. Perhaps the most startling aspect of this show is its ability to be relevant to the discussions of women’s rights in modern times—reminding everyone of the terror of a world without as much independence for women. The resounding struggle of the women of Alias Grace is that no one seems to hear, listen to, or believe them when they speak. This contemptible dynamic is one that sounds bitterly familiar, and reminds audiences of the hazards of falling into that trap.
Featured Image by Netfix