Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood’s 1996 novel-turned-TV show, needs to be your next Netflix binge
“There are many dangerous things that may take place in a bed. It’s where we are born, our first peril in life. It’s where women give birth, which is often their last. And it’s where the act takes place between men and women, sir. Some call it love, others despair, or merely an indignity they must suffer through.”
With dialogues like these, it didn’t take long for Alias Grace, Netflix’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1996 book of the same name, to really freak me out. Atwood’s words have that power — the way they sound beautiful and lyrical and wistful, even while describing utterly horrific acts or people, and the way her words force you to unflinchingly face them. And Alias Grace has plenty of that — horrific people who engage in even more horrific actions.
It’s based on true events that happened in 19th century Canada, where a 16-year old Irish-Canadian maid called Grace Marks was convicted of murder in the death of her employer and was also suspected of murdering his housekeeper (a trial for the housekeeper’s murder was deemed unnecessary since the death sentences for Marks and her alleged accomplice, a stable hand called James McDermott, were already handed out). Atwood, in her book, took creative liberties to insert a few fictional characters into the story and make it inimitably more haunting and female-centric in a way that she does really well.
In the process, Alias Grace (the book and Netflix’s adaptation), just like The Handmaid’s Tale (another of Atwood’s novels that was adapted by Hulu earlier this year), is not only an astonishingly beautifully-told tale of a complex character and her life, but with its themes of patriarchy, abortion rights, gendered violence, immigration, and class warfare, it is another stellar, relevant story for our times, especially now in 2017. We must thank the “year of Atwood” for fortifying us in the age of Trump!
To say that Alias Grace subverts the true-crime genre, would be a thorough understatement. The story, or rather the inspiration for the book and the series, is very real, although Atwood’s version introduces some key characters that were never present in real life. The show opens in 1859, in Victorian Canada, where 33-year-old Grace Marks (played brilliantly by Sarah Gadon) is in a penitentiary for the aforementioned murders of her employer Thomas Kinnear (Paul Gross) and his housekeeper/lover/companion Nancy Montgomery (Anna Paquin). Fifteen years ago, when Grace worked as a maid at Kinnear’s house, she and the stable hand James McDermott allegedly committed the crimes together. Post-conviction, Grace is a celebrity of sorts, in large part due to her gender, youth, mild-mannered behaviour, and her beauty.
Society’s understanding of crime (especially in the mid-19th century, and especially of a crime as gruesome as murder) had no room for a beautiful young woman (all women were considered weak and fragile then, a beautiful young woman much more so!) to fit into the mold of a “murderer.” Which was fine, since Grace thought of herself and was widely known as a “murderess”, and in fact, she preferred the feminine form of the word. During her voiceover at the start of the first episode, she says, “Murderess is a strong word to have attached to you. It has a smell to it, that word - musky and oppressive, like dead flowers in a vase. Sometimes at night I whisper it over to myself: Murderess, Murderess. It rustles, like a taffeta skirt across the floor. Murderer is merely brutal. It’s like a hammer, or a lump of metal. I would rather be a murderess than a murderer, if those are the only choices.”
It is a desire borne out of sympathy for these “feminine” qualities of Grace Marks that leads a group of men and women, led by the old Reverend Verringer (played by the always-creepy David Cronenberg), to rally for her to be pardoned. They hire an “alienist” (which is an old-fashioned term for a psychologist) Dr Simon Jordan (played by Edward Holcroft) to interview her and try to figure out if she's truly guilty of the crimes or if she was just unfortunate enough to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. The story proceeds from here as a series of flashbacks, interspersed by the present as Grace sits sewing a quilt in the parlour of the penitentiary Governor’s home, narrating her life story to the young doctor — from the time she and her family (four younger siblings, her sick mother and abusive father) travel by sea in a vomit-inducing journey from Ireland to Canada, her mother’s death and burial at sea, her father’s abuse of Grace, to her first job as a maid at the Parkinson household where she meets a fellow maid who becomes her close friend Mary Whitney (a fictional character written by Atwood), Mary’s firebrand personality and rebellious attitude towards societal constraints, her seduction and impregnation by their employer’s good-for-nothing son and her eventual death after an illegal abortion gone horribly wrong, right up to Grace’s time in the Kinnear household and the eventual murders and beyond.
Dr Jordan is one of Atwood’s creative liberties, and in the beginning, it feels like he’s cast in the story simply to act as a storytelling tool. But the more the show progresses, the darker and more ominous his presence starts to feel. And as Grace begins to tell her story, we realise two things: (1) Alias Grace is filled with layer upon layer of nuances, symbolism, and psychological game-playing that would’ve made it a really difficult novel to teach/study in a literature class, and (2) Grace is far better at these mind games than the (so far) good doctor seems to give her credit for! With a chilling assurance, she informs us (through voiceover) that she’s telling the doctor what he wants to hear, keeping things from him as she fancies. Like what? Are they the kind of things she believes he wouldn’t want to hear from a woman such as her (beautiful, young, supposedly delicate)? Or are they the things she doesn’t want to say because she doesn’t want him to really understand her motives? Her motives as a murderer or the accomplice, it doesn’t even matter. Either way, it’s quite startling when she warns Dr Jordan, “perhaps I’ll tell you lies”, and then proceeds to inform us rather unapologetically, that she’s doing exactly that! Deception, for Grace Marks, is all part of the game she calls life.
I don’t know if it was because I was watching Alias Grace just a few weeks after bingeing the terrific Mindhunter, Netflix’s most recent true-crime show, but Grace Marks’ behaviour was astonishingly similar to that of the co-ed killer Edmund Kemper — both presented themselves, to the psychologists interviewing them, as they felt best suited their circumstances. To the audience, and the psychologists, they were versions of them that seemed far removed from the images of the vicious murderer (or murderess, in Grace’s case) that customarily accompany a crime, in one’s head.
Alias Grace opens with a shot of Grace Marks viewing herself in a mirror, and as she almost-effortlessly adopts the expressions of all the different types of women people have thought her to be, her voiceover says:
“Sometimes when I am dusting the mirror with the grapes I look at myself in it, although I know it is vanity. In the afternoon light of the parlour my skin is a pale mauve, like a faded bruise, and my teeth are greenish. I think of all the things that have been written about me — that I am inhuman female demon, that I am an innocent victim of a blackguard forced against my will and in danger of my own life, that I was too ignorant to know how to act and that to hang me would be judicial murder, that I am fond of animals, that I am very handsome with a brilliant complexion, that I have blue eyes, that I have green eyes, that I have auburn and also have brown hair, that I am tall and also not above the average height, that I am well and decently dressed, that I robbed a dead woman to appear so, that I am brisk and smart about my work, that I am of a sullen disposition with a quarrelsome temper, that I have the appearance of a person rather above my humble station, that I am a good girl with a pliable nature and no harm is told of me, that I am cunning and devious, that I am soft in the head and little better than an idiot. And I wonder, how can I be all of these different things at once?”
In a way, just like Netflix’s other true-crime predecessor Making a Murderer and HBO’s The Jinx, Alias Grace doesn’t set out to prove the guilt or innocence of the protagonist. But I said earlier that it subverts the true-crime genre because, unlike the other two shows (which didn’t try to prove innocence or guilt, sure, but were of the belief that if, in the course of the storytelling, there’s enough evidence to prove either, then the shows have achieved more than what they originally set out to do), Atwood almost consciously tries to manipulate the audience by providing an entirely different explanation of the crimes.
In real life, Grace Marks and James McDermott didn’t deny their involvement in the crimes; they just laid the blame with each other. In Atwood’s version of the story, James, when he’s hanged, cries out that Grace Marks made him do it, but it can’t be substantiated because Alias Grace establishes, quite early on, that Grace is an unreliable narrator. The story also insinuates, backed by Grace’s purported loss of memory from when Nancy was murdered, that she suffers from dissociative identity disorder (more popularly known as multiple personality disorder) and that her dead friend Mary’s personality took over her, unbeknownst to Grace, when she committed the crimes. Alias Grace also goes in a full-on gothic horror mode by making it seem (during a creepy-as-hell scene) like Mary’s ghost possessed Grace, apparently to avenge the actions of the many people who mistreated her in her lifetime. The truth, sadly, will never be known because Grace Marks never revealed it herself, and all of our historical record of her comes primarily from Susanna Moodie's book Life in the Clearings Versus the Bush, which served as the source for Atwood’s Alias Grace.
What’s more disturbing than Grace’s guilt or innocence, is the amount of violence, abuse, manipulation, and neglect she faces all her life. During her interviews with Dr Jordan, he sometimes presents her with an apple, a beet, or a potato — things that are meant to invoke a memory association within her. When Grace sees the beet, for example, she launches in almost a Bubba-talking-about-shrimp-in-Forrest-Gump-like explanation about cooking beet, the wonders of boiled beets etc. while in her mind’s eye, we see flashes of the dark cellar that stocked fruits and vegetables, and which was the scene of Nancy Montgomery’s death (repeated flashes show a bunch of vegetables dispersing all over the cellar stairs and floor, as Nancy is knocked down). This is all disturbing, gruesome even, and nobody deserves to die like that. But some of Grace’s other memory flashes of her life, are in fact even worse — her father’s physical and sexual abuse of her, the violent assaults and abuse at the hands of the prison guards and doctors, and the everyday abuse at the hands of the penitentiary guards. Even Nancy’s venomous and jealous behaviour towards Grace (who only joins the Kinnear household at Nancy’s invitation), feels utterly scathing. This is a 16-year-old child (at the time of her arrest) having suffered much more than anyone should have to, and whether she’s guilty, innocent, insane, dissociative, or deliberately deceptive — she deserved better.
We also see Dr Jordan’s descent — both mentally and morally. He begins spiralling out of control when he’s unable to gauge Grace’s true nature, and just as you’re preparing yourself to feel sorry for the poor guy for being manipulated by her, we find out that he isn’t as nice and understanding as we’d initially thought. While he’s always perfectly kind (if a bit condescending and elitist) towards Grace, we learn that he’s been sexually fantasising about her all along. Ugh. Not only that, but he (unrepentantly) rapes his landlady, Mrs Humphries, in a fevered state when he mistakes her for Grace! Those mind games Grace played with him don’t seem so bad after all.
A lot of what makes Alias Grace so compelling, besides Sarah Gadon’s hauntingly beautiful performance and Atwood’s lyrical prose which is extensively used on the show, is writer and producer Sarah Polley’s adaptation of the novel, as well as director Mary Harron’s visual treatment of the show. Harron makes every frame of Alias Grace look like an impressionist painting trapped in the ugliness of the real world; there’s a dream-like quality about most scenes (even the unpleasant ones) which makes everything appear to be more upbeat and poetic than it actually is. Each episode opens with lines from a famous poet — Edgar Allan Poe or Emily Dickinson or Alfred Lord Tennyson — that add to the lyrical quality of the show. Polley (she’s Sara Stanley from Road to Avonlea, and she’s all grown up now!) ensures her plot dials up our resentment of power dynamics between men and women, while picking apart our assumptions about Grace Marks, as well as the place of women in the 19th century. Or in any century, for that matter, if you consider the pervasiveness of the #Metoo movement or the overwhelming number of accusations coming to light against powerful men.
Alias Grace makes you realise that certain things haven’t changed one bit — predatory men are still around (maybe more than ever), women are still struggling to have control of their body and the choice to abort unwanted pregnancies, and the immigration issue still continues to be a matter of shame. Even Grace’s voiceover about Dr Jordan, Thomas Kinnear, and men in general, seems relatable in 2017 — “this puts him in an instructive mood, and I can see he is going to teach me something, which gentlemen are fond of doing. Mr Kinnear was like that as well.” There’s a just a new word for it — it’s called mansplaining!