Alias Grace

Dr. Jordan keeps trying to unpack Grace’s mind, when what he really should be unpacking are the gender roles and class divide of mid-19th-Century Canada. Those factors have more to do with Grace’s story than he seems to realize, but of course, he benefits from those power structures, so why would he ever think to question them let alone dismantle them? He wants to understand Grace’s psychology, but he isn’t considering how these societal systems play a role in her story, so he can never even begin to understand her.

Advertisement

Women in this time were not granted a place in public life, instead relegated to the private sphere, expected to tend to children and housework and making the lives of their husbands easy. But though they were confined to the private sphere, women—and especially women in the serving class—were not granted privacy. It’s telling that McDermott can disappear for a day, go drinking out in town and not have it be of anyone’s concern where he is or what he’s doing. Nancy scolds him for it, but it still doesn’t compare to what Grace experiences when she attempts to have a day to herself.

Nancy gives her the day off on her birthday, encourages her to go on a walk in the countryside. Grace’s time to herself, perched against a log, is interrupted first by Jamie, who has come to ask her if she’ll be his sweetheart. She rejects him and acknowledges another contradiction between the treatment of men and women: Boys still get to be boys at 15 and 16-years old, but girls of the same age are deemed women, aren’t afforded the freedoms and whimsy of childhood for as long. While making flower crowns with Jamie, several pulled back shots of the two suggest the presence of someone else, watching them from behind a sloped branch. Is it McDermott? Kinnear? It could be either; it could be both. For they both interrogate Grace about what she was doing alone with a man in the woods. Grace remarks to Dr. Jordan that she felt as if the entire afternoon had not been her own. Indeed, Grace and her fellow female servants never have privacy. There are several shots throughout the episode that suggest Grace is being watched. When Jamie sneaks up on her in the clearing, we first see her back from his perspective. While she’s cleaning the floor, we see her back from Kinnear’s leering perspective.

Of course in the asylum and penitentiary, she’s under constant surveillance. One of her previous punishments in the penitentiary was to be locked in a coffin-shaped box with only a small hole to see out of. Inmates are punished brutally in front of each other. In the asylum, she was assaulted by the very men who were supposed to be helping her. Grace describes being lonely, and here she touches on the contradictory nature of constant surveillance: Being oppressively, perpetually watched by others is an isolating, lonely experience.

Advertisement

Even before all that, Nancy surveills her, always keeping an eye on any interaction Grace has with Kinnear, easily jumping to conclusions about Grace’s intentions. But Grace and Nancy are mistaken in thinking they are each other’s enemies. When McDermott explains to Grace that Nancy and Kinnear sleep together, he reiterates all the same harmful, sexist stereotypes about women who have sex outside of marriage that ultimately killed Mary Whitney. And instead of being empathetic toward Nancy’s situation and realizing Kinnear as the real problem, Grace lets it affect how she views Nancy, starts talking back to her. She thinks that since Mary Whitney was punished for getting knocked up by George Parkinson, Nancy, too, should be punished rather than rewarded with a ring from Kinnear.

It’s all indicative of patriarchy’s poisonous reach: Sexism has been so pervasive in Grace’s life that here she is perpetuating it. Possession has been hinted at throughout the series, and Grace again details a slightly out-of-body experience at the end of “Part 4.” But spirits aren’t the only thing that can possess; ideas can, too. Men’s manipulations and abuse have sunk their claws into Grace, possessing her to perpetuate some of the very ideas that oppress her.

The most chilling scene comes at the end, when Grace describes a dream where she walks out into the cold, dark night and is visited by McDermott, George Parkinson, Kinnear, and her father. She’s passed between them, her hurried breath and the eerie score providing the rhythm for this dark and disturbing dance. It’s less subtle than this show tends to be, but it’s powerful in its directness, making explicit a connection that has been implied: These men are all limbs of the same monster. And tellingly, Dr. Jordan’s repeated fantasy of holding Grace in his arms has very similar blocking to the dream sequence. Again, Mary Harron’s direction is piercing and effectively fear-inducing without being hokey. Her horror is grounded in reality, making it all the more scary. The thunderstorm is the right amount of ominous without being too over-the-top.

Advertisement

Grace wakes from her dream with dirtied feet to discover the laundry she hung up the day before flapping in the trees, looking a lot like the headless angels she saw in the dream, suggesting it wasn’t all just in her head. Between the whispers and her lapses in memory, it’s clear that something is going on in Grace’s mind that could explain the murders. Between Sarah Polley’s script, Harron’s direction, and Sarah Gadon’s performance, Alias Grace does such a thorough and effective job of pulling us into Grace’s mind. But Dr. Jordan is too focused on what’s happening inside Grace’s head to see the bigger picture, the outside forces that have contributed to her fate.

Stray observations

  • Anna Paquin is great again here. Her delivery of “don’t come back without a dead bird” hints at a slight sense of dark humor in her performance.

Advertisement

  • I really hope Sarah Gadon gets some awards play for this performance.
  • Grace suggests that McDermott tried to shift the blame because of his loneliness on the road toward death.
  • The sweeping shots of the landscape in this episode are really beautiful.

Advertisement