Alias Grace

Sarah Polley, who has adapted Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace for television, succinctly described the throughline between this Atwood adaptation and that other one that made a splash on Hulu last spring: The Handmaid’s Tale looks to a future where women’s rights have been stripped away, and Alias Grace takes place before those rights ever existed. Indeed, as it unspools its central mystery, Alias Grace paints a harrowing picture of patriarchal control and violence. Despite being set in the mid-19th Century, as with the near-future setting of The Handmaid’s Tale, the near-past of Alias Grace is unsettlingly relevant in the present.

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An ornate work of historical fiction, Alias Grace takes the true-crime story of a young Irish maid named Grace Marks—who, along with James McDermott, murdered her employer Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery—and spins it into a larger study of humanity, power, trauma, and perception. The first episode sets up the miniseries’ narrative structure: Starting 15 years since the murders, much of the story is told in flashback as Grace provides her own account of events to Dr. Simon Jordan, a young, American doctor of the mind. As she quite literally weaves an elaborate quilt, she also weaves the tale of her own life, a pattern of trauma, abuse, and survival emerging as she starts with the death of her mother on their way to Canada from Northern Ireland.

Director Mary Harron crafts a visually and sonically immersive quilt, patchworking together Grace’s past and her present. Violent flashbacks to seeing Nancy’s body thrown down a cellar interrupt the narrative. The episode’s dynamics lend to its sense of suspense, quiet, almost mystical scenes mixed in with louder, violent, more urgent bursts. The depiction of Grace and her family’s eight weeks in the belly of a ship as they journeyed to Canada is nothing short of a horror show: squeaking rats, moaning men, gushing water, and vomit all swirling together in the dark, rocking boat. The quick glimpses of Grace’s time in an asylum following the murders are similarly haunting.

Alias Grace no doubt is woven with similar themes as The Handmaid’s Tale, but it already shows more nuance and restraint than the latter. The Handmaid’s Tale is very direct, occasionally garish in its depiction of patriarchal violence. Alias Grace, so far, has more subtlety in its thematic underpinnings. Violent men exert their power over Grace, starting with her father, and then continued by the men at the asylum and the guards of the penitentiary. In the governor’s home, where she’s allowed to work once a week, she’s ogled as an object of curiosity.

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As Grace, Sarah Gadon is perfectly ambiguous. The first scene, a simple close-up of Grace as she tells us all the assumptions people have made of her in voiceover, suggests that no one knows who Grace really is, why she did what she did (if she really did do it, which is something that thus far remains uncertain). There’s no way to know for sure how accurate her retelling for Dr. Jordan really is. In fact, we catch her in little lies along the way: When Dr. Jordan asks her what an apple and a beet remind her of, her real thoughts play out on screen as her words say something else entirely. For the past 15 years, people have projected onto Grace, and Gadon plays the character in a way that easily allows for projection. Which isn’t to say that her performance is vague; it’s just not easily defined. She tells her own story with a sense of removal, even though her sudden fear about the asylum and general distrust of Dr. Jordan make it clear that these past events aren’t all that distant. Specific personality traits sneak their way in, like the little smile that spread across her face when Dr. Jordan has to open a window to get some air after she recounts the hellish time on the ship.

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Suspense seeps into every tendril of the pilot. Even the lighter parts are ominous. Grace skips ahead to, as she puts it, a happy part of the story, introducing Mary Whitney, a fellow servant and her roommate. As Mary, Rebecca Liddiard is warm and bouncy, and Mary and Grace’s scenes together effectively convey their closeness. But even these lighter scenes spell doom, for Grace reveals early on in the present that Mary will die. The entire episode feels like an uncanny nightmare. Alias Grace has the built-in hook of a murder mystery, but it already appears to be much more than that.

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Stray observations

  • Welcome to episodic coverage of Alias Grace! If you have read the book or if you are Canadian and have already seen the series when it originally aired, please make sure to provide spoiler warnings where necessary in the comments.
  • Reviews will be published daily for the full six-episode run.
  • I felt seasick just watching those scenes on the ship. Talk about immersive storytelling!

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  • Grace’s comparison of quilts to flags hung out by an army at war is great.
  • A few references to the politics of the time come up in the episode, including Mary’s explanation of the rebellions to Grace.