Alias Grace

Between the subtly chilling performances of the main cast and Mary Harron’s distinct, immersive directing style, Alias Grace has all the markings of the horror genre. Historical fiction or period drama don’t quite encapsulate what this show looks and feels like on their own. It’s a horror series. And its monster is the patriarchy.

Alias Grace doesn’t have any obvious horror mechanisms. There’s no haunted house...technically. There are no ghosts...technically. But Harron imbues simple, familiar images with an edge of darkness that suggest both. The most striking scene in “Part 3” shows no characters at all and evokes the feeling of both a haunted house and a ghost. As Grace explains to Dr. Jordan that she can close her eyes and recall every detail of Thomas Kinnear’s home as if it were a painting, the camera moves throughout the empty house, placing us in her mind and also making it feel like we are the ones roaming these halls with the first-person, continuous shot of it all. The camera moves with such fluid precision that it feels as if the perspective belongs to a ghost. Grace reminds us, with a slight sense of amusement in her voice, that she is the only one left living from that house, that all else had died in the span of six months.

Moments in the episode, especially scenes between Nancy and Grace, remind me a lot of The Killing Of A Sacred Deer and the overall monotonous, disturbingly blasé vibe of Yorgos Lanthimos’ films. Anna Paquin’s Nancy would be perfectly at home in a Lanthimos movie. Paquin is even-keeled and creepy in a way you can’t quite place your finger on. She’s mostly matter-of-fact, but little smiles and giggles at nothing in particular break up her monotony. She becomes instantly uneasy when Grace starts asking questions about the painting depicting a story from the Apocrypha. Her instructions are too specific; her eagerness to keep Kinnear happy implies that something very bad will happen if the slightest thing goes wrong. Paquin’s hurried but unemphatic delivery of the line about being careful not to fall down the cellar stairs and break your neck is ominous, especially because it foreshadows her own death. McDermott’s fate is foreshadowed, too, when Grace says she’ll wring a noisy chicken’s neck, and he makes an off-hand joke about her directing the comment at him. As we know, he eventually gets his neck wrung by a noose, executed by the state for crimes he declares Grace Marks made him do.

Harron can instill immense fear in the smallest of moments. The rattling of a doorknob as George Parkinson frantically asks for Grace to let him into her room in the weeks following Mary’s death unnerves completely, bringing us into Grace’s perspective. In just three episodes, Alias Grace has needled its way under my skin. The repetition of certain images and sounds—like seeing and hearing Nancy’s limp body thrown down the cellar stairs and seeing and hearing Grace screaming in the asylum—creates the inescapable feeling of a nightmare you can’t wake up from. Sound, as with any horror film, plays a huge role in the show’s storytelling.

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In “Part 3,” Grace’s voiceover deliberately switches from addressing Dr. Jordan to addressing the audience. She has addressed the audience in previous episodes, but the transition here is especially effective, suggesting that a simultaneous study is taking place: Dr. Jordan thinks he is the one studying Grace, but she’s just as intently studying, dissecting, and testing him. At the start of their meeting, she offhandedly asks why he hasn’t been sleeping, and when he’s confused by the question, she points out the circles under his eyes. In that moment, she’s the doctor, and he’s the patient, and he’s discomforted by the shift in power, quickly breezing past it as if it didn’t happen. Grace is very much in control of her narrative right now; she’s literally the one telling the story. And she’s deliberately withholding at times, like when she answers one of his questions with a simple “and so forth” because she feels that’s all she’s entitled to. She’s in control, but she has to make him feel like he’s still the one in control. Grace knows how to play the game.

When he asks her what she did every day at Kinnear’s house, she realizes, with a bit of incredulous amusement, that he has no idea what household work consists of. As she puts it, men like him don’t ever have to clean up the messes they make. In saying this, she tellingly connects Dr. Jordan to the other gentlemen in the story—to Kinnear, to George Parkinson, to all the men she was expected to serve. Dr. Jordan has become an increasingly nefarious character. In a way, he’s guilty of doing exactly what Grace scolds McDermott for: He’s trying to figure out “what sort of girl” she might be. In “Part 3,” he outright fantasizes about Grace when he hears her sing. As with Grace, there’s a disconnect between what he thinks and what he says. Neither character is completely honest with each other, and Alias Grace excellently bobs between what the characters are saying and what they’re really thinking.

Stray observations

  • I have a feeling that Grace keeps quoting some of Mary’s more straightforward and vulgar derisions of men in a deliberate attempt to make Dr. Jordan uncomfortable. Again, she’s very much in control of these sessions, whether Dr. Jordan realizes that or not.
  • I was truly impressed by Paquin’s performance. There’s something so off-putting about Nancy, and she plays that perfectly.
  • I love the exchange between Dr. Jordan and Grace about the bonnet being confining—it’s a direct parallel between this and The Handmaid’s Tale.

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