Alias Grace

The slow, measured pacing of Alias Grace makes the frenetic energy of the hypnosis scene at the center of its finale all the more thrilling. The finale is brilliantly crafted and, at times, downright terrifying. It’s also deliberately inconclusive, and that ambiguity is weirdly satisfying.

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Alias Grace exercises great restraint in its storytelling, and that’s still true of the hypnosis sequence. Mary Harron doesn’t rely on gimmicky tricks to make the scene spooky. The camerawork is simple, intimate. The blocking barely contains any movement. It’s just a veiled Sarah Gadon, sitting in a chair. A flashier show would play around with angles and sound effects to make the whole experience more overtly scary, but Harron doesn’t need those embellishments. Over the course of these six episodes, she has instilled fear in almost every shot without trying too hard. Alias Grace has been a deeply immersive visual and audial experience, and that’s certainly true of the hypnosis scene. Gadon has crafted a creepy voice worthy of a place in the Creepy Voice Hall Of Fame. She perfected it by listening to a recording of Rebecca Liddiard (who plays Mary Whitney) reciting the lines herself and then mimicked her voice. But part of the fear factor is that Gadon doesn’t mimic her perfectly; rather, she slightly distorts her cadence, sounding not necessarily exactly like Mary Whitney but like a hellish, otherworldly version of her. The effect is nothing short of bone-chilling. The voice does most of the work in the scene.

The image of Grace in the veil is powerful, tapping into some of the show’s recurring themes about women’s repression. Dr. Jordan posits that hypnosis allows women to speak more freely and boldly. The veil, like the bonnets worn by Grace and by the women on her sister show The Handmaid’s Tale, is often thought of as a patriarchy-designed tool to oppress women, but this scene flips those assumptions, makes the veil a source of power for Grace (who could, let’s be real, very well be completely aware of what she’s saying and doing in the trance, twisting the committee and Dr. Jordan around her finger as she weaves her tale). There will always be a veil shrouding the truth, because as much as Dr. Jordan and the others wish to see into Grace, they can never really know her in the intrusive way they hope to.

We expect Jeremiah/Jerome’s hypnosis procedure to unlock Grace’s elusive memories, but the ultimate result is much more layered than that. In its finale, Alias Grace puts forth a few different possible explanations for what really happened. Grace could have been possessed—whether in a supernatural sense by the spirit of Mary Whitney or in a more medical sense by a split personality disorder. The ways Alias Grace shows conflicting perspectives remains brilliantly executed. We watch as Grace willingly participates in Nancy’s murder, helping McDermott choke her with the kerchief. But we also see what is quite possibly how Grace does remember it all in her mind: She was out in the garden watching snails when McDermott dumped the body down the cellar, and then she was cowering in the back of the cellar, looking on in horror as McDermott finished her off, unable to move or speak. In those scenes, the sounds of violence—of Nancy’s body plummeting down the stairs and of her gasping for air—are distant and dulled. The sound editing on this show has been impeccable, contributing to the show’s strong sense of immersive storytelling.

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Is this Grace’s actual memory or is it something her mind has constructed to ease the trauma of the experience? Trauma can meddle with memory, and Alias Grace explores that expertly without undermining Grace. It somehow both honors her autonomy and the validity of her memory while also suggesting there’s no way to know what the truth is. Because ultimately, the truth doesn’t matter a whole lot. And Alias Grace thrives in its uncertainty. Grace says that her secrets are safe with Jeremiah and that she changes the details of her stories to Jamie from time to time just as she did with Dr. Jordan, telling the men what she thinks they want to hear. All of these little admissions do confirm that Grace has not been completely honest in her retelling of events.

The sequence of horrors that plays out as Grace talks about how Jamie always wants to know about all the bad things that happened to her is haunting. We’ve seen these images and heard these sounds as little bursts of memory throughout the series, and smashing them all together has the desired effect of compounding terror. Because Alias Grace has been so restrained in its storytelling, it earns these more in-your-face moments. And Grace’s connection between Jamie and Dr. Jordan resonates: Both men are perverse voyeurs to her pain and suffering.

Alias Grace does not present Grace’s experiences as singular; they are endemic of the pervasive sexism and classism of the time. It’s fitting, then, that Grace weaves Mary Whitney and Nancy Montgomery into her quilt at the end. They are all bound together in this tale, all victims in a way of the oppressive patriarchy that has dictated everything from how they are allowed to act to what they are allowed to wear. Despite all its subtlety and ambiguity, the show is very direct about its exploration of violence against women and the dangers of male entitlement. It does not condemn Grace nor does it pinpoint just one straightforward monster. Men and their need to control women make up this many-headed monster.

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The ambiguous ending is in some ways more satisfying than a more definitive one would have been, and that’s a hard task to pull off. The dream team of Sarah Polley, Harron, and Gadon are all part of the show’s success in making such an inconclusive ending compelling. The writing, direction, and acting have all worked together so seamlessly on this show. Gadon has been magnetic, embodying the story’s ambiguity in her alluring and subtle performance. Her measured approach to playing Grace makes the shift into the sinister Mary Whitney persona all the more striking. The final image, of Grace looking directly into the camera, her expression hard-to-pin-down but twinkling with a hint of amusement, so thoroughly encapsulates the show’s essence and is open to several interpretations. The power of Grace’s gaze reinforces the idea that she has always been the one in control of this story, weaving her quilt as she sees fit.

Stray observations

  • So if you couldn’t tell from the grades, I was blown away by this show. It isn’t as flashy as The Handmaid’s Tale, but it’s just as provocative, and the measured pacing and subtlety were some of the things I liked about it.

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  • I want more work from Polley and Harron ASAP.
  • I think Grace and Mary Whitney were in love with each other, and you can’t tell me otherwise!
  • I really can’t get that hypnosis voice out of my head.

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