Alias Grace

Even though they’re very different shows, I found myself thinking about How To Get Away With Murder while watching “Part 2” of Alias Grace and comparing both shows’ approaches to murder mystery. How To Get Away With Murder gets off on being as withholding as possible. It keeps its twists so tightly locked up that almost anything can happen at any given time. But rather than building suspense, that approach is just exhausting. In “Part 2” of Alias Grace, we already know that Mary is going to die. The tension throughout the episode is subtle and transfixing.

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Grace and Mary play an innocent game where apple peels predict the first initial of the man they’ll marry, and Mary’s peel keeps breaking, which still provides the correct answer to her question: She will never be married. How To Get Away With Murder relies on frantic pacing, on building up to big reveals that happen all at once. Alias Grace has more of a slow-release approach to its tension and heightening, needling its way under your skin. Like “Part 1,” “Part 2” unfolds like a nightmare.

There are flickers of joy and hope in Mary and Grace’s friendship; the two women love each other very much. Their love for each other even borders on romantic, although that remains in the shadows of subtext. Mary educates Grace on politics, womanhood, and feminism. When Grace is terrified by the sight of her first period, Mary is there for her. She tells her that other folks call it the “curse of Eve,” but she sees the real curse of Eve to be having to put up with Adam’s nonsense. Mary is carefree and bold, weary of men and the upper-class. Steadily, darkness seeps into their lives, and the nightmare takes hold. A fun game of chasing each other abruptly ends with Mary pretending to be unconscious. To her, it’s just a joke, but Grace’s panic conveys not only her love for Mary but also an increasingly ominous vibe. Mary cautions Grace against going out alone at night, says that women must not ever let their guard down. She warns her against falling for the affections of men, especially upper-class men who believe they can take anything they want.

It’s especially heartbreaking then that Mary’s death is brought about by the exact circumstances she warned Grace about. George Parkinson, the son of the household where they work, comes home on a break from college, and his eyes always find Mary. His stay at home is extended, and Mary becomes increasingly distant from Grace. No longer do they play their games together, and Mary becomes too tired to even do their nightly ritual of making fun of people as they fall asleep side-by-side. Mary eventually becomes ill, and it’s clear what’s going on, although the very naive Grace is slow on the uptake. Mary is pregnant, and George rescinds his promise to marry her, because he was never planning on marrying her in the first place. When Mary and Grace see George getting in a carriage with another woman—presumably in the same class as him—to take her ice-skating, Grace casually asks if Mary has ever been skating herself, and she simply replies no. Only for Mary, this isn’t simple question and answer at all. It’s the moment when she—and we—realize her mistake. She herself said that men are liars by nature, but she trusted one anyway.

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Grace promises to do anything to help Mary, but there’s little she can do. If anyone finds out, Mary will be sent away, have to live on the street or in a horrible home, and she doesn’t see herself living through either experience, so she seeks out an illegal abortion provided by a doctor in town. She doesn’t make it through the night. Mary’s tragic death isn’t the result of her failing to heed her own advice; rather, it’s evidence that a man like George Parkinson’s power was so great that he could even manipulate and destroy a woman as perceptive and cautious as Mary. Her fate was sealed by oppressive sexism. When she tells George she’s pregnant, he gives her five dollars, tells her to drown herself, and says he’ll deny it if she tries to tell anyone he impregnated her.

It’s disgustingly easy for him to get away with all this. Mary would have faced all the repercussions if she had given birth to the child, and she faces all the repercussions after she’s dead, too. George’s mother at first wants the scoundrel who did this to Mary to pay...until she connects the dots and realizes her son is the very scoundrel. Suddenly, she wants to cover up Mary’s abortion and death. She was only willing to implicate the man until she realized it would affect her own family’s name. It’s a telling example of the intersection between sexism and classism: She’s complicit in her son’s misogyny, because she’s preserving her own power. She’s another cog in the patriarchal machine that guaranteed no good options for Mary once she was pregnant; all possible outcomes would have surely resulted in her death. It might be easy for someone without any knowledge of women’s health and history to write Mary’s fate off as something of the distant past, but limited access to abortion kills women today, too. Alias Grace remains not just a work of historical fiction but an incredibly relevant and incisive exploration of patriarchy.

Alias Grace’s dynamic soundscape comprises significant whispers and screams. In the present timeline, Grace can still hear Mary’s screams from when she was getting her abortion. When Mary lies dead in her bed, Grace says in a desperate, pleading whisper: “Mary, are you pretending,” hoping that her friend is just faking it for a good laugh the way she was before but ultimately knowing, deep down, it’s real this time. Later, she hears Mary’s own voice say in a whisper “let me in.” It’s instantly chilling.

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Adding to the suspense and nightmarish feel of it all is the episode’s slight sense of mysticism. The apple peel game spells Mary’s doom. A visit from traveling salesman Jeremiah (Zachary Levi, with a spunky, charming performance) ends on an supernatural note when he looks at Grace’s palm and becomes instantly concerned, telling her that she will cross water three times and have much trouble before adding that she’s “one of us,” whatever that means. Shortly after Mary dies, Grace realizes she did not open a window to let the soul out, harkening back to her mother’s death. She assumes that Mary had been asking to be let out, not let in.

But Grace later faints, and when she finally comes to, it appears that she isn’t Grace at all, that Mary may have been granted her wish to be let in. Grace keeps asking where Grace is, and the maids keep trying to remind her that she’s Grace. It’s, again, instantly chilling—one of the spookiest scenes I’ve seen on television in a while. It’s as if Mary has temporarily taken over Grace’s body, and while it’s a short-lived possession, its haunting effects are lasting. Grace has no recollection of it actually happening and is presumably recounting to Dr. Jordan what she was told after the incident, and it’s hard not to wonder if there’s any connection between this lapse in memory and Grace’s lapse in memory when it comes to the murders she’s accused of.

Initially, Dr. Jordan’s role in the show’s narrative seemed to be just as a passive listener, but Alias Grace has already proven that seemingly harmless forces can be nefarious, and that same philosophy might apply to Dr. Jordan. Grace’s voiceover at the end of the episode suggests that he’s a voyeur, that he wants to see into Grace’s mind, that he wants to know her. In fact, the episode begins with Dr. Jordan’s dream: a vision of him wrapping Grace with a cloak as she stands in the cold air. It isn’t explicitly depraved, but their body language and the shot composition suggest sexual intimacy, so it’s clear that Dr. Jordan is already crossing a line when it comes to his fascination with Grace. As Grace puts it, he wants to hold her beating female heart in his hand. Her choice of words is crucial. The supposition that a heart can be female is, of course, preposterous, but that’s not what Grace is saying: She’s saying that he feels entitled to her mind and body and innermost thoughts not because she’s a murderer and patient of his but because she is a woman.

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Stray observations

  • One little pet peeve of mine is when the story of a show is being retold by one person and then they recount something they could not have known, which applies to when we see the scenes of the other servants trying to wake up Grace. How could Grace know about that? Also, if she claims to not remember the possession, how can she recount that in such detail, too? Of course, there’s always the chance she’s lying about not remembering. Or she’s, as I said, just recounting what was told to her. Either way, it pulled me out for a second (but I was sucked right back in because of how genuinely frightening it was).
  • Mary’s political rallying call that she has Grace recite back to her as she’s dying is disturbingly relevant to today.
  • The episode is interrupted by a literal nightmare: a quick flash of a dream Grace has presumably had multiple times where she sees Nancy in a flower garden, waving to her before suddenly choking. Grace neglects to tell Dr. Jordan about this and instead tells him she doesn’t remember her dreams.
  • We knew Mary was going to die, and Mary knew she was going to die, too. She left her things to Grace in a hastily written will.
  • Will Jeremiah be back? I liked Jeremiah.

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