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In its penultimate episode, Alias Grace thrives on uncertainty

Alias Grace
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“Part 5” drives home the notion that there’s no way to know for certain all that happened on the day Nancy Montgomery was thrown down the cellar stairs and choked to death and Thomas Kinnear was shot. Grace calls her own narrative into question, needling viewers on with little questions that sow the seeds of doubt into the story. Multiple versions of the same story unfold, interrupting and contradicting each other. It’s beautifully crafted chaos. Alias Grace remains sharp and immersive in its unraveling of memory.


Little bits of humor have crept their way into Alias Grace’s darkness. There’s something disturbingly funny about the blasé way in which Grace and McDermott discuss murder. “Are you going to kill her this morning?” Grace asks. “Don’t kill her in the bedroom—you’ll make the floor all bloody!” It remains a thoroughly terrifying show, but these subtle bursts of dark comedy are enticing. Sarah Polley’s script is truly brilliant.

One reason I bring up the show’s deranged sense of humor—which is used very sparingly—is because of this episode’s opening quote. Every installment has opened with a thematically relevant literary quote, and while I like the device, I haven’t expounded much on past quotes in these reviews. This one, however, stood out, because it is the first opening quote that is tongue-in-cheek. The quote is from Edgar Allen Poe’s The Philosophy Of Composition: “...the death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.” This fetishization of violence against women is something Alias Grace challenges in its overall critique of patriarchy and oppressive gender roles. The use of the quote is pointed irony.

Mary Harron’s direction is particularly captivating in “Part 5.” It’s the least linear episode of the show so far and the least fixed in Grace’s head, too. We’re pulled into McDermott’s perspective—or, at least, what he said in his confession—and into Dr. Jordan’s, too. Dr. Jordan has previously fantasized about intimacy with Grace, and that amplifies in “Part 5” when he dreams of having sex with Grace only to wake up and realize it’s his landlady sexually assaulting him.

The interplay between conscious and unconscious states is at the core of “Part 5.” The line between dreams and reality blurs. Grace faints in the present when she sees Jeremiah, who is now working as a hypnotist under the name Jerome Dupont. She faints in flashback once after McDermott shoots at her after killing Kinnear (at least in the version of the story that she tells) and once more at her trial, piercing herself through the neck as she collapses. Grace is clearly prone to fainting, but it’s more than that. She also experiences Mary Whitney delusions throughout the episode. She hears Mary again asking to be let in, and Mary visits her on the night McDermott intended to kill Nancy, and when Grace opens a window to let out her soul, she disappears before getting the chance. In another dream sequence, Grace walks with Kinnear behind her and sees Nancy in the house, but Nancy becomes Mary. How much of these are dreams? How much does Grace really remember or not remember? Alias Grace casts doubt over its entire narrative but not in a way that undermines its protagonist.


McDermott is a manipulative monster throughout, gaslighting Grace on multiple occasions in the aftermath of the murders. That, at least, is certain. There’s no way to know if anything he says is the truth. Grace’s narration again perceptively explores the nefarious nature of powerful men: The second McDermott has a bit of money after robbing Kinnear, he becomes petulant and entitled. Young Jamie is also revealed to be a crucial part of Grace’s trial, his damaging testimony ruining her case and suggesting that he is enacting revenge for being rebuked by her. Grace is at the mercy of men’s manipulations in the aftermath of the murders. It doesn’t matter what she says; no one believes her because she’s a woman and a servant. Despite insisting to Grace that he’ll believe anything she says, Dr. Jordan expresses his own doubts to the reverend.

But by placing us so firmly in Grace’s mind, Alias Grace makes us want to believe her, gives her the power to control the narrative even as that narrative is distorted and contradicted throughout the episode. The rhythms of “Part 5” are chaotic and shrouded in uncertainty, but Alias Grace makes Grace Marks an unreliable narrator without discrediting her in the ways that the other male characters on the show try to do. Just as Grace is deliberate about what she tells and doesn’t tell Dr. Jordan, the show is deliberate about which parts of the story seem certain and which remain in question. The fact that McDermott shot Kinnear remains consistent according to both narratives, but Nancy’s death is more obscure. The parts that are certain, like the fact that McDermott repeatedly tries to sexually assault Grace, reverberate throughout the rest of the story. Grace observes that she must go on with the story or, more accurately, that it must go on with her. Like the fuzzy line between dream and reality, the line between story and storyteller merges. Alias Grace is as much about who Grace is as it is about who others think she is. And the ambiguity is striking.


Stray observations

  • One thing I’ve been a bit confused about is why this committee is so invested in Grace’s acquittal.
  • One of Dr. Jordan’s theories is that Grace is a “true amnesiac,” suggesting she might have done some of the things McDermott alleges she did but have no memory of it.
  • I’ve been thinking a bit about Jeremiah’s prophecy about Grace crossing water three times. The first time was when she first came to Canada, and then she and McDermott take a ship after the murders. Is the third time coming?
  • The arrest at the end of the episode is abrupt, but it hooks you right into wanting more. I’m very excited for this finale.

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