Categorized | Arts & Entertainment

Netflix’s new show “Alias Grace” is all-too-relevant

Coral Ciupak
Viewpoints Editor

For those still reeling from Hulu’s TV series adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Netflix recently released “Alias Grace,” a six-episode miniseries adaptation of Atwood’s novel of the same name. “Alias Grace” is the story of Grace Marks, a young Irish immigrant to Canada who in the mid-nineteenth century is tried and convicted of the murders of her employer and his housekeeper. While both the miniseries and the novel are fictional, the life of Grace Marks and the murders for which she was tried and convicted are based on a true story.

The series begins 15 years after Grace’s conviction with the arrival of Dr. Simon Jordan, a young psychiatrist who has been enlisted to write a report favorable to Grace in the hopes that it will acquit her. In their sessions, Grace reveals to Dr. Jordan the various abuses and losses she suffered in her immigration to Canada and in her employment as a household servant.

Dr. Jordan’s intentions at the beginning of the series appear relatively clear: to determine the extent of Grace’s guilt by treating her past, her psyche and his conversations with her as an object of study. As the series progresses, however, as his interactions with Grace become less clinical and more interpersonal, Dr. Jordan’s fascination with her becomes romantic and, eventually, explicitly sexual. By the last episode, Dr. Jordan is tormented by questions regarding Grace’s guilt: was she only an unwitting accessory to the crime, or was she its orchestrator? Is she simply a victim of circumstance, or is she a cold-blooded killer? Has she been truthful in her sessions with Dr. Jordan, or has she been manipulating him and everyone else?

The torment surrounding Dr. Jordan’s evaluation of Grace is largely the result of how Grace controls what she reveals to him through the telling of her story. While the exchanges between the two begin as an attempt by Dr. Jordan to extract some clinical diagnosis that will speak to Grace’s involvement in the murders, the power shifts to Grace in her choosing what details to reveal — and perhaps in choosing what Dr. Jordan believes.

The way in which Grace struggles for control over her narrative is representative of how society under the patriarchy presents women as objects of fascination and speculation. Even prior to Dr. Jordan’s interest in her as a psychological subject, Grace and her involvement in the murders had been the subject of wild speculation and sensationalist journalism.

In the first scene of the series, Grace remarks on all that has been written about her — that she is “an inhuman female demon,” “an innocent victim of a blackguard,” “cunning and devious,” “a good girl with a pliable nature” — and wonders how she can be all these things at once. It becomes clear that the simplistic explanations Dr. Jordan and others want to give for Grace and her involvement in the murders are altogether insufficient and ultimately, that her story is not theirs to tell and certainly not theirs to revel in.

While “Alias Grace” ends relatively inconclusively — to say Grace is an unreliable narrator would be an understatement — it deeply challenges the audience’s expectations of what Grace owes them as a narrator and makes the story not one of guilt or innocence, but of how women in society under the patriarchy are scarcely given agency over their own narrative. As well as being well acted, beautifully developed and extraordinarily written, “Alias Grace” is a timeless and all-too-relevant depiction of a woman’s power to tell her own story.

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