In the hollow emptiness of the aftermath of finishing Stranger Things II, I was weak. I was searching. I was vulnerable to boring Netflix Originals. So I clicked the first thing in “Recommended For You” and was luckily blown away by the historical drama/thriller Alias Grace. So much so I thought, Margaret, you should totally share your unsolicited opinions about it! And here we are.
Based on the cerebral Margaret Atwood novel, this dark but deep imagining has everything: Irish accents, Canadian history, scary old wives’ tales, female friendship, celebrated muderesses, themes that will haunt you at night, quilts.
Where The Handmaid’s Tale visually looks like our future to warn us about our present, Alias Grace does that with our past to question our now. And if you want to be engrossed yet horrified yet intrigued yet practice an Irish accent to yourself while you’re in the shower, boy do I got a show for you.
So the story begins with Grace Marks, a 19th-century immigrant who travelled over from Ireland with her family to Canada in a foreshadowing attempt to merely survive. Grace lives the life expected of a woman of her class- she works at a grand house as a scullery maid, must always temper what she says and does, and is at the mercy of the men around her. From her violent father to the masters of the several homes she ends up living in, Grace tries to keep her faith and virtue away from the hypocritical forces that would violate and discard her without a thought.
After moving to her first house to work at, she meets Mary Whitney, a high-spirited, foul-mouthed, patriotic heroine who is all of us. Mary quotes Canadian rebel-rousers, dreams of owning chickens, and lives life on her own terms in her small ways while offering much-needed friendship to Grace. But it’s clear that the puritanical society simply cannot have a woman living on her own terms and Mary quickly meets a terrible end. She must either kill herself, be shunned from society, or abort a baby created by the manipulative seduction of the master of the house. In a graphic and horrible scene, Mary dies after attempting an abortion.
Grace is traumatized so decides to move homes after the master of the house turns his attention onto her and a visiting housekeeper named Nancy offers a new job. Nancy is a total betch who rocks pale pink and plays both the oppressed and the oppressor in practiced turns.
Life in the new house does not bode Grace well. She has to fend off the attentions of both the surly, smoking hot stableboy and the dishonorable, smoking hot Scotsman who owns the manor. It’s quickly clear that Nancy is favored by the Scotsman for disreputable reasons and Grace does what she can to avoid similar advances.
In a stunning turn of events, Grace is either an accomplice or a witness to the horrendous murders of Nancy and the Scotsman and the show doesn’t even ask you to decide. It doesn’t ask you to judge or even deem Nancy or the Scotsman deserving ((I mean, the answer is “probs” but let’s move on)). Instead, it intersperses the aftermath of the trial of Grace Marks, how she is sentenced to execution by hanging, but later sent to an asylum where she is exploited and tortured. She is a good prisoner though and is quickly allowed to work at a nearby grand house during the day. A group of self-congratulating do-gooders take mercy on her and arrange what they can to have her sentence dropped if she agrees to be studied by a a psychologist who believes he can access her memories and the truth of the ordeal can finally be revealed.
But we’ll never know the whole truth. Grace is an expert actress, reflecting what wants to be seen back to whoever new is asking something out of her. The do-gooders want her to be unblemished, innocent, and grateful. The psychologist wants her to be an unwilling victim of circumstance and encouraging of his romantic feelings towards her. The men in her life want her to be willing and complacent; the women want her to keep her head down. The hungry public wants her to be dim-witted, promiscuous, manipulative. Everyone wants a story and everyone wants her, but no one wants to see what she represents.
Alias Grace seeks to answer the question of what happens to women when we force them into a culture of violence, repression, and an utter lack of agency. If you think these themes only apply to powerless indentured servants of that time, you obviously have not been reading the news. From the horrifying allegations against Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey to the domestic violence allegations of the Texas shooter, we still live in a world where men hold power and do what they will with very little consequence.
But what I also appreciated was the inclusion of the women who benefit and perpetuate misogynistic cultures who are often held as emblems of the “look, it can’t all be bad so it doesn’t exist” justifications of this rape culture. Like the Commander’s Wife in The Handmaid’s Tale, you must question the insecurities and intentions of women who keep other women down just so they can stay up. It’s rather reminiscent of Ivanka Trump telling the world that sexual harassment cannot be tolerated in the same breath that Sarah Huckabee let the world know that all 15 accusations of sexual assault and sexual harassment against our sitting president are all lies. All 15 accusations going back to the 1980s. Can anyone say “complicit”?
It also shows what can happen to a scandal-obsessed public. We take the murky gray out of the equation and see the world in only stark contrasts. Perhaps our fatalistic media could take a page out of this book.
But like all Margaret Atwood stories, there are no good endings, only good TV adaptions. It’s up to you and me to write the better ending.
In all, the series is hauntingly frustrating, beautiful, and lasting. It’s like a New Yorker article you didn’t really want to read but you feel better for it in the end. It’s like mixing the “Lore” podcast with some Scarlet Letter with some Oregon Trail. It’s for sure no one’s favorite thing ever but definitely worth a watch and a conversation.
Bonus points: the resurrection of Anna Paquin. I feel like all these beloved actresses of ten years ago are freaking hitting their stride lately. Winona Ryder in Stranger Things, Evan Rachel Wood in Westworld, Alexis Bledel in The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s like Hollywood is just now realizing that women can be still be talented after the age of 30 without having to wait till they’re 40 to play someone’s mom.
A Magpie Reviews: 8/10