“Alias Grace”: Come for Margaret Atwood’s Classic Feminist Themes, Stay for the Historical Gal Pal

None of us really signed up for 2017 being the year of deeply relating to disturbing scifi/historical Margaret Atwood projects about the many layers of cultural violence that women experience, but here we are! First it was The Handmaid’s Tale, the dystopian Christofascist feminist show that probably seemed a lot more far-fetched when it was originally picked up before the election; as of this week it’s Netflix’s new mini-series Alias Grace, a historical piece about old-timey murder, gendered violence, and arguably gay female friendship from beyond the grave.

Alias Grace is based on the Atwood novel of the same name, one of several Atwood projects (including poem cycle The Journals of Susanna Moodie and TV movie The Servant Girl) inspired by the real-life murders of Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery. The two other servants in the house, James McDermott and Grace Marks, were convicted of the murders; McDermott was executed and Marks imprisoned for life. For the most part, Alias Grace hews fairly closely to these historical facts; it includes the addition, however, of American Dr. Jordan in the fledgling field of psychotherapy who wants to probe the reality behind Grace Marks’ claim that she has no memory of the murders, and discover whether she’s a “true amnesiac.”

Part of the tension of the show comes from the ostensible mystery of the murder itself. By the time of the events of the show, it occurred 15 years ago, and while McDermott was definitely involved, it’s not clear to anyone — maybe not even Grace — to what extent she was, if at all. But the bulk of its heat and energy come from watching Grace navigate her own memories: of her violent alcoholic father, her various servant placements in houses with sexually predatory men and willfully obtuse women. Fraught and interesting too is watching her navigate how to narrate these stories to Jordan, whose idea of psychoanalysis is trying to get Grace to free-associate with fruits and vegetables while becoming increasingly distracted by sexual fantasies about her. It’s fascinating and surprisingly timeless to watch Grace effortlessly adapt to what she needs to be from moment to moment: a gentle idiot, a naive victim in need of rescue, a warmhearted caretaker.

In one exchange, Jordan is trying to get Grace to reveal whether or not Kinnear sexually harassed her before the murders; the viewer more or less knows that he has, or at the very least attempted to, but Grace is evasive, sidestepping the question through politesse, saying “I don’t know what you mean by improper,” telling Jordan that Kinnear did “only what was usual.” The viewer knows the gut-wrenching implications of that phrase; Jordan does not. When he gets frustrated with her performance of naivete, Grace becomes incensed — “I’ve heard enough of that kind of talk” — and goes as if to leave, sending Jordan into a flurry of apologies and ending the line of questioning. Watching the scene, I was transported to so many conversations with so many men, times when for any number of reasons I knew I couldn’t say “I don’t want to talk about this” and instead had to rely on a combination of playing dumb and playing up ladylike sensibilities, because I knew those would be taken more seriously than my agency as a person. 150 years apart, Grace has the same set of instincts.

In a different set of hands, Grace’s choices could be read as manipulative or sick — the cold machinations of a “celebrated murderess,” as she wryly accepts being named. But Alias Grace is largely created by women — directed by Sarah Harron, written by Margaret Atwood and Sarah Polley, and including five women with production credits. It shows: Grace’s deft maneuvering is presented not as sociopathic but as the lonely, necessary work that it is, and its necessity pointed up by the truly impressive shit parade of men that the show depicts.

There are the blatantly and explicitly physically abusive men, of course — like Grace’s father and McDermott — but more haunting to me in some ways was the quiet hunger cloaked in niceness of men like Dr. Jordan. “Nice guys” who nonetheless get off on something deeply intrusive; who demand what Grace calls “forbidden knowledge; knowledge with a lurid glare to it; knowledge gained through a descent into the pit.” The image of Grace’s eventual husband, ostensibly wracked with guilt over what has happened to her, asking her to once again recount the abuse she experienced in a mental asylum before embracing her while she stares into the middle distance. Dr. Jordan who coaxes profoundly personal confessions out of Grace and reassures her he believes the more extreme elements, and then meets with other important men and tells them in their offices he thinks she might be delusional or lying. (Although you’re probably sick of hearing “especially at this moment” — I know I am! — it’s especially infuriating at this moment to watch a man perform sympathy for an abused woman to her face and then try to poke holes in her story with other men in private.)

In contrast, the female characters are — well, they’re complicated! If Grace’s present-day story is about one woman trying to navigate a precarious legal and social position alone, her past, shown in flashbacks, was largely characterized by how she interacted with other women — difficult, shortsighted, sometimes vindictive women — as they all try to deal with men. Once again timelessly recognizable are the ways in which women collude with and sometimes against each other to hide their own and other women’s indiscretions, and those experiences of violence from men that would be perceived as indiscretions; we see women throw each under the bus out of desperate hope that it will somehow secure their own safety or security with men.

Most significant among these women is Mary Whitney, objectively Grace’s closest personal relationship and subjectively, I think, her love interest. No matter how much Grace’s story winds and twists, sometimes backtracking over itself and changing, Mary is the constant, the one thread she keeps returning to. “My particular friend,” she calls her; “your Mary,” one of the fellow housemaids says. Although Grace equivocates and dissembles, maybe sometimes even lies, she doesn’t lie to Mary. Amidst all the truly horrific things that happen to Grace Marks throughout her life, the thing she herself describes as truly devastating her is losing Mary.

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Mary is the only person who offers Grace real protection or comfort that isn’t transactional in some way — when Grace confesses that she’s afraid of her father even after she’s left his house, Mary tells her that he can’t hurt her where she’s staying now. And even after she’s separated from her, Mary continues protecting Grace in unexpected ways. Without her saying so explicitly, it seems clear that for Grace, their stories are inextricably linked; the choices she makes will forever be dictated by not just what’s been inflicted on her but what’s been done to Mary.

Alias Grace as a whole does have a lot of classic Atwood hallmarks. There’s smart and haunting writing that speaks to lots of layers of gendered experience and rewarding thematic tangles; there’s a gift for understanding the ways that specific kinds of violence have transcended their historical moment and remained relevant. It’s also limited in its scope; its cast and its context for Grace’s experiences are thoroughly white, and the arguments the show seems to attempt to make about Grace’s potential avenues and how she navigates them as a maligned woman (or woman at all) aren’t as universally relatable as the show maybe imagines them to be. Like Handmaid’s Tale, it often works better as an exploration of one woman’s narrative than a narrative about womanhood broadly, and you can feel at times how much it wants to be the latter.

The way in which the show is maybe most successful at this only becomes clear at the end — when Grace is looking back at her life and specifically at Mary and Nancy, the women whose choices and whose fates shaped her the most. When she reflects on everything, the sense is that she sees her experiences as primarily defined not by the men who hurt her, but the women alongside her; how they tried to protect themselves and each other, how they failed to. She gestures at the complex duality of that should never have happened to her and I’ll make sure that never happens to me, no matter what. The strongest parts of the show are about how tender and brave the former reaction can make you, and what ruthless things the latter can make you capable of.

Grace has inextricably linked her story with Nancy and Mary’s; at its most simplistic, it’s maybe a story about how what you do to one of us you do to all of us (sort of). In the show’s best moments, it’s about something darker and more complicated; about how there’s things we’ll do for the sake of ourselves and things we’ll do for the sake of those we love, but when both are on the table, dangerous doors swing open.

Rachel is Autostraddle's Managing Editor and the editor who presides over news & politics coverage. Originally from Boston, MA, Rachel now lives in the Midwest. Topics dear to her heart include bisexuality, The X-Files and tacos. Her favorite Ciara video is probably "Ride," but if you're only going to watch one, she recommends "Like A Boy." You can follow her on twitter and instagram.

Rachel has written 1090 articles for us.

9 Comments

  1. Great writeup. The minute she touched Mary’s hair I yelled ‘queer undertones!’ at my cat, who was too busy harshly judging Krista Burton to notice. Luckily you saw it too. Someone should write slash fiction about Grace and Mary and tweet it at Atwood.

    There are so many interesting layers to this series. The lyrics for the song at the end credits fit perfectly with the story, as men latch onto Grace like clinging vines throughout her life, taking what they can find with no regard for her personhood.

    That moment when Jamie begs Grace to recount her suffering and absolve him for it was such a great depiction of the way the privileged fetishize the pain they cause others while simultaneously demanding forgiveness. There are some parallels there with white responses to the Truth and Reconciliation report.

    This is a decent example of a Canadian production that doesn’t try to hide its Canadianness in order to appeal to an American audience and still succeeds. Even for those who didn’t grow up learning about the rebellions of 1837-8 etc, the themes of gender and class are so resonant that there’s plenty to digest. An ethnic angle is also there, though much harder to discern. The complexity of Irish immigration is unfortunately lost due to Canada’s contemporary white supremacist embrace of previously stigmatized European immigrants. I’m not sure if it was intended, but the black maid’s sympathy for Grace killing her boss reminded me of one of the most famous black women in Canadian history, Marie Joseph Angelique, who burned down Montreal in an attempt to escape her mistress. These are timely stories in what is for so many people a truly hellish present.

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