Much like its protagonist, Grace Marks (Sarah Gadon), Netflix’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace is ambiguous and impenetrable. The series unfolds as an ongoing conversation between Marks and Dr. Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft), and their sessions indulge Jordan’s (and our) appetite for the sordid details of a famous murder. Ultimately, though, both Grace and Atwood’s story obscure crucial truths that remain uncovered.
Grace Marks was a real-life Canadian servant who was convicted in 1843 of murdering her employer and subsequently became something of a Canadian curiosity, or in Atwood’s words, a “celebrated murderess.” At first glance, Alias Grace resembles a dry period piece focused primarily on the historical accuracy of immigrant sea voyages and the menial tasks in a maid’s purview. Yet when Grace’s psychotherapy begins, we catch flashes of a Victorian romance and, as the sessions wear on, something darkly psychosexual.
One’s likely reading of the events in Alias Grace may be understood as a symptom of Marks’s own inscrutability. The blank slate that Grace affects here allows her relationships to be shaped by the insights and desires of her appraisers, and leaves us guessing at the veracity of her story. Jordan’s eventual fantasies of Grace aren’t spurred by sexual overtures, but by a function of his own projection and the chasm he sees between her mannered appearance and the heinous crimes for which she was convicted.
The series suggests that image is the sole source of agency for Victorian women, and Grace, cognizant of her effect on Jordan, mines his attraction to her virginal naïveté for power. In narration, she confesses her manipulation and reflects an awareness that her image is ultimately codified according to the standards of men. And while her intent isn’t enough to convince us of her guilt, it reflects her understanding of the common nature of men who seek to control, acquire, prod, understand, or otherwise process women.
We see Grace traumatized by men long before the murders of her employer, Mr. Kinnear (Paul Gross), and his housekeeper, Nancy (Anna Paquin), with whom he has an affair. Grace’s father is an abusive drunk, and her subsequent employers—“masters” in Victorian parlance—regulate her body, demeanor, and relationships. When Grace’s close friend, Mary (Rebecca Liddiard), dies from a botched abortion after being impregnated by the son of a master, Grace is confronted with the unjust consequences faced by “ruined” women, who’re guilty only of indulging an impulse that men in Grace’s life enjoy freely.
Mary’s death surfaces in Grace’s conversations with Jordan, when she explains her wariness of men and her fear of “ruin.” When she avoids men in flashbacks, they’re only drawn closer, and even though she’s hardly coy in these moments, the men are undone by her chastity itself. A conversation between Jordan and Grace’s lawyer (Michael Therriault) reveals a similar delusion, with the attorney suggesting that Grace was obviously obsessed with him. Jordan maintains having sensed no such dynamic, and his assessment appears accurate but doesn’t prevent the doctor’s private fantasies.
As Grace, Gadon affects a mixture of blankness and openness that could, in an era where the patriarchy is staunch and sexual repression is common, be seen as vulnerable, even inviting. When her character recounts her history to Jordan, the actress establishes a such a consistent baseline of deferential calm that even Grace’s briefest flashes of emotion—a sigh, furrowed brow, or nostalgic smile—may appear in Jordan’s mind as a form of beckoning.
Intentionally, Grace’s fame is meant to recall our morbid fascination with Casey Anthony, Amanda Knox, or Jodi Arias: women who forced curious onlookers to grapple with their preconceived notions of murderers, while satisfying a gossip’s appetite for lascivious details. Grace’s distance from the platonic ideal of murderer makes her a celebrity and is her lone source power after a circumstantial conviction and abusive incarceration—and yet, she can’t wield that power without further enabling the agendas that war over her fate.
An illusion of agency pervades even the killings depicted in the series. At one point, Grace reveals while hypnotized that during the murders of Mr. Kinnear and Nancy she had ceded control of her body to Mary’s spirit. Her hands committed murder while her mind was elsewhere. She’s pardoned after the revelation but is quickly arranged to wed a man who’s particularly enthralled by the suffering she’s endured. It’s the most pessimistic moment in Alias Grace: Grace is free at last but quickly domesticized by a man who wants to own not only her body, but her pain. She isn’t even entitled to secrets, which is perhaps why, frustratingly, she appears to revel in keeping them.