Grace Marks, an alleged “celebrated murderess,” examines her reflection in a mirror, considering the many things that have been written about her since being convicted. Some say Marks is an “inhuman female demon,” others say she is only an “innocent victim.” There are those who view her as “cunning and devious,” while others believe her to be a “good girl” and “too ignorant to know how to act.” How, Grace wonders, can all of this be true at once?
There’s a lot to be said about these first few moments of Alias Grace. First, there’s Sarah Gadon’s deft ability in embodying each character descriptor Grace contemplates, through simple changes in her facial expressions. Then, there’s the way her narration fits seamlessly into place with its accompanying visuals, without distracting – a technique many shows try, but few are successful in. (Though it seems to work very well in Margaret Atwood adaptions!) Most importantly, these opening moments are focused, clearly demonstrating an important theme this mini-series will examine: perception. The external perceptions that have been forced onto Grace, and, especially considering the use of the mirror, the way these many conflicting writings may have altered Grace’s own internal view of herself. It’s possible we’ll need to think critically of everything Grace says, because whether she’s a reliable or unreliable narrator has yet to be determined.
The introduction of Dr. Jordan – who is evidently unlike any other doctor Grace has been forced to see – brings another theme quickly to light: story. Jordan is there to reevaluate the details of Grace’s case. Though he seems impartial to the results, there is a group of people who hope he will discover the right evidence to have her exonerated. Jordan wants to know about more than the day in question, however, and asks Grace to tell him as much as she can about her life leading up to the event. It’s through their daily sessions we learn about Grace’s journey to Canada, her mother’s death, her father’s brutality, and how she came to meet Mary Whitney, a woman whose name she once used as an alias.
Just like with the first moments of the series, there’s a lot to unpack from Grace’s stories. She openly admits to a few darker thoughts and impulses she’s had in the past. From the urge to throw her siblings overboard the ship, to just barely getting her temper towards her father in check in good time. One has to wonder if she admits to these in an effort to be truly transparent with Jordan, or if the disclosure is only for show. Also, consider how Grace looks in these flashbacks; essentially identical to her present day self. No signs of the aging that undoubtedly must have occurred after spending 15 years in prison. It’s entirely possible the effort to make Grace look younger wasn’t deemed an important enough detail. It’s hard not to view this as a deliberate choice, though, one meant to make us examine, yet again, perception. Does this mean Grace never saw herself as a child, perhaps because of the way most children of that time were forced into adulthood at such a young age? Or, is it a clue that, while Grace is telling the stories, the associated visuals are actually in Jordan’s mind? Grace’s unchanged appearance continues on during flashbacks in “Part 2” and there is a scene that may prove the latter is true.
Much of the second episode was devoted to the story of Grace and Mary’s friendship. At times the hour felt a little too drawn out, some moments seemingly pointless. However, it’s hard to deny that representations of healthy friendships between two women are still too uncommon. Not to mention the rarity of seeing one who gets her first period in a fairly realistic way – especially considering the education on the topic at that time in history. So, it was mostly worth it for that fact, and Rebecca Liddiard’s performance, turning on a dime from spirited to near lifelessness, certainly helped. Surprisingly enough, our time with Mary felt almost too short after her abrupt death.
Unsurprisingly, Grace is overwhelmed by the loss of her only real friend. The trauma causes her to faint, and upon waking she believes she is Mary. She frantically searches for Grace, despite her fellow maids telling her she is, in fact, Grace, until she faints once more. Grace tells Dr. Jordan that when she woke the second time, she had no memory of the entire incident. So, while it’s not a stretch to assume the other maids informed Grace of what she said, it seems strange to include the scene if we are in Grace’s POV. Perhaps this will turn out to be very wild speculation, but what if Jordan is interjecting his own ideas of what this experience looked like for Grace? What if he’s developing a theory wherein he believes Grace could have committed the murders she was convicted of, but did so during another similar lapse in memory? Or, perhaps we are in Grace’s POV and we’re seeing the story she’s created over time to fill in the memory blanks. Yet another possibility, is that Mary really was in Grace’s body – that line of dialogue from Mary, “let me in” was creepy on its surface, but could mean something more.
Only time will tell what truly happened, or maybe it will be left a mystery. The possibility that no direct conclusions on this, or even about Grace’s guilt or innocence will be revealed, is what’s most exciting about this series moving forward. The lack of answers in terms of Grace’s imprisonment would be, in part, because the real-life case Alias Grace is based on (both the novel and series,) never found any definitive answers itself. Yes, both Marks and McDermott were convicted of the murders, but indisputable proof of Marks’ involvement, in particular, was never provided. In a time when so much of what’s on television follows the same patterns and formulas, often giving the audience exactly what they want, and not necessarily what’s best for the story being told, it’s continually refreshing when a narrative offers something completely different.
The most obvious conclusion to a story like Alias Grace would be to reveal whether or not Grace is the “celebrated murderess.” That route, while suitable enough, is a simplistic one that leaves little to the imagination. There’s no doubt the chemistry between Gadon and Edward Holcroft – which significantly strengthened “Part 1” overall – mixed with the always transporting prose from Margaret Atwood, will result in 6 hours of time well spent. However, if the series can avoid its more obvious path, it has the chance to be more than that. Instead, it can explore other, potentially more rewarding, avenues. It can offer a more in-depth look into questions like, what led Grace to that moment in her life? Or, how does Grace truly see herself? It has the chance to tell us stories that don’t rely on a definitive answer to be valuable. It can challenge us to assess the perceptions we place on these characters, and maybe even those we place upon ourselves and others in our lives.
- The color palette in this show, particularly in “Part 1,” is quite captivating. Apart from a small ray of light cast onto Grace, the prison is soaked in blues and greys, while the journey to Canada is full of darkness, both clear representations of seclusion and sorrow. The Governor’s home has a brownish tone, which suggests a neutral quality, giving us no clues on what to believe during Grace and Dr. Jordan’s sessions. When Grace arrives at the farm, it marks the first real presence of warmer tones, likely because this is the first time she experienced real happiness with Mary.
- Jordan is one of the few fictional additions made by Atwood to Grace Marks’ story. I find it interesting that his point of view is the only other one we see aside from Grace. In “Part 2” we see that he dreams of holding Grace, and we’re given insight into what kind of person he is when caring for the woman whose home he is staying in. This is yet another clever way of reinforcing the theme of perception; what will Jordan’s kind disposition, and his obvious emergent feelings for Grace, mean for his analysis of her guilt or innocence?
- The surplus of attention paid to Mary’s dead body was disturbing and very effective. The more the camera focused on her wide-eyed, empty face, the less it was welcome. But it forced me to stay in the moment, there was nowhere else to go, nothing else to feel except the loss.
Alias Grace, Parts 1 & 2 Review Score
Alias Grace, Parts 1 & 2
Starring: Sarah Gadon, Edward Holcroft, Zachary Levi, Kerr Logan, Rebecca Liddiard, Paul Gross, and Stephen Joffe