Previously, on Alias Grace
I’ve been resisting the urge to compare Alias Grace with The Handmaid’s Tale. There’s something about the proximity of time in which they were released that almost begs for it, as well as the more obvious connections; both are Margaret Atwood adaptations centered on a white woman in a bonnet, both feature voiceover narration, and there’s misogyny abound in each. In their own ways, both shows also feel very timely in today’s culture. Despite all these similarities, though, they are two very distinct shows, with a few significant differences that truly set them apart.
The Handmaid’s Tale is largely a work of fiction, showing us a disturbing glimpse into a dystopian world that often has uncomfortably recognizable parallels with our own. Alias Grace is primarily a work of historic fact, depicting a world that was, and to some extent still is, very real, and all the more disturbing for its authenticity. THT had a sense of urgency, never shying away from showing us how violent the world of Gilead is – a stylistic choice that worked well for that story. AG was far subtler with its themes, presenting its own violence in a restrained fashion, with flashes or short bursts of brutality rather than prolonged scenes. This method served to heighten the suspense of the story, and will undoubtedly leave viewers with lingering feelings long after the final credits roll.
The sense of melancholy and uneasiness is hard to shake once all was said and done on “Part 6.” Whether or not you believe Grace to be guilty, there’s no denying she lived quite a miserable life, full of endless abuse and harassment. Even after receiving her pardon, Grace spent her final years with a man she barely knew. A man who had played a part in her murder conviction, and assuaged his guilt of doing so by manipulating Grace into talking about the horrors other men had done to her. Jamie may not have been as physically (or sexually) violent to Grace as her father or the “doctors” in the asylum, but his emotional exploitation was just as unsettling. Perhaps the saddest part is how Grace felt it was something she couldn’t deny him of. Despite being a free woman, she still felt bound to the needs of a man.
It seems the only time in Grace’s life where she ever felt some sense of control, was during her sessions with Dr. Jordan. While Grace’s lawyer wrongly assumed she had fallen in love with the doctor – a highly insulting yet sadly typical line of thinking from a man – he was correct in observing she had been prolonging her story. Jordan was the first person to actually listen to what Grace was saying. He was never concerned with her innocence or guilt, but rather with trying to understand her state of mind before and during the murders. He even promised to believe whatever she told him of the day in question. Grace very accurately notes how Jordan likely derived some pleasure in hearing the tormented tales of her past. Still, his inquires provided the first opportunity for Grace to take agency over her life’s story. Almost anyone in Grace’s shoes would have taken the chance to elongate these visits, even if it meant bending the truth in certain places.
Which Grace does admit to doing, via the letter she writes to Jordan several years after their final meeting – this, it turns out, is when the all the narration towards the Dr. was taking place. This confession could have tipped the scales in favor of Grace being guilty, if it weren’t for the fact it’s immediately followed by Grace remarking on how badly she felt for lying to Jamie. This narrative never once faltered in its ability to walk the line between truth and fiction, keeping itself expertly poised on an ambiguous balance beam. Even when the supposed truth about what happened to Nancy and Kinnear is finally revealed, it’s done so through the use of hypnosis, which is not a practice typically thought of as being wholly reliable. Sure, it’s possible the spirit of Mary Whitney lived inside Grace Marks, but what reasons would Mary have for wanting Nancy and Kinnear dead? Something far easier to believe is that Grace had a mental health issue, which was never treated seriously.
As jarring as the hypnosis scenes felt – Grace and Jordan’s intimate sessions suddenly turned very public and far less grounded – they were very revealing of both Grace’s wellbeing, and the particular inadequacies of the time in which she lived. Mental health was not given the importance it deserved in the 1800s, especially in regards to women. Jordan was likely on to something when he theorized how Grace might have felt more comfortable being her true self behind the mask of hypnotism. People of this time were, apparently, more likely to believe Grace was possessed by a spirit who forced her to commit murder, rather than acknowledge her possible need for medical aid. This supernatural-type reasoning was more favorable than simply listening to and trusting a woman’s lived experiences.
This seemingly effortless disbelief of women, and man’s abuse of power are themes that weigh heavily on me after the conclusion of Alias Grace. From a very young age, Grace was exposed to the abhorrent liberties men with authority (which was pretty much all the men she ever knew) would take. There’s not a doubt in my mind she carried with her some level of suppressed rage, and perhaps this forced her to create another side to herself. Adopting a version of Mary Whitney into her psyche may have been a protection strategy, a shield and escape from her sustained trauma. And if that were the case, could you really blame her?
Of course, we’ll never know the truth, and AG was wise to avoid offering one. In any case, what, if any, semblance of truth could possibly be constructed after Grace’s story was guided by lawyers, twisted by the press, ignored by asylum “doctors,” and even slightly altered by Grace herself? In answering the main question, AG would have ended its earned impact prematurely. Instead, we’re left with more important issues to contemplate. Just as The Handmaid’s Tale warns us against a future like Gilead, Alias Grace forces us to admit the mistakes of our past and, hopefully, vow not to repeat them.
- While I enjoyed the overall tone of these final episodes, I was less than satisfied with the final arcs for many characters. I didn’t need every thread tied into a perfect bow, but the stories started feeling slightly rushed, or completely abandoned. Jeremiah just kind of disappeared, and Jordan’s unfortunate fate seemed to happen in an instant. We all knew Grace would wind up with a man whose name began with ‘J’ but Jamie was such a non-character for the entire show, and their marriage just doesn’t sit right with me.
- This show was ambiguous right to its final beat. Grace’s quilt had squares representing herself, Mary, and Nancy, so they could all “be together.” This could be seen as either a tender gesture towards Nancy, or a very creepy one. But, hey, at least she finally finished a quilt!