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TV Wednesday - Alias Grace (Parts 1 & 2)

For March 2019, I will be watching Alias Grace, based on Margaret Atwood’s novel and directed by fellow Canadian artist Mary Harron (American Psycho) and written by Sarah Polley (Away from Her).


I will admit that Alias Grace did not register at all on my pop culture radar. The Handmaid’s Tale definitely did, and I think the genre element of a woman’s dystopia had a lot to do with why people were initially attracted to the show. Of course, they stayed for the excellent writing, brilliant direction and smart world-building as well as scathing commentary on the patriarchy. Alias Grace, about “celebrated murderess” and servant Grace Marks, who back in 1843, along with fellow servant James McDermott, killed the head of their house Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery, was considerably more modest in its scope and didn’t receive nearly as much buzz, even though it did make a list on Indiewire for the best mini-series of the 21st century.

(N.B. I am deliberately keeping myself in the dark about what happens to Grace, or any other details about the case, so I cannot speak to how this relates to Atwood’s original novel or the historical case itself.) I can, however, give my impressions about how modern this series feels without any sort of anachronistic progressivism or feminist commentary. Much of this is achieved through Grace’s internal monologue, which betrays an intelligent and questioning mind in contrast to her respectful and buttoned-down exterior. We also see flashbacks of Grace in earlier days when she was considerably more innocent and naive, which are jarring in a good way. It makes the viewer wonder just how did Grace get to where she was from the relatively innocent girl that she was before (though this perception is complicated by some key scenes).

Mary Harron’s direction is just right for this story, since it eschews typical period gloss and goes for simple realism. If anything feels really modern here, it is Harron’s tendency to cut in scenes of great intensity (often violent) to stir the seemingly tranquil waters of Grace’s demeanor ever so quickly but provocatively. Sarah Gadon is also fantastic as a woman who is clearing trying to restrain some grand passions in nearly every action she does. Just knowing that she murdered someone keeps you on edge every time she does...anything.

Since this is by Margaret Atwood, the story touches on the hard truth that women have always been victims of violence, physical or otherwise, perhaps her favorite theme. The story about Mary, a fellow servant girl and Grace’s closest (and only?) friend is a sobering reminder. However, the show also quite plainly points out that Grace is receiving so much preferential treatment (the people at the psychiatric hospital want her to be pardoned) is because she is a young White woman. Her partner in crime was executed with no such benefit. He also went to the gallows cursing her name, just more fuel for the fire of speculation about what Grace is hiding. So far, the first two episodes are very strong and set up a lot of themes that I expect the show will explore in fascinating ways.

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