TV Wednesday - Alias Grace (3&4)
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).
The middle two episodes places us in the household of Mr. Kinnear, the murdered man. Grace has fled her former household because of her friend’s death, and, despite warning from another maid, she accepts Nancy Montgomery’s request that she work for Mr. Kinnear, mainly because Nancy reminds Grace of her dead friend. However, some troubling developments come to the surface quite quickly in her short period of employment with the family. Nancy is having an affair with Mr. Kinnear, who is fond of sleeping with his servants while his wife is away for extended periods of time. McDermott, Grace’s partner in the murders, is unstable and likely to violence, and it seems that he is the one who suggests killing both Nancy and Mr. Kinnear when Nancy decides to fire him.
Or so it seems. The first two episodes had firmly placed us in Grace’s corner, despite hints of doubt about Grace’s reliability as a narrator of these events. In this section, I believe this ambiguity is heightened, and much more of the narrative is put into question. We see two versions of the same events, most revolving around the planned murder. While Grace had said that McDermott had been the mastermind of the murder, McDermott claims that Grace had tried to convince him to poison them instead. Knowing what we have seen of their personalities, Grace’s more underhanded plot seems to fit with her calm demeanor, which definitely hides a mind much more intelligent than literally anyone would give her credit for. Even an innocent scene in which Grace allows a young farmhand to court her with a daisy chain seems straight out of a daydream or fantasy sequence that Grace may have concocted. It may have been perfectly true, but scenes like this make it abundantly clear that we are taking Grace at her word for large chunks of this story.
These two episodes get straight to the theme of how women are rarely in charge of their narrative. Many factors can influence how men “read” women. McDermott’s obvious guilt and lust/attraction towards Grace colors his testimony with a typical toxic masculinity. Dr. Jordan, her psychiatrist, is also colored by his attraction to Grace, which he is fully aware is unethical and distorts whatever conclusions he draws. Perhaps the most fun this series has is with the idea that Grace is toying with Dr. Jordan, telling him what he wants to hear and delighting in the knowledge that Dr. Jordan is too smart to be satisfied with the answers she gives him. There is no real question as to who has more freedom in their scenes together. It’s smart for Polley and Harron to afford more sympathy to Jordan than one would expect in a story so much about the subjugation of women. He is clearly trying to do his job well and really serve his patient to the best of his ability, but Grace knows that he is just like any other man ultimately, and her playing him is both cruel and fascinating to watch.