TV Wednesday - Alias Grace (5&6)
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).
Alias Grace is so many things - a character study of a fascinating woman, a murder mystery and procedural, an unromantic period piece. It’s this last element that came to the forefront in the last two episodes in a way that delighted me. Much is made of the difference between rich and poor in this movie, and how the servants/poor are valued merely for their functionality. Such functionality can range from backbreaking housework to sexual favors. It is this attitude towards the poor that drives the rich people’s fascination of Grace, who treat her like a Bengal tiger or some similarly rare and dangerous creature.
All of this comes to a head when a figure from Grace’s past makes a dramatic appearance. Jeremiah (Zachary Levi) is a wandering peddler who was popular with the servant girls for his good looks, charms and the marvelous tricks that he would play. He had a special proclivity for hypnosis, and he says early in the series that he seeks to make his fortune with it and even invites Grace along, with the strong implication that their relationship will be far more than just professional. At first glance, it doesn’t look like such a bad deal. It would seem like there would be considerably more freedom and much less work. It is also less security, and the freedom this lifestyle promises is illusory since she is essentially supporting a man’s career.
At his wit’s end, Dr. Jordan relents and lets a famous hypnotist (Jeremiah going under a different name and with much hype around him) hypnotize Grace. In the climactic scene, Grace is “possessed” by the spirit of the her dead friend Mary, who speaks all manner of ill about everyone - the murdered, the doctor, the guests witnessing the spectacle. The scene is mesmerizing (no pun intended) because of Gadon’s performance and how effortlessly she embodies someone (who is definitely not Mary as we have seen her), and how her words cut through the bullshit of this world of politeness enforced by a patriarchy that gives women so little agency. Even if we know that we are to see Jeremiah as something of a sham, there is much room for doubt since Grace herself is a complex person.
And that is the series’ and Atwood’s greatest accomplishment. This work demands that we do not make any broad assumptions about the character. That she is a fascinating mix of innocent and canny, and it’s not a paradox to see her this way. It is also fascinating to see that Dr. Jordan has been defeated by this case. Even though it is said that his service in the Civil War had caused him to go catatonic, we can sense that Atwood, Harron and Polley are heavily implying that he had already gone into an internal catatonic state long before. Grace, in the meantime, does quite well for a woman during her era. She marries a devoted man and is mistress of her own house, in a strange twist of fate that makes her more like Nancy than perhaps she herself realizes. We don’t know. Grace remains a mystery, and we are all Dr. Jordan.