“Just because someone is a known liar, doesn’t mean they’re lying all the time”.
What do you do when you’re presented with a woman arrested for murder, who is said to have spiritual connections and a story to tell? What if you, convinced of her innocence, could get her free? What about if nobody believes either of you?
These are some of the overarching questions Alias Grace, a 2017 Netflix mini-series. Set in Canada during the mid-19th century, Grace has spent 15 years imprisoned for the murder of an employer and coworker. However, she cannot remember what happens that day (or so she says) and there are those who want to try and get her freed. Grace herself says that “if there has been a crime then people want a guilty person. Rightly or wrongly does not matter.” History is cruel to women, and the show does not shy away from it. Several of the events of the show could have been avoided if Grace – or any woman for that matter – had been treated any better by society.
The first conversation between Grace and the alienist Dr. Jordan (Edward Holcroft) is about marriage quilts, and the significance of making beds the central image in a room. “It’s a warning”, Grace says; while hanging on the line to dry, they look like the flags of an army as they go out to war. He wishes to know what only she will know: what really happened. There is a genuine curiosity here, not the morbid fascination with the rumours that follow the woman. We are shown his hope in getting Grace freed, but also the contrast with the ‘hypnotism’ and seances of the intrigued upper classes. Grace’s actress Sarah Gadon even learned how to sew the quilt we are shown in the final episode. It’s a nice added touch of authenticity for such a central theme in her story.
As I was watching, I found myself pulled this way and that with each of the viewpoints. Do I trust Grace with her story? She speaks one thing to Dr. Jordan but leaves something else to be spoken only to the audience. Grace suffers so much during the trials and tribulations that I find myself wanting to reach out and help her; none of what happened to her was deserved, much less the abuse she suffered whilst helpless.
Who are you to believe? Is there a supernatural element at play, and was Grace genuinely possessed by her friend’s spirit? Can Grace remember what happened, and is subsequently lying for her entire interview, or is there genuinely this spectral being inhabiting her? We may never know; with its ambiguous ending, anything could be true. It plays directly into the theme of a changing story with different possible answers, and something more lying in wait.
The kicker about the entire story is that it is based on a real event. The 1987 novel from which the series is adapted was written by The Handmaid’s Tale author Margaret Atwood – and the intricacy of detail and meaning behind each inclusion, each choice of word is prevalent. Nothing is without reason here. Each episode is likewise introduced with a quote from poets such as Emily Dickinson, Alfred Tennyson, and Edgar Allen Poe.
Alias Grace is a show that can change your perception and conclusion with each binge-watch; watching this alone and a rewatch with my mum afforded two very different experiences and thoughts on Grace herself.
All episodes of Alias Grace are available on Netflix. Watch the trailer below: