Netflix’s Alias Grace is a fantastically different kind of story about female power. Where The Handmaid’s Tale was a study in the hopelessness and pain of existing within a dehumanizing system, Alias Grace accomplishes something far more subtle and difficult to boil down to its thesis statement. Ostensibly Alias Grace is a story about a powerful man, Dr. Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft), evaluating the sanity of a woman, Grace Marks (Sarah Gadon). Grace, a former housekeeper, has been convicted of murdering her aristocratic employer (Paul Gross) and his mistress Nancy (Anna Paquin), in nineteenth-century Canada. As she endures the abuses of the prison and asylum systems, a small core of upper-class onlookers advocate for her innocence—apparently out of the altruism of social progressivism. To that end, Dr. Jordan is called in to evaluate Grace’s mental state and ascertain the truth of her guilt or innocence.
Grace is quintessentially powerless: incarcerated, abused, and silenced, she floats as a curiosity, a “celebrated murderess,” for upper-class do-gooders. However, the miniseries—much like the Atwood novel that serves as its basis—develops Grace’s power ingeniously, until we understand: Grace holds all the reins in her hands, specifically because of the seemingly powerless position in which her “betters” have placed her.
The first way the series does this is through its language: much of the story is told in various voiceovers, mainly in Grace’s, as she offers Dr. Jordan exactly what he came to discover: her version of the story. But that’s precisely the crux of the series’s storytelling. Grace is in charge of the narrative, and she is a masterful storyteller. The particular patterns of her speech—careful, earnest, and as finely tooled as the seams in the quilts she continually stitches—come to characterize her control over the narrative. While Dr. Jordan and her other benefactors cling to her for answers, she understands that she is in control of the whole of what they learn and what they believe.
The second element that gives Grace her power—and this is where the show hits its strongest note—is from the morbid fascination with the suffering of women. We watch Dr. Jordan devour each subsequent morsel of Grace’s story—that is, each subsequent loss, abuse, and devastation—through hours and hours of screen time. But simultaneously, the audience clings to the same horrific details. Grace makes her suffering fascinating. She uses it as currency and at the same time as accusation: the crowd of aristocrats who on one hand are fascinated with their celebrated murderess and on the other with the whole of spiritualism and communication with the dead. Their fascination gives her both a moral high ground and a gorgeous, unspoken contempt.
None of this superb storytelling would be possible without the stunning precision of the performances of the show’s few recurring leads. Sarah Gadon, as well as Rebecca Liddiard, as Grace’s best friend Mary Whitney, put in sterling, captivating performances that twist with the turns of the story and give us the multi-valent understanding of narrative that makes the series glow.
Of course, as with The Handmaid’s Tale, it is next to impossible to watch the series outside of the context of current events. As #MeToo spreads over social media and accusations topple powerful men from their pedestals, this feast of and indictment of female suffering, of commodified pain and victimization, cannot help but ring a familiar bell. Alias Grace is a story about a woman crushed to the bottom of the social pile by the fact of her femaleness, whose abuses are often the abuses shoveled on women who don’t have a voice to report those attacks. But the Grace of the narrative present, now older and drenched in these abuses that have robbed her of her freedom, uses her voice—the driving narrative force of the show—to manipulate her disadvantages and topple the men who manipulated her—or at least, to specifically rob them of their power over her.