R29 Binge Club: Alias Grace Episode 1

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix.
If Mindhunter and The Handmaid’s Tale had a baby, and covered that baby in solely 1800s-ready petticoats and bonnets, you would get Netflix’s newest series, Alias Grace. The six-part miniseries, inspired by real events, introduces us to Grace Marks (Sarah Gadon) a young woman imprisoned for nearly two decades for a violent, bloody double homicide in 1843 Canada. Despite the visceral nature of Grace’s crimes, she has lost her memory of the gruesome events. Enter Dr. Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft) a psychologist bent on helping his new patient recover the memories she lost — or, possibly, the memories she’s repressing.
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If none of this Victorian era murder and psychology sounds very Handmaid’s Tale, we should mention Alias Grace is this year’s second streaming TV series that happens to be a Margaret Atwood adaptation. While the story of Offred (Elisabeth Moss) showed us where the danger of misogyny could drag society in the not-so-distant future, Grace reveals the harsh realities of being a woman in the past, and, sadly, in the present. Also, there's also a whole murder mystery to be solved here.
With a description like that, it’s no surprise Alias Grace is so darn bingeable. Keep reading for the live recaps of the Atwood-produced series, and keep checking back since I’ll be updating throughout the day.
“Part 1”
It’s time to meet Grace Marks, everyone. Within our first seconds of knowing the celebrated murderess, as she prefers to be called over “murderer,” it’s obvious Grace is stunningly self-aware. In voiceover, we hear her describe the many ways she has been written about by strangers since her conviction 15 years prior. She corresponds her face to the identities other people have foisted upon her: coldly intimidating for “inhuman female demon,” wide-eyed for “innocent victim,” cunning and devious for, well, “cunning and devious.” You get the gist. Grace easily fits all of these tropes with just a small adjustment of her facial muscles. Immediately, it’s unclear who the real Grace Marks is among all these personalities.
Thankfully, it is Dr. Simon Jordan’s job to find the real Grace amid all of these choices. The residents of the prison governor’s house have taken Grace up as a sort of charity case, and hope Dr. Jordan will be able to write a report on the convict that will set her free. While the guards of Grace’s prison detest her, these members of high society want her pardoned. This is because Grace cannot remember large chunks of time surrounding the day she and her co-worker James McDermott (Kerr Logan) supposedly killed their employer Thomas Kinnear (Paul Gross) and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery (Anna Paquin). If Grace can’t remember anything, could she have even committed the crime?
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As Dr. Jordan begins studying Grace, we get glimpses of her memories, which, obviously, the doctor can’t see. There’s a flash of Nancy falling down a set of stairs — we know it’s Nancy because any True Blood fan can recognise Anna Paquin in anguish — there’s a quick scene of a younger Grace playing a girlhood marriage-predicting game with a friend, another of Grace screaming in an asylum, and a very quick look at a man apparently axing someone’s bloody leg. At other points there are also literal buckets of bloody water.
During a conversation between Jordan and Grace’s staunchest supporter, a local reverend (the famed writer-director-producer David Cronenberg), we get important details on Grace’s trial, including the fact she dressed in a ridiculous all-pink outfit. I assume the comically feminine ensemble was meant to garner leniency due to the obvious inherent weakness of women. Eye roll. During the trial, Grace claimed she saw James McDermott drag the aforementioned Nancy by the hair and toss her down a cellar. James, on the other hand, used his final words before a hanging to say Nancy made him commit the murders. I feel this information will come in handy later.
Speaking of handy information, Dr. Jordan notes there is an extra name written under her confession’s portrait. The caption reads, “Grace Marks, alias, Mary Whitney.” Grace first says the alias is “just a name” she gave when McDermott was running away with her. But, upon further coaxing, she explains Mary Whitney was “a particular friend” of hers who had died by the time of Grace’s murders. “Without her, it would have been a different story entirely,” Grace admits. So, let’s all remember the name “Mary Whitney” going forward.
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The story-setting continues as we get a flashback-heavy look at Grace’s early life. She hails from Northern Ireland, although her father is English. Grace’s father, a Protestant, seemingly started attacking fellow Protestants who sided with the Catholics, so the family fled to Canada. On the boat to a new continent, Grace’s mother predicts she will die on the voyage. She is correct. Grace falls asleep next to her living ailing mother, but wakes up next to her corpse. Colour Grace traumatised. To make things worse, an old woman on the boat tells Grace a window needs to be opened wherever a dead body is to let the soul out to heaven. There are no windows to open in the hull of a foul ship.
And, so, Grace finds herself into Toronto with the her physically abusive father, who also tries to sexually assault her at least once. Grace is so fed up with the constant torture, the then extremely young woman considers killing her dad. Now we know Grace has come close to murder at least once. Although Grace’s father has no idea he was almost suffocated by his own child, he still sends her out into the world to act as a maid at a “fine” Toronto house. This, ladies and gentleman, is how Grace meets one Mary Whitney. Mary is Grace’s rebellion-obsessed, gregarious co-maid and guide to the Parkinson household. I love Mary Whitney.
While those are the plot highlights of Alias Grace, I would be remiss if I did not mention the true shining part of the series, which is when the titular character shades Dr. Jordan via voiceover. In their first meeting, the doctor gives his new patient an apple and asks if there’s any kind of apple “you should not eat.” Grace responds, “A rotten one, I suppose?” The answer could be read as sarcastic or earnest, depending on which Grace you believe in. It seems we should all lean towards the former, as our anti-heroine says in voiceover upon Simon’s exit, “The apple of the tree of knowledge is what you meant. Good and evil. Any child could guess it.” See, we don’t really know what kind of person we’re dealing with.
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This episode’s opening quote: Every episode of Alias Grace begins with a poem, or a few lines of a poem. The premiere quotation comes from a stanza of Emily Dickinson’s “LXIX,” explaining the horrors of an assassin hiding in one’s apartment is nothing compared to the horrors we hide in ourselves.
As someone who lives in an apartment, I cannot quite agree. But, I see what you’re saying here, Alias Grace.
Photo: Courtesy of Netflix.
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