There’s no arguing against the fact that Alias Grace, the dramatization of the real life conviction and eventual exoneration of Irish immigrant Grace Marks for the murders of her employer and his housekeeper in 1843, is a watershed moment for Canadian television and the CBC in specific. An adaptation of the country’s most celebrated novelist anchored by supporting roles for big names like Anna Pacquin, Paul Gross, and even renegade director David Cronenberg. All tied up in a neat bow by homegrown talent Sarah Polley, completing a circle of sorts from her beginnings as a child star in Road to Avonlea by helming her own CBC period drama.
Alias Grace is also paradoxically emblematic of how insular and resistant to innovation Canadian produced TV is relative to US based productions shot in Canada or based on Canadian sources. It more or less took the wild success of Hulu’s adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale to gather the inertia to get Alias Grace made, making CBC a latecomer rather than a leader in producing a much needed renaissance for Margaret Atwood’s global profile. It’s also a relatively safe production for the CBC, with actors like Gross and Pacquin being just as representative of the shallow, insular talent pool that the broadcaster subsists on as they are celebrated names who bring a sense of gravitas and national pride to the production.
What all of these elements add up to in the finished product is a knowing and long overdue subversion of the kind of programming that the CBC has relied on for decades to paint a warm, nostalgic portrait of early and pre-Confederation Canada. It’s an image that dominated their programming from the mid-1980s through to the millennium with a string of Lucy Maud Montgomery adaptations and inspired series (Anne of Green Gables, Road to Avonlea, Emily of New Moon) focusing on turn of the century Prince Edward Island as an idyllic setting for wholesome family drama.
The basis for Alias Grace, Atwood’s novel of the same name, hardly could have had this particular strain of soft nationalism in mind when she wrote it, as it debuted the same year as Road to Avonlea. Its crosshairs, if aimed anywhere in particular in the cultural landscape, seems to be Jane Eyre. Atwood evokes the real life case of convicted murderer Grace Marks as the narrative of an impoverished Irish immigrant who comes into the employ of a Byronic Scotsman and the housekeeper he carries on a clandestine affair with. Where Charlotte Brontë presents the shocking truth that Lord Rochester has concealed his mentally ill wife in an attic towards an eventual redemption and romance with its eponymous heroine, Atwood painted the portrait of a seemingly gallant libertine who violently upheld the supremacy of the aristocracy and preyed on the women in his employ.
The series unfolds as the eponymous heroine, played by a stony Sarah Gadon, relates her journey from starvation in the Irish Potato Famine through to her incarceration for the murders to Dr. Simon Jordan, an alienist in the employ of a group dedicated to securing Grace’s exoneration. It unfolds as a game of psychological cat and mouse between the two, with Grace narrating much more to the audience than she does to the increasingly smitten doctor, exhibiting a wariness towards the motives of men that becomes startlingly clear as the story unfolds.
The narrative gains fresh context and resonance in Polley’s hands, revealing a much different picture of early Canada than the pastoral PEI that has dominated the public imagination for the better part of thirty years. The historical event centering in Alias Grace is the incredibly overlooked socialist revolt lead by William Lyon Mackenzie, the first mayor of Toronto, in 1837. It’s a movement given weight in the series by Grace’s friendship with the ill-fated Mary Whitney, who she befriends in her first job after landing in Canada. Whitney is where the narrative’s depictions of race and class find their context in Canadian history at a time when the privileges of whiteness had yet to be extended to Irish immigrants.
She’s the radicalized young woman who educates Grace about her new country, a true believer in Mackenzie’s uprising against the ruling oligarchy, but she’s also the first clear victim of patriarchy in Grace’s long road towards incarceration. Whitney falls short of living up to her advice to Grace about being wary of men, left pregnant and abandoned by the young master of the house only to die of complications from a botched abortion.
It’s a traumatic event that shapes Grace’s growing resentment of Nancy Montgomery, the housekeeper of her new situation who, in the final months of her life, becomes pregnant with the child of the proprietor in nearly identical fashion to Whitney. Whitney is also the alias that Grace adopts upon her initial arrest and the spirit of whom appears to inhabit her when it comes time to relate the events of the murders to the privileged group seeking her emancipation.
The performance is what ultimately secures Grace’s freedom, but is left entirely ambiguous as to how it transpired. It could be nothing more than a clever performance on her part, leveraging her institutionalization and brutal treatment in an asylum prior to being sent to prison, it could be a manifestation of dissociative identity disorder triggered by suppressed trauma experienced in the Kinnear household. What’s made clear by the series finale is that from Grace’s point of view no one, inside or outside the narrative, has earned the right to an unambiguous version of events.
It’s a conclusion arrived at primarily by the fact that guilty or innocent, executed or freed, the eyes of fate will not take Grace’s agency into account. Either her racialized and gendered identity as an Irish woman makes her guilty of leading her co-conspirator into murder, or her vulnerable feminine nature leaves her helpless to stop him from incriminating them both. No one is free of an agenda either, from the paternalistic pity of her social betters to the erotic glee that Dr. Jordan develops from listening to Grace’s plight.
As the ostensible “good guy” of the narrative, he proves himself to be just as prone to patriarchal thinking as Grace’s detractors and abusers. While not engrossed by Grace’s account of what lead to the murders, Dr. Jordan thinks himself kind and charitable by paying for his room and board in advance to his landlady upon the discovery that her alcoholic husband left her along with all their money. Her increased desperation at finding herself destitute if she cannot attach herself to a new man begins to lead into a counter narrative of women leading men into sin until she convinces her lodger to consummate their relationship.
Dr. Jordan leaves her lying on the floor sobbing, telling her that he used her in an attempt to sublimate his feelings for Grace. What the parallel dynamic reveals is that even when women find ways to use sex to further their survival, they end up subject to the whims and ultimate power of the men they seek to manipulate. It’s this emotionally punishing side story that vindicates Grace’s reticence in revealing the full truth behind the murders from her perspective to either the audience through her narration or to her advocates within the world she inhabits. As the #MeToo movement continues to gather momentum and widespread sexual harassment and abuse is unearthed in public facing industries, it’s a timely and powerful exhortation to believe and internalize the details of the claims that women make against men in power and what they risk by coming forward.
What Alias Grace ultimately reveals is the fundamental and unavoidable power imbalances that women are subjected to, exacerbated by class and racialization, in their interactions with the institutions that govern all of our lives. It could be that Grace Marks is ultimately a canny manipulator on the level of Gone Girl’s Amy Dunne, but if, in that unlikely reading, she is, she didn’t arrive there by caprice or design, but as a method of negotiating the expected violence and degradation of being a woman of her race and ethnicity in her time and place.
The Upper Canada of Alias Grace is a hellish environment for women and a far cry from the idyllic conceptions of early Canada that have dominated the public imagination in an effort to project contemporary liberal values backwards in time. It represents a peeling back of the accepted version of history by the very institution that put into place to begin with. There remains much work to be done if the CBC is committed to an honest reconceptualization of Canadian history, but Alias Grace represents a critical first step towards that goal.