Sarah Polley, who wrote the Canadian-Netflix coproduction adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, described it as a sort of counterpart to Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale adaptation: where that show takes a look into a future where women’s rights have been stripped away, this one looks into the past where they didn’t exist in the first place. And while Alias Grace is structured within the framework of a true crime mystery, it’s this theme of the intersection of sexism and classism that really resides in its core.
Though I’ve read it’s very faithful to the 1996 book it’s based on, Alias Grace in many ways feels like a take-down of the cheery way in which Downton Abbey portrayed the class differences between its characters. It always struck me as profoundly wrong in that show that Mary could be best friends with Anna, her maid, while also employing her at a level of wealth drastically beneath hers. In Alias Grace, this disparity is not glossed over, as central character Mary Whitney privately rails against the social and class system she lives in, idolizing rebellion leader William Lyon Mackenzie. And ultimately, Mary Whitney embodies a horrible reality of the time, all-but forced into getting an abortion after being impregnated by one of the men of the house and dying from it. As the same man, George, starts to go after Grace, she leaves the house to work for a new employer, leading to the murders which put her in prison.
So immediately it can be seen how so much of Grace’s life is shaped by the amount of wealth she’s born into: forced into working as a maid, where the power disparity forces her to leave for another house, where power struggles in turn result in murder. And in addition to being a factor of class, it’s also a factor of gender: Grace’s drunk, abusive father; the scummy George who leads to Mary’s death and chases Grace out of the house; Thomas Kinnear, who strings along Nancy in a way similar to how George did Mary; James McDermott, who probably initiated the murders; and Simon Jordan, who seeks to contextualize and understand Grace’s story but not necessarily on her terms. Even Jamie, who prior to the murders was the one man who seemed to like Grace in a non-exploitative way, grows fixated on how his testimony hurt her and asks her to repeat her trials in prison over and over, seemingly just for his benefit.
And so I think when, in the end, the exact story of what happened during the murders stays somewhat ambiguous–be it possession, multiple personality disorder, or something else entirely–it’s not only appropriate to the fact that Grace Marks was a real person and the exact story of what happened is unknown in the real world, but also to the fact that Alias Grace was never truly about the murders. The real injustice is not that Grace may have been falsely imprisoned, but that she existed in a world that trapped her simply for who she was born as, leading her to the situation of the murders in the first place. The jail cell she lives in for 30 years is only a literal manifestation of the prison that is society to working class women.
The idea that the truth isn’t really the point is reflected in the way the show tells its story through flashbacks. Most of these are meant to be what Grace tells to Dr. Jordan, but some seem to be flashes into Grace’s head as memories come back to her, and some are based in others’ accounts of events or Grace bringing up a possibility as a rhetorical device. Additionally, Grace narrates the “present” scenes from the future in what’s revealed to be a letter to Dr. Jordan, meaning even that may just be a performance. This creates a compelling tension as the details, especially around the murders, are blurred, while the broad strokes all seem to be true. But, more importantly, it means the audience never gets to hear Grace’s story from herself, really–only as she narrates it to a male, upper-class listener. Her story is always obscured by what she thinks Dr. Jordan and society want to hear.
This is a theme that’s in turn strengthened by how the show touches on the fascination behind true crime stories and explores what it’s like for Grace as the center of other people’s interest. The way that Dr. Jordan becomes obsessed with Grace and finding the truth of what she did seems reflective of how society in general treats these sorts of cases, and in portraying him not as a noble hero but as a really rather messed up dude might criticize the way we view true crime stories. It also returns to the theme of not looking at the exact details of the salacious crimes that may or may not have been committed, and instead paying attention to the greater cultural context that led to such a story in the first place. Alias Grace is ultimately not about a mystery, or watching tragedy for its own sake, but about social injustice and the way in which it destroys lives.