The six-part series is set in the 19th century—but speaks to the role of women in society todayby Lucinda Smyth / November 7, 2017 / Leave a comment
During the third episode of Alias Grace, Netflix’s new six-part drama series about 19th century servant girl Grace Marks, there comes a sequence that seems disturbingly contemporary. Grace, the protagonist of the title, lies in bed mutely terrified, as her bedroom doorknob rattles. We hear a man shouting behind the door. “Grace, Grace let me in,” he urges. “Let me in, Grace.” The voice belongs to the son of Grace’s employer—effectively, he is her boss. His tone is threatening yet incredulous, as though he can’t believe that a lowly servant would have the audacity to deny him anything. The camera then cuts to Grace reflecting on the episode several years later. “There are some masters who think you owe them a service 24 hours a day,” she says, “and that you should do the main work flat on your back.”
Like the recent HBO adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, Netflix’s Alias Grace is based on a novel by Margaret Atwood. According to the show’s creator: “The Handmaid’s Tale showed what could happen to women. Alias Grace shows us what did.” That is one way of looking at it, yes—the story follows the story of real-life servant girl Grace Marks, who either devised or abetted the murder of her employer in the 19th century. But it could also be said to depict what is still happening to women. As Harvey Weinstein’s victims continue to come forward, and sexual harassment claims stretch to Westminster, the show arrives at an eerily appropriate cultural moment. (One recording of Weinstein’s encounters reveals him ordering a woman to: “Just come on in… Please just come in,” in the same tone of outrage and entitlement as Grace’s attacker.) Evidently we still live in a culture in which many powerful men feel that they are entitled to touch women, and think that those who work for, or with, them “owe them a service.”
The story of Alias Grace is told through a series of flashbacks. Grace (Sarah Gadon) is attempting to recount to American mental health expert Doctor Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft) what she can remember of the events leading up to the murder. The aim is that Jordan will be able to accumulate enough evidence to prove that Grace was insane at the time the murder was committed. Though this investigation forms the premise, however, ultimately the show is less concerned with whether Grace is “innocent” or “guilty,” than what those words mean when they are applied to a woman, especially of Grace’s class. And it is less concerned with the justifications of murder, than what it is like to be subjected to continual abuses of power.