Margaret Atwood is having a big year. As a prolific author, she tackles the depths of female oppression in the past, present and imagined future—and Alias Grace, the third adaptation of an Atwood novel broadcast on TV in 2017 after The Handmaid's Tale and Wandering Wenda, is no exception.
While The Handmaid’s Tale shows women in an eery future dystopia, Alias Grace is a haunting period piece focused on a murder mystery that can't quite be cracked. Each of Atwood's adaptations has underscored her trademark commentary about social and government constraints that hold women back; Alias Grace takes a historical lens to the discussion.
The six-part miniseries centers around soft-spoken Grace Marks (Sarah Gadon), a 19th-century servant accused of conspiring to kill, and then callously murdering, her household’s master and his mistress with some help. The series follows her as she recalls her version of events to a burgeoning psychologist. While the series is adapted from Atwood’s 1996 novel of the same name, the real-life crime and subsequent trial took place in Upper Canada (what is now southern Ontario) in 1843, making Marks an infamous woman in history.
Throughout the series, a question remains: Was Marks an eager and cold-blooded participant in the murders, or was she merely an unwitting accomplice to the crime? It is difficult to discern amid the reserved, polite role women in Marks’ low position were forced to play in 1840s Canadian society. Her thoughts and memories surrounding the events in question are so suppressed, she can’t even trust her own consciousness—the very thing that twists and slices throughout each episode.
It isn’t often that a series focuses almost solely on a female narrative through the eyes of the woman experiencing it. Alias Grace is the exception. While Marks plays the part of a subdued women, her fragmented recollections give the audience a glimpse into the combative suppressions she has to fight. Women of the lower class were often pitted against each other, their squabbles preventing them from being able to challenge the powers that be. And, of course, questions of having children and being able to still support oneself adds another element of conflict and struggle for the women. Marks, specifically, lacks an ability to trust herself completely, and it shows each time she scrubs a memory clean when speaking with others. Marks is thrust into a peculiar position thanks to the murder. She's a woman who has been relegated to a lower place in society but who suddenly has a lot of power and influence as she tells her side of things.
This isn’t wholly unlike present day, where many women are struggling to discover their authentic voice in these times when divisiveness is so extreme. Modern women are also struggling to trust our experiences and to feel confident in our status as compared to men. As the show's screenwriter Sarah Polley told the Washington Post, "[Atwood] has such insight and such a detailed curiosity about the past and where we’ve come from, and I think because this is such an unstable time in the world politically—and for women—it’s a moment where having context is helpful in terms of analyzing and figuring out our situation right now.” But the show's own production proves how far women have come since the 19th century, when Marks was alive. And audiences are no-doubt primed to hear strong, female voices.
One of the great triumphs of the show is that it’s a woman’s experience that is also driven by women off screen. For Alias Grace, this takes the form of a female director (Mary Harron), screenplay writer (Sarah Polley) and, of course, Atwood’s award-winning source material. For Polley in particular, it was as though this story was one she was destined to tell. At just 17, she asked Atwood if she could have the movie rights (Atwood said no) and waited about 20 years to ultimately become the show’s writer and producer. The screen rights became available in 2012, and after a six-hour meeting with Atwood, Polly believed so strongly in her ability to bring the ambiguous story to life she paid out-of-pocket for the rights. But it wasn’t all easy sailing from there. The series faced nearly a decade of false beginnings with various A-list actresses attached to the project, but the new show arrives at a perfect time. There's a contemporary poignancy to Marks' struggles that was also found in The Handmaid's Tale, which procured an Emmy for Hulu, a first for a streaming network.
For fans of The Handmaid's Tale, Alias Grace delivers another strong story of a woman surviving incomprehensible conditions that hit far too close to home. Viewers cannot help but pick up on familiarities between both shows, specifically the same types of male influence that impact each of the female lead characters—even as they live about 150 years apart. Each episode haunted me far after the closing scene. Maybe this is because depicting the past and the future of women's issues, as Atwood has done in her various works, doesn’t just show how us how far we've come, but it also becomes staggeringly clear there is much left to achieve.