'Alias Grace' Shows What Happens When A Convicted Murderer Is Allowed To Tell Her Own Story


Grace Marks' story has endured for centuries, but it was never fully hers. What started with the arrest of an Irish-Canadian maid suspected of two grisly murders quickly devolved into a storied spectacle — a gossip-rich tale to be recounted, contorted, and caricatured for public consumption. In some circles, Marks is remembered as a shrewd seductress; in others, an unwitting pawn. But rarely is she thought of as just Grace: A real, tangible person whose thoughts, feelings, and motivations are now hopelessly unknowable. Netflix's new mini-series, Alias Grace, attempts to reclaim some of that agency, giving voice to a woman who's long been defined by the way the world wants to perceive her. It doesn't offer a conclusion as to whether or not she's guilty: To do so would be to betray its purpose, to yet again wrest Grace's narrative from her control. But that's exactly what attracted star Sarah Gadon to the show.

"I think to honor her memory, we really had to keep this character’s guilt or innocence ambiguous because Grace Marks was a real person and we don’t actually know what happened," Gadon tells Bustle over the phone. "I was just really drawn to Grace because, as an actor, there are many versions of yourself, and you’re in constant conversation with your physical self and your interior self and how other people perceive you. Reading Grace’s journey, I think I really connected with that notion of all of these people projecting onto her and her kind of trying to piece together herself and claim this ownership over her identity."

What results is a rich, mesmerizing exploration of the many identities Grace has worn — who she is, who she isn't, who she could have been. Because so little is known about her, Alias Grace is also, in some ways, a projection: It's based on Margaret Atwood's 1996 novel of the same name, which, though rooted in fact, is a fictional retelling. Both the book and show pick up 15 years after a 16-year-old Grace was convicted of the 1843 murders of her Ontario employer, Thomas Kinnear, and his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery. She claims to have no memory of the events surrounding the killings, and at the request of a gracious church committee, a psychologist has come to interview her to glean any information that may help get her pardoned. So, day by day, she retraces her life story for him — or at least, the version of it she thinks he wants to hear.

Jan Thijs/Netflix

In actuality, all that has been documented about the real-life incident is that she and Kinnear's stable hand, James McDermott, confessed to the murders, but both claimed the other was ultimately responsible; McDermott was executed, and Grace spent nearly 30 years in prison before she was released in 1872. After that, all traces of her vanished. But while Alias Grace is in itself conjecture, it does unfold through Grace's eyes, depicting a fully realized, multi-dimensional woman who was, in all likelihood, still figuring out who she was.

"When I first started preparing for the role, I was really wrapped up in the question of her innocence, but the more work that I did and the more that I talked with [series writer Sarah Polley] and Margaret [Atwood], the more I realized it was so much less about whether or not she actually did it and so much more about going on this journey and really feeling the possibility that she could have done it, that she’s innocent, that you want her to have done it," Gadon says. "Those colors, they needed to shine at different times in the story, rather than playing one thing throughout the entire project."

That Alias Grace arrives mere months after The Handmaid's Tale — another Atwood adaptation — doesn't feel coincidental, though they are, of course, distinctly different projects. The Handmaid's Tale is an emphatic, ominous warning call, whereas Alias Grace is a subdued, poignant look at gender politics of centuries past. The Handmaid's Tale still has story left to be told, while Alias Grace is self-contained and billed as a miniseries. "It runs together and it should be consumed as one large piece. So because I see it more as a six-hour film, I don’t really think that there is a Season 2," Gadon says. "You’re able to go on the full catharsis and full exploration of Grace’s life, and I think that exploration is complete."

But both are uniquely female stories built on giving power to the powerless, and though set in two entirely different eras, both have an urgency and relevance inherent to present day. "I think for the two projects to co-exist is very pointed," Gadon says. "It’s so important to understand where we come from in order to understand where we need to go."

Sabrina Lantos/Netflix

That these kinds of projects are able to exist, and that they're being critically lauded, says something about how far TV has come. That they land in the same year — and on either side of Patty Jenkins' triumphant Wonder Woman — speaks volumes.

"Truthfully, I was a bit nervous going into press thinking that the general feeling from critics and from people and from fans would be, 'Okay, we’ve had our one female-driven story of the year. That’s enough now,'" Gadon says. "Or that people would constantly be trying to position them in competition with each other, just as women have traditionally been placed in competition with each other. But [the response has] been super positive. People seem hungry for it. They want more. And that has been very hopeful for me as a young actor, potentially creator, and artist, really, that I’m not receiving this feeling of, 'That’s enough.'"

In a world where women have consistently had to fight to prove they are enough, it's comforting to know that perhaps, finally, society (or at least, television) has begun to see them as more.