There is one singular, simmering question that looms over Netflix's new mini-series, Alias Grace: Is Grace Marks guilty or innocent? As with any true crime mystery, it's not something that can be boiled down to a simple answer, and her involvement in the crimes she was convicted for remain murky to this day. But, this particular story does not depend on what Grace did or didn't do, but rather on how she wants to be seen.
Dutifully adapted from Margaret Atwood's 1996 novel, the six-part Netflix series traces the real-life tale of an Irish maid who, as a teen, was suspected of the 1843 murders of her Ontario employer, Thomas Kinnear, and his housekeeper turned alleged mistress, Nancy Montgomery. Per historical documents of the trial, Grace was found guilty and sentenced to a life of confinement, first at an asylum, then at a women’s prison in Kingston, Ontario. James McDermott — a farmhand with whom she is said to have conspired — was swiftly executed. He died swearing Grace masterminded the whole scheme, though she claimed in her confession that she did not want to be a part of the murder plot. (She was later pardoned, released from prison, and all traces of her vanished.)
The show picks up roughly 15 years later, when a sympathetic reverend brings in a psychologist named Dr. Simon Jordan to interview Grace in the hopes that he'll find something to exonerate her. In the decade since her conviction, Grace's image has been warped, sensationalized, and wholly wrangled from her control. Any agency she may have had in her own narrative has been stripped clean, and now, she is defined only by the way the public perceives her: A cunning femme fatale, a blameless pawn, a pitied imbecile, even a girl possessed, driven to murder by the soul of Mary Whitney, her late, insolent friend. In the opening scene, she ponders how she could be all of these things at once, shifting her face to match the many identities levied upon her as she aged behind bars. She is all of them. She is none of them. She is whoever you want her to be — a walking embodiment of the conflicting ways we look at women.
Her story has, inevitably, drawn early comparisons to The Handmaid's Tale, the other Atwood adaptation that hit screens earlier this year. And in many ways, they're warranted. Grace stews with the same kind of stoic intensity as Offred, and both shows probe what it's like to be a woman in a world that refuses to see you as you are, not who or what it may want you to be. But Alias Grace's politics are quieter, more cerebral. As creator Sarah Polley told The New York Times, "The Handmaid’s Tale offers us a window into a possible future when women’s rights are eroded. Alias Grace offers a look at what it was like before women had any rights." Whereas Offred is fighting for a revolution, Grace is fighting for something much smaller: Her sense of self.
All of her life, she has been forced to play the role doled out to her by circumstance. In the book, as a young girl, she became the mother figure for her younger siblings, and in turn, the surrogate wife for her alcoholic father (including fending off his drunken, incestual advances). As an uneducated immigrant, she was relegated to the lower class, where her days consisted of scrubbing floors and sewing quilts — the sort of tasks long synonymous with work only women are apt to do. And as a young woman, she was, of course, expected to repress the parts of herself deemed too improper or dissentious or brash. It makes sense, then, that Grace has become such an enigma: She was never so much a person as she was a blank, obedient prop shuffled from set to set, and by 16, she was a master in performance.
But the murders, whether she committed them or not, granted her a kind of power she wouldn't have otherwise known. For the first time, she had a voice, a stage, an audience, and to reveal what really happened would be to relinquish it for good. And so she remains: Ambiguous, evasive, unrelentingly unknowable. So much so, that by the time Alias Grace reaches its end, the biggest question is not whether Grace Marks is innocent or guilty, but who, exactly, Grace Marks is. Because if anyone had ever bothered to ask that, perhaps they would have been able to see through the theatrics. Perhaps, even, they would have seen Grace.
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