The Unsolvable Mystery of 'Alias Grace'
Warning: Contains spoilers for the entire season of ‘Alias Grace’
Over the holiday weekend I watched the entirety of Netflix’s Alias Grace in one shot. And while that’s convenient for impulse control issues and for You People who have already asked about who’s going to cover it purposes, I think it’s probably not the best way to watch the show. Because after I watched it, I spent a lot of time wondering why they had Sarah Gadon play Grace both for the “present” scenes and the scenes set 15 years earlier at the time of the crimes when she was a young girl. Gadon is a beautiful woman, and no one would accuse her of looking old, but watching her act out Grace’s panic upon getting her first period, being ignorant to the nature of George’s interest in Mary, and general bewilderment about the world made her seem stupid and sheltered. She’s clearly an adult, and we expect a certain amount of wisdom and experience from it, which was damaging my impression of the character. Grace was clearly supposed to be quick and sharp in her way, but watching an adult react to her world with the wide-eyed bewilderment of someone who was recently a child was jarring. As Kayleigh wrote about last week, casting adults as teens has an effect on how we see the character.
Had young Grace been played by someone the right age, like Sadie Sink of Stranger Things:
Our understanding of the character would change drastically. We’d expect her to be naive about the world in some ways, to learn quickly, to have a temperament prone to sudden mood swings and outbursts, and we’d have an entirely different perception about her capacity for violence or what might drive her to it. Using a teenager to play teenage Grace would have given an entirely different shading for those sections of the show, introducing a different kind of complexity to the social interactions, and inspiring different emotions in the viewer. Imagine watching Mr.Kinnear pet her cheek and say “it’s quite becoming for a young woman to blush”. His interest in Grace as played by Gadon is tainted by their employer/employee relationship, but otherwise seems appropriate. His interest in an obviously 15 year-old girl would swing the audience’s perception of him in a completely different way. The same goes for the relationship Grace has with Jeremiah and James McDermott; what plays out on screen as two people of comparable ages taking an interest in each other would look completely different. The people who made Alias Grace are very smart people, there’s no way they assumed a viewer would react to a 30 year-old Gadon the same way they would a young teenager. So why not cast a younger actress for the flashbacks? What other message could be there?
In the show, Grace speaks about quilts, and their significance to women as battle flags of a kind. What quilt patterns mean, how you can put your own history into them, and how their place in the domestic sphere ties them to some of the most dangerous times in a woman’s life. At the end, as she’s making her own quilt, she uses pieces of fabric that signify the important women and times in her life; a piece of Mary Whitney’s petticoat, a piece of Nancy Montgomery’s pink dress, and a piece of her own prison dress. In her life as a free woman, these become the pieces of her flag, her tree of life. But while those pieces of fabric are reminders of those times, they are not those objects anymore. They cannot be. They have been transformed into something else. When we see the “flashbacks” of Grace, they are not true flashbacks, which is why she does not appear as a child. We see the story as she tells it to Dr. Jordan, and we see her in the story as he sees her in their present; as a woman convicted of murder. Grace has been transformed by time and circumstances, and whatever story she tells of that time now she will never be that young girl again, and the story is not that of a young girl. It is the story of Grace as she is now, as the pieces of her quilt may once have been something else but now they are a quilt. Grace may once have been a naive girl, unaware of the world, prone to being bullied or manipulated, and she may have been inhabited by the spirit of her friend Mary in some sense or another. She may have been a cunning and manipulative girl, scheming to get ahead by any means necessary with cold-blooded ambition. But we cannot see that in her as she is telling the tale. All we can see is the acclaimed murderess she is.
Grace herself admits at the end that she alters her story based on what the listener wants to hear, as she customizes the quilts she makes to the people she is making them for. She is smarter and sharper than most around her are willing to see, Dr. Jordan seems to come the closest to realizing it and it drives him to distraction. Was she that smart as a girl? Or was she a traumatized child who affected the personality of her dead friend to cope with her life? Was she a sleepwalker with episodes of amnesia, or is she a sociopathic liar? Did she manipulate men with her wiles, or did men blame her for their attraction to her and lash out of their own accord? It’s impossible to know, and Alias Grace isn’t there to answer the question. What I thought was a flaw in the show was because of what I thought I was seeing, once I realized what I was actually seeing it all made perfect sense. We are not meant to know the truth of the matter, we are meant to know Grace. Or as much of her as she’ll let us know.
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