A word of warning: If you're looking to Alias Grace for some sort of direct prequel to The Handmaid's Tale, you'll be disappointed. While the latter imagines a not-so-distant dystopian future in which a religious sect has reduced women to full-time breeders, the former is a deep dive into the true story of Grace Marks (Sarah Gadon), a woman accused of killing two people in nineteenth century Canada. The Handmaid's Tale delivers on the thrills, while Alias Grace is a slow burn. One is a Hulu production, the other is on Netflix. On the surface, the only things these two series have in common is that they are both based on novels written by Margaret Atwood. But dig a little deeper, and you'll definitely find some common themes.
Both stories explore the desire for control over women's bodies, and the lasting trauma of sexual violence. Grace is no Offred (Elisabeth Moss), enslaved and forced to give birth to a new generation under pain of death, but the patriarchal forces at work against her are no less terrifying. Long before she's incarcerated and sexually abused in an asylum, she's subjected to her loutish father's drunken advances. After leaving her family, she finds solace in the friendship of Mary Whitney (Rebecca Liddiard), whom she then watches die from a botched abortion. With Mary gone, her former lover, the son of Grace's employer, pursues Grace relentlessly, banging on her door in the middle of the night demanding she sleep with him. To escape him, she takes a job under housekeeper Nancy Montgomery (Anna Paquin), working as a maid for Thomas Kinnear (Paul Gross) on his farm in the middle of nowhere. There she meets James McDermott (Kerr Logan), a surly farmhand who is determined to marry her. When it turns out that Kinnear may want to trade in Montgomery, his lover, for Grace, they both end up dead.
Grace and McDermott are accused and convicted — Grace maintains her innocence, while McDermott claims Grace used her feminine wiles to get him to do her dirty work. (I'll let you watch and decide whether or not this is justified). There's a seed of doubt woven throughout the series when it comes to Grace's guilt in the double-murder, but threaded in alongside that is the following question: If she did do it, can we even really blame her? Is she the murderess? The victim? Or both?
McDermott hangs, but Grace is shipped off to the Kingston Penitentiary, where, over 15 years later, she meets Dr. Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft), a psychiatrist called in to make an assessment of her guilt.
It's in a conversation with Jordan that Grace makes the most obvious parallel to The Handmaid's Tale. In one of their very first meetings, she is working on a quilt for the prison governor's daughter, and explains that there are three quilts every woman should make with her own hands before she's wed: The Tree of Paradise, The Flower Basket, and The Pandora's Box.
She recalls that she used to hang these out to dry while first working as a maid in Toronto alongside Mary Whitney, and that they looked like flags preceding an army into battle. "Since that time, I've thought: 'Why is it that women have chosen to sew such flags, and lay them on the tops of bed?' For they make the bed the most noticeable thing in the room," she points out.
"And then I thought: 'It's for a warning,'" she continues. "You may think a bed is a peaceful thing, sir. For you it may mean rest, and comfort, and a good night's sleep. But it isn't so for everyone. There are many dangerous things that may take place in a bed. It's where we are born, that's our first peril in life. It's where women give birth, which is often their last. And it's where the act takes place between men and women sir, which I will not mention to you, but I suppose you know what it is. Some call it love, others despair, merely an indignity they must suffer through."
It's almost impossible to hear those words and not be drawn right back to the ceremony, the ritual in The Handmaid's Tale during which, once a month, the commander rapes his handmaid as she lies between his wife's thighs in an effort to impregnate her. Alias Grace was written in 1996, more than 10 years after The Handmaid's Tale, so it's not totally outside the realm of possibility this was planted as an Easter egg for fans. But a more likely explanation is that both of the books — and their TV adaptations — fundamentally deal with the very same plight specific to women, albeit in different ways. The constant association between Grace's crime and her alleged loose sexual behavior is reminiscent of the scene recalled by Offred in which a group of women is forced to blame a woman for her own rape. "Her fault," they cry. "Her fault." It's a mantra that's wordlessly repeated throughout Alias Grace.
The back-to-back timing of these two adaptations of Atwood's work seems to indicate that we're currently living in a cultural moment where we're finally ready to hear and acknowledge that maybe — just maybe — there may be another possible culprit.
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