Warning: Major spoilers ahead for Alias Grace.
Netflix’s latest miniseries Alias Grace is a lush and beautiful period piece that investigates a character we rarely see in television: the woman murderer. And the murderess, as Grace Marks (Sarah Gadon) prefers to be called, is inspired by real-life events. Despite all of these exciting little details, the six-part miniseries can feel a little slow, especially when compared to Hulu’s fast-paced Handmaid’s Tale, which is also a Margaret Atwood streaming adaptation. But, there’s nothing slow about the centrepiece of Grace’s finale episode, “Part 6,” where Jeremiah-turned-Jerome (Zachary Levi) hypnotises our titular antiheroine, Grace.
When Jerome begins leading Grace into deep hypnosis, we expect to finally find out if she killed Nancy Montgomery (Anna Paquin) and Thomas Kinnear (Paul Gross), or if she’s innocent, as her Spiritualist benefactors so pray she is. That is not exactly what we uncover. Rather, Jerome seemingly unlocks a brand new personality of Grace’s; that of Grace’s late best friend Mary Whitney (Rebecca Liddiard). The alter-ego has its own agenda and its own memories, which Grace-As-Mary has apparently been hiding from the primary personality. Grace-As-Mary even has her own very creepy voice.
Gadon put in a lot of hard work to create that voice, which I assume will now haunt your dreams. “We asked Rebecca Liddiard, who plays Mary Whitney, to record the whole sequence in her voice so I could listen to it and then figure out a way to mimic it,” Gadon told Refinery29 on a recent phone call. From there, it was “practice and practice and practice,” the actress explains. Gadon, whose father happens to be a cognitive behavioural therapist, also asked her dad to hypnotise her in preparation for the big, “intimidating” scene and had her mother record the process.
It’s no surprise there was tons of practice to be done, as Grace-As-Mary talks for minutes on end about the hypocrisy of Dr. Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft), who’s trying to help Grace retrieve her memories of the murder, and what really happened with James McDermott (Kerr Logan), who was Grace’s co-murderer. “You’ve deceived yourselves. I am not Grace. Grace knew nothing about it,” Grace-As-Mary says from under a black veil. “I told James to do it. I was there all along. Here. Where I am now, with Grace.”
Gadon finds the wildly revealing use of the veiled woman to be revolutionary. Throughout history, the figure “always represented this patriarchal idea of country or religion,” she notes. Yet, in Grace Marks, the trope forsakes the shackles of the male gaze for an entirely new, feminist edge. “Then this version of the veiled woman is so terrifying and unsettling, and really this avenue or expression of the repressed woman,” the actress says.
When it comes to the hypnosis scene, this idea of taking the opinions of men and chucking them out the window — let them out! — tends to come up often. The entire moment arrives thanks to the Spiritualist wife of the penitentiary governor’s house, who believes, along with her friends, in the more supernatural side of religion. It’s why a psychiatrist like Dr. Jordan was brought in for Grace’s cause, along with a hypnotist like Jerome. “The whole idea of hypnosis is this avenue for women to express their deepest, most repressed feelings, which weren't okay to talk about openly at that time,” Gadon explains of the thought process behind the Jerome-Grace experiment. “Hypnosis [was] this time for women to be vulnerable and anxious, and then men in turn [saw it] as this kind of entertainment which was fearful or unsettling.”
Despite all of the vulnerability and unleashed repression in “Part 6,” Gadon cautions against completely believing everything Grace-As-Mary says. During the hypnosis, the second personality claims she had both McDermott and Kinnear “on a string,” and all but flat out confirms she had the former kill the latter for her. The “real” Grace, was unaware. Alias Grace suggests what Grace mentally experienced while her alter-ego took over her “earthly shell:” Grace kneeling in the garden, Grace cowering in the cellar corner while McDermott choked Nancy alone, Grace standing upstairs in the Kinnear house next to the cellar trap door. Each time, the sounds of Nancy’s murder are far off, like in a dream.
But, that might not be precisely what happened, and that’s okay. “I definitely think that’s one of the suggestions of what could have happened. But I don’t think it’s fully decided that is what happened,” Gadon explains. “One of the things Margaret [Atwood] said to me in prep that really stayed with me is the idea that it was really important to honour Grace’s memory by maintaining that ambiguity.”
Yes, Gadon understands how difficult it is to spend six hours on a series and come away with big questions still hanging over the show. “It was about having to make peace with the idea it’s not going to be definitive, and then deciding it was interesting as just layered ambiguity,” Gadon explains of her own process with the finale after getting “wrapped up” in the question of Grace’s innocence.
Since finding out whether or not Grace is a true murderess doesn’t really matter, what does? Realizing the factors that led Grace to possibly-probably create a trauma-easing second personality have yet to be fixed. “All the things we deal with in the show impacts our thinking right now and are issues that remain unresolved, whether they’re reproductive rights, or expression, or immigration,” Gadon says. “These are all things we are still in constant negotiation for.”
Maybe once these flagrant problems are nipped in the bud, Mary Whitney’s spirit will finally be allowed out of the proverbial window.
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