New Yorker: What We’re Watching This Week

A new series about the mysterious death of an Army scientist, a whodunnit and psychological thriller set in Upper Canada, and a sci-fi show with a rare capacity for tenderness.

“Alias Grace”

Photograph by Jan Thijs / Netflix / Everett
Photograph by Jan Thijs / Netflix / Everett

This Netflix series is based on a novel by Margaret Atwood from 1996, which in turn is based on the true story of a murder that took place in 1843 in the British colony of Upper Canada. Grace Marks, a sixteen-year-old housemaid, and James McDermott, a farmhand, were both convicted of killing their employer, Thomas Kinnear, and his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery, who were found dead in the cellar of Kinnear’s house—Kinnear shot, and Montgomery beaten and strangled. Marks and McDermott were caught after fleeing the property with a load of stolen goods, and McDermott was later hanged. Marks, probably because of her youth and good looks, got life in prison.

The show takes place years after the murders. A committee has formed to try to get Grace acquitted and brings in a flashy young psychiatrist whose job it is to fill in her now patchy memories of the killings. The psychiatrist’s sessions with Grace, which are calm and civil but psychologically fraught, frame the story. It is unclear whether Grace or McDermott actually committed the murders. Grace herself seems not to know, and her recollections are intertwined with other traumas—childhood abuse; the death of a friend in scandalous circumstances; the unremitting sexualization of her presence in the world as she makes her way through it, pretty and alone.

The obvious thing to say about “Alias Grace” is that its examination of the ways in which women navigate the relationship between sex and power feels very of the moment. (Last year, the director, Sarah Polley, wrote about her experiences with Harvey Weinstein and other men in the film industry for the Times.) But I don’t want to emphasize its topicality at the risk of passing over its other fascinations: the way the story moves fluidly from whodunnit to psychological thriller to political commentary to ghost story to coming-of-age tale, and back again; the minutely expressive face of Sarah Gadon, the actress who fully embodies the character of Grace as an all-telling narrator and the central cipher in the story she relates; the delicate portrayal of anger, anguish, jealousy, joy, fear, and desire, and a multitude of ambiguities in between. Please watch it. —Andrea DenHoed

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