‘Alias Grace’ Is a Probing Look Into 19th Century Gender Bias

Acclaimed author Margaret Atwood finally seems to be getting the TV attention she deserves. Hulu’s adaptation of her novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” landed the network its first Emmy earlier this year, not to mention rocketing the show and novel into the highest stratum of must-watch television. Now it’s Netflix’s turn to get in on the Atwood adaptation action.

Based on a true story, “Alias Grace” sets off on a six-episode exploration of Grace Marks, a 19th century Irish immigrant who arrives in Canada to work as a maid only to be arrested a few years later for collusion and murder. A crime enveloped in mystery from the start, Marks’ guilt was always in doubt, and this mini-series fleshes out a number of reasons why Marks was convicted anyway. The series ultimately serves as a jarring look at women’s place in a patriarchy and the myriad manipulation therein.

Unlike “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “Alias Grace” feels more relaxed in its narrative, though both series are woven around very similar themes. The latter is framed by interviews with Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft), a young doctor employed to finally prove Marks’ innocence after 15 years in prison. Brilliantly played by Sarah Gadon, Marks unfurls her story chronologically, and it’s easy to trace her progression from bright-eyed and bushy-tailed newcomer to grizzled prisoner.

One of the show’s best qualities is writer Sarah Polley’s creative control. She wrote the series in full, which allows a sprawling and hard-hitting probe into the various outcomes stemming from Marks’ incarceration. On one hand, Marks seems too straight-laced to even resemble a murderer. She’s good-natured, intelligent, and even downright likable. But perhaps the best thing about the way this series arcs over its six episodes is the way seeds of doubt get planted, eventually giving credence to the idea that maybe Marks is guilty after all.

From a life wrought with abusive male figures ranging from her alcoholic father to prison guards who are equally drunk on authority, Grace Marks is no stranger to manipulation and turbulent relationships. The way the narrative so masterfully pivots on itself suggests that the murder for which Marks was convicted is simply another byproduct of that lifelong manipulation, this time from stable hand James McDermott (Kerr Logan), who some believe coerced her into the act. It’s a wrinkle that forces the viewer to step back and reconsider the attachment they’ve formed with Marks, touching on the age-old theme that things aren’t always as they seem.

Finally, the evolution of the relationship between Marks and Jordan feels organic and wholly compelling. At first, Jordan approaches the situation like any medical professional should: calm, detached and ready to view the convict through a purely scientific lens. That dynamic eventually morphs over the perfectly paced series, with the doctor eventually verging on a professional kind of madness to uncover the truth. It’s ultimately a testament to the level of mystery surrounding Grace Marks and the murders for which she is imprisoned, a mystery that remains even today.

Alias Grace” premieres Nov. 3 on Netflix.