Let’s Talk About the Ending of Alias Grace

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Photo: Netflix

Alias Grace is a mystery story, and its end offers us a solution. The central question is whether Grace Marks was responsible for murdering her employer Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery. The answer? Yes and no. In the last episode, Grace undergoes hypnosis and appears to fall into a semiconscious state. Gathered observers hear a new voice come from her lips, and her words are suddenly cruel, abrupt, and vulgar. Grace, we learn, seems to have a multiple personality disorder. Sometimes she’s Grace Marks, an innocent maid; sometimes she’s Mary Whitney, the vengeful spirit of Grace’s deceased friend. Grace is not responsible for the murders. Mary Whitney is the perpetrator.

The solution fits neatly into Alias Grace’s thematic design. The mini-series, much like the Margaret Atwood novel, uses quilting as a dominant metaphor for all kinds of ideas: female labor, domesticity, patchwork pieces that fit together to make a bigger picture, symbolic images, and how to tell a story. It’s appropriate that Grace’s own mind would be made up of separate pieces, and that the solution to the mystery would only be visible when you step back and look at all the discrete parts that make up who she is.

Maybe Grace Marks does have multiple personalities. Perhaps Mary Whitney’s soul did enter Grace’s body after death, whispering, “Let me in,” and has been living there ever since. Maybe Grace really does suffer from amnesia and has no memory of committing the crimes, or of what happened in the missing periods of her life.

Or maybe the whole thing is nonsense.

Perhaps Grace and Jeremiah made up the Mary Whitney hypnosis performance together. We know Jeremiah’s whole “Dr. Jerome DuPont” identity is a ruse. Mesmerism pays better than being a peddler, and that’s the only reason he’s doing it. How do we know he and Grace didn’t concoct the whole Mary Whitney performance to suggest her innocence and bolster his career in one fell swoop?

Or maybe even more of the story is fabricated. Part of what makes the multiple-personality solution so appealing is the moment when “Mary Whitney” produces the all-important clue, astonishing Dr. Jordan and the viewer. Hypnotized, describing the crime as it happened, Whitney’s voice tells the witnesses about strangling Montgomery’s throat with a handkerchief. Her handkerchief. It’s the handkerchief, in other words, that once belonged to Mary Whitney’s mother, the same item Mary gave Grace for Christmas years before. It’s so satisfying to have the clue appear in front of us like that. That click of recognition feels so rewarding. But the only reason we know about the handkerchief at all — the only reason we know about Mary Whitney at all — is because Grace Marks told us about her.

Most of the mini-series follows Grace’s life, including her childhood and all the events that led up to the murders. Except we don’t get that story from the unbiased view that we use to watch Dr. Jordan when he’s at home with his landlady. Grace’s entire story happens from within the frame of Grace’s voice-over; everything we know about Grace comes out of what she chooses to tell Dr. Jordan. Who’s to say anything she tells him actually happened? How can we know if Mary Whitney even existed, or if she’s entirely a figment of Grace’s imagination? (Conveniently, Mrs. Alderman Parkinson is dead, so Dr. Jordan never follows up to verify that part of Grace’s story.) Who’s to say if any of the abuse Grace claims ever happened?

In the novel, the idea of Grace as an unreliable narrator of her own life feels closer to the surface: It’s all written in the first person, and there’s a disorienting lack of dialogue markers in her narration. We’re primed to take everything she says with a grain of salt; everything she says feels uncertain, as though it’s built on shifting ground. Her thoughts and her spoken words all blend together, and it can be easy to lose track of what’s real and what’s imagined. In the show, though, it’s harder to remember that Grace might be making it all up. As viewers, we’re less trained to doubt something we watch with our own eyes unless it’s being actively undermined with noticeable visual clues. (Think Mr Robot, Legion, or a show like The Affair that gives us multiple versions of the same events.) The show doesn’t prepare us to be on the lookout for narrative trickery.

But the possibility that Grace has been an unreliable narrator all along is absolutely alive in Mary Harron and Sarah Polley’s adaptation. For one, the patchwork visual language of Grace’s story — all the bits and pieces that get intercut into her narrative, like Nancy’s death and Mary Whitney’s life — suggests that we’re watching Grace tell her own story, not some omniscient, unbiased perspective. How else would we see those interrupting clips of an apple peel falling onto the floor, if not through Grace’s perspective? Where else would the eerie image of Nancy come from, with her forehead slowly opening like an overripe peach?

Most crucially, Grace herself tells us that we have no reason to trust what she says. Maybe the most honest, trustworthy thing Grace tells Dr. Jordan comes at the end of the series, in the letter she writes him after marrying Jamie Walsh. Walsh is kind to her, she says, but he’s strangely preoccupied with what happened in her past. “He likes to picture the suffering I have endured,” she tells Dr. Jordan. “He listens to it all like a child listening to a fairy tale.” In order to satisfy his interest, she does the same thing for Walsh as she did for Jordan: “I may have changed some of the details of my stories to suit what I thought you wanted to hear. It did make me feel I was of some use in this world.” Grace knows she’s unreliable, and she knows she’s lying. She’s performing for an audience. And she’s good at it.

In spite of her admission of unreliability, Alias Grace is not suggesting we should doubt Grace’s past, that we should brand her a liar and write her off, or that everything she’s said has been false. In fact, the ending is barely even focused on Grace’s honesty, or on her innocence. The series’ final question is why, exactly, watching a woman in pain is something we find entertaining. What do we want from Grace Marks? What version of her life would we find most appalling, most spectacular, most unusual or alarming or remarkable? How can she perform in a way that will make her — a lowly, uneducated, poor, single housemaid — even visible to a wealthy, educated doctor? What would the life of a 19th-century housemaid’s life have to look like in order for us, her viewers, to find it interesting?

Alias Grace is a remarkable story. We don’t know if Grace Marks killed Thomas Kinnear and Nancy Montgomery. But we do know at least one party being indicted for something they deserve — it’s us, the viewers. The charge is complete disinterest in women’s lives unless they’re salacious and sensational. We are definitely guilty.

Let’s Talk About the Ending of Alias Grace