Alias Grace, Netflix’s 6-part miniseries based on Margaret Atwood’s 1996 novel of the same name, is a harrowing tale of persecution and identity wrapped up in a true crime story. Atwood’s novel is based on the real-life conviction of Grace Marks and James McDermott for the murder of their employer Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper and mistress Nancy Montgomery. McDermott was hung for his crimes, and Grace, initially sentenced to death, was sent to a mental institution and, later, imprisoned.
You can safely assume spoilers for Alias Grace follow.
After 30 years in prison, Marks was released, somewhat mysteriously, from jail, something Netflix’s miniseries portrays as being due to her good behavior and potential innocence. But, before she is delivered to a grown Jamie Walsh’s farm and falls into a seemingly apathetic relationship with him, some weird shit goes down.
Marks is put into a trance by Jeremiah Pontelli (Zachary Levi), which supposedly allows someone else to come to the forefront of Marks’s awareness.
Two of the biggest theories at the time about Marks’s culpability for the crimes (and two of the theories brought up in the Netflix series) were that Marks either suffered from a mental illness of some sort or was actually possessed by the spirit of her dead friend Mary Whitney.
Whether or not Marks actually had a form of dissociative identity disorder (DID) or had suffered some sort of psychotic break due to her tragic upbringing is unknown. Some people with DID (more commonly known as multiple personality disorder) do experience blackouts and gaps in their memory; if Marks did have DID and did commit murder, there’s a chance she wasn’t aware of what was happening at the time and had no memory of it.
The Netflix series puts more of its eggs in the “possessed by Mary Whitney” basket, though.
If you’ll recall, Marks was first introduced to this idea when her mother died at sea that a spirit needed to be let out of a room after death. Subsequently, Marks became consumed with the idea of releasing a person’s spirit, including after Mary Whitney died due to a botched abortion. Marks muttered about it and (potentially) hallucinated about Mary’s spirit whispering “let me in” over and over again.
Later in the series, when Pontelli put Marks into a trance and covered her head with a veil, someone else bubbled to the surface — someone who sounded alarmingly like Mary Whitney and even identified herself as such. It appeared as though Mary’s straight-shooting antics might’ve followed her into death as she possessed the body of Marks and spouted gross truths to Jeremiah, Dr. Simon Jordan, and everyone else gathered in the parlor.
While there isn’t a definitive answer to did she do it?, the three most plausible interpretations are Marks was occupied by the spirit of her vengeance-seeking friend, she suffered from a mental illness of some sort, or she was, simply, a murderess with a knack for lying.
Despite the lingering questions about her culpability in the murders, Marks was released from prison after 30 years, and is nearly immediately married to Jamie Walsh, settled down on his farm, which also happens to be the life Mary Whitney wanted. We’re left with the idea that Marks then supposedly spent the rest of her time reliving her horrific life to sooth her new husband’s guilt for his finger-pointing testimony years prior and so he could apologize to her again and again.
As Alias Grace stressed over and over again, women have, historically, been privy to men’s wishes; and even when someone like Atwood gets to fictionalize the story, you still can’t escape reality.
Alias Grace is now available to stream on Netflix.