Appropriately, for our first look at Sarah Gadon’s ridiculously skilled performance as Grace Marks, we get a miniature actor’s reel. In time with her narration of the different ways she has been described in the papers, she practices faces in the mirror — innocent, stupid, cunning, sullen, stuck-up — before reverting to the inscrutable blankness that so baffles Dr. Simon Jordan.
It’s 1859 when the series begins, and Grace has been in prison for the murder of her boss and his housekeeper for fifteen years. Like any famous convict, Grace has a devoted fanbase who are convinced that she’s innocent, whether because she was forced to participate in the murders, or because she is mentally unfit to be held responsible for her actions. Dr. Jordan (Edward Holcroft) has been hired to interview her and produce a report which Grace’s supporters hope will exonerate her, and it’s these interviews that form the framing device for the flashbacks that tell her story.
Right away we know we’re not going to get much more of a window into Grace than she gives Dr. Jordan. At their first encounter she seems candid and self-possessed, responding to the question “Are you afraid of me?” with “It’s too early to tell,” and to the gift of an apple with the remonstration, “I’m not a dog.” But quickly and unpredictably, some of his seemingly harmless questions lead to stonewalling and fencing, while short, unexplained flashbacks tell us she’s thinking of things she doesn’t want to say.
The early life she tells him about is a standard immigrant story, mixed in with things that will grow in significance as the years go by: fleeting thoughts of drowning her younger siblings, so there’ll be fewer mouths to feed, or of smothering her father (Jonathan Goad) with ashes, once he adds sexual abuse to physical; the superstition of opening a window to let a dead person’s soul out, which leaves her with the horrible notion that her mother’s (Kirstin Rae Hinton) ghost is forever trapped in steerage between Ireland and Canada.
The teenage Grace goes out to work as a maid, and we meet Mary Whitney (Rebecca Liddiard), the friend who has so much influence on her. In this first episode, beautiful, spirited Mary seems as full of hope and promise as an American Girl heroine; there’s no hint that she and her dreams of rebellion belong to the same world as the murders, the prison, the asylum. I WONDER IF THAT WILL CHANGE AT ALL.
- I know as little as anybody about the real-life background of the subjects covered by the series — the specific case of Grace Marks, or the history of Canada at the time, or the possible mental disorders the character of Grace might exhibit, or even how good Gadon’s Irish accent is or isn’t. Nor have I read the Margaret Atwood novel the show is based on. So if anybody has a more informed take on anything I say, for God’s sake share it in the comments.
- As I said, and will try not to keep repeating, I’m blown away by Sarah Gadon’s acting. Over the course of the miniseries, she plays Grace from about fourteen to over forty, and it takes very little suspension of disbelief (and very little makeup) to buy it. I could write a separate post just on her various tiny smiles.
- David Cronenberg plays the reverend leading the campaign for Grace’s release. I wouldn’t classify this series as horror, but maybe his presence lends it some cred in that direction.
- Fainting count: 1 (Grace, head trauma)
I doubt anybody would actually read these recaps episode by episode, but just to be safe: HERE BE SPOILERS. NOT ABOUT STUFF THAT’S IN THE HISTORICAL RECORD, BUT ABOUT WHAT’S SPECIFIC TO THE SHOW. SCROLL DOWN IF YOU PREFER.
- Grace is afraid of doctors. Not that anyone needs much of a special reason to freak out at the sight of an old-timey medical bag of tricks, but in her case it’s probably largely due to the association with Mary’s abortion.
- The shot of Grace removing the shoes from her mother’s body seems connected to her and McDermott taking Nancy’s clothes and Kinnear’s boots — in the moment, a mercenary act that she probably hates herself for doing, but the family can’t afford to waste a pair of shoes.
Good morning, class. Today we’ll be discussing dreams. The episode opens with a dream that turns out to be Dr. Jordan’s: that Grace is standing in the prison yard in just her underclothes, and he covers her with his coat and holds her. In their interview, he asks about her dreams, and we see what will be a recurring image: Nancy Montgomery (Anna Paquin) smiling in a pink dress, cutting flowers in the idyllic surroundings of the Kinnear farm, when a bloody wound appears on her forehead, and she grabs in confusion at her throat.
Of course, she doesn’t tell him that. She tells him about Mary Whitney. Their friendship is developed in this episode, with Mary regaling Grace with elaborate dreams for the future, and more superstition is embedded into the story, with the girls throwing apple peels over their shoulders to see what man they’ll marry. Grace’s apple peel spells the initial J, but Mary is unable to get hers off in one long piece, and the implication of no future at all isn’t lost on either of them.
Grace gets an unnerving prognosis of her own from Jeremiah, a peddler friend of Mary and the other servants, who reads her palm and predicts trouble ahead. It soon starts to take shape: she gets her period and thinks she’s dying, and Mary supplies warnings as well as help: never go to the privy alone at night, never trust a man to keep a promise, and never do a favor for one without getting what you want in return. But Mary hasn’t been taking her own advice. She gets pregnant by their employers’ son (Will Bowes), who gives her five dollars and washes his hands of the situation. In desperation, she has an illegal abortion, and she bleeds to death.
Mary’s death is a tragic waste, compounded by the fact that the utterly unworthy father of her child faces no consequences for it, shielded by his mother (Martha Burns), who is concerned only with protecting the family’s respectability. She’s unmourned by anybody but Grace; the other women of the household are scandalized by the circumstances, and Grace worries that her soul won’t rest if they cover up what happened to her.
Soon after, Grace collapses, and when she wakes up she has a dissociative episode in which she believes she is Mary and must find Grace. After passing out again, she tells Dr. Jordan, she regained her identity and lost all memory of what she had said and done. We already know this is also her explanation of the day of the murders she’s accused of: that she has no memory of what happened at all, and what she said in her confession is only what her lawyer told her to say.
- God, Zachary Levi is attractive. Thanks, show, for awakening me to a type I didn’t know I had: merry Victorian-era itinerant Jewish jack-of-all-trades. Not sure what I’m going to do with this information.
- This episode introduces the rather weird subplot of Dr. Jordan’s landlady, Mrs. Humphrey (Sarah Manninen), whose husband has run off with all their savings, leaving her both manless and penniless. What she’ll do about the former remains to be seen, but so far she’s happy enough to accept Jordan buying her groceries and advancing her two months’ rent.
- Fainting count: 3.5 (Mrs. Humphrey, hunger; Grace, grief, twice; Mary, faking)
- “I must have heard wrong. I thought I heard her say, ‘Let me in,’ but she must have said, ‘Let me out.’”
- The words to “Rock of Ages,” which Mary sings — mockingly, of course — are also surprisingly relevant to what becomes of her and Grace: ‘Rock of ages, cleft for me. Let me hide myself in thee.’
Dr. Jordan and Grace are getting to understand each other pretty well by now. He fantasizes about her again, and compliments her singing voice, in response to which she mentions she can tell that he hasn’t been getting enough sleep. He’s being taken advantage of by Mrs. Humphrey and harried by Reverend Verringer, and to today’s session he’s brought another vegetable, this time explicitly bringing up cellars. Translation: Tell me about the murders, Grace. But she parries him with the correction that parsnips should be kept outside in a hole in the ground, with a small triumphant smile that says he’s not going to get her like that, and he sighs just as transparently. Foiled again.
Back in the past, while Mrs. Parkinson pressures Grace to keep the secret, George turns his predatory attentions to her, and she begins looking for a way out of the household. She finds it in Nancy Montgomery, appearing for the first time as a living character. Nancy comes to visit the Parkinsons’ housekeeper, and Grace is struck by her resemblance to Mary, a beautiful woman who owns her sexuality and her right to happiness. She agrees to come work for Nancy at Thomas Kinnear’s farm, warned too late, and much too vaguely, that rumor has it there’s some funny business going on there.
Kinnear (Paul Gross) certainly seems all right at first: he dispatches a drunk harassing Grace with a single punch before driving to the farm with her at his side like a social equal. And then here we are at Richmond Hill, seeing Nancy cutting roses and waving as she has in Grace’s many flashbacks to this moment, and McDermott (Kerr Logan) glowering as he drops his axe to take Grace’s bag to her room. Grace admits to Jordan that she quickly began to feel lonely in this house, and she betrays her nervousness on the subject when her description turns to the cellar where Nancy died.
Nancy’s self-conceit and unhousekeeperlike closeness to Kinnear rub Grace the wrong way, but not as much as they do McDermott, who makes no secret of his dislike for waiting on a woman. McDermott is contrasted with Jamie (Stephen Joffe), the sweet boy who helps out at the farm, but they share a crush on Grace. Jamie catches her a firefly in a jar; McDermott tells her he’d break her like a colt. Kinnear, meanwhile, patronizes her with occasional icky flirtations and lectures her on the biblical apocrypha for his own amusement; Nancy doesn’t take kindly either to Kinnear giving Grace attention or to Grace’s meek objections to the way she runs the household.
Unlike the previous episodes, which closed with Grace deftly dismissing Dr. Jordan and narrating her thoughts on the progress of their encounters as she’s led back to jail, this one leaves us suspended in the past. After an idyllic evening when the servants have the farm to themselves, Grace finds herself wishing things would never change: “But the sun cannot be stopped in its path except by God, and He has done that only once, and will not do it again until the end of the world.” Well, we knew that already.
- “You should never let your picture be in a magazine or newspaper if you can help it, as you never know what ends your face may be made to serve by others, once it has got out of your control.” This Grace thinks while wiping herself on a sketch of two fashionable ladies.
- Richmond Hill: Pinterest-ready or what?
- Fainting count: 0, though Grace does fall down in the hallway and smash a tray of dishes when George Parkinson comes a-creeping.