Netflix's 'Alias Grace' Paints an Authentic World of Masters and Servants

Two new TV series, 'Alias Grace' and 'Mary Kills People,' should help boost Canada's cultural profile

Sarah Gadon stars as Grace Marks, a housemaid convicted of two murders, in 'Alias Grace.'
Jan Thijs/Netflix

How come Canada – one of the largest, wealthiest and smartest countries in the world – has left such a minuscule cultural footprint? Sure, there are exceptions (most notably, Margaret Atwood, David Cronenberg, and, er, Justin Bieber). But most Canadian talent heads south at the first available opportunity – take your pick from such diverse names as Pamela Anderson, William Shatner, James Cameron, the two Ryans (Gosling and Reynolds), Jim Carrey, and so on.

What does it tell us that Winnipeg-born Nia Vardalos made “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” and not “My Small Modest Canadian Nuptials?” Or that Neil Young is better known for singing about Alabama than the Ontario where he grew up.

If asked to name a Canadian TV show, how many could you list? I’m guessing two or three at most – and that’s only if you’re living in Toronto. “Saving Hope,” “The Beachcombers,” “The Littlest Hobo” and “Degrassi Junior High” were the only ones I recognized when I did a Google search. As for supposedly popular Canadian shows like “Murdoch Mysteries” and “Heartland,” I must confess the same ignorance as for the music of Gord Downie, the front man of Canadian rock band The Tragically Hip, whose death last month sparked a touching, teary tribute from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

So I state with confidence that I will be breaking new journalistic ground with my next sentence: I have just watched two very good Canadian TV shows. I’ll start with the most prestigious: the six-part adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1996 novel “Alias Grace” (now available on Netflix).

Atwood, of course, is having a televisual “moment.” For me, the Hulu adaptation of her dystopian novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” has been the show of the year, and it also produced my biggest coffee-snorting moment of the year when I heard a respected male TV critic on a podcast say he stopped watching it because it was just too bleak – before going on to eulogize the likes of such famously upbeat shows as “Breaking Bad” and “The Sopranos.”

“Alias Grace” could not be more Canadian if it had a moose eating maple syrup in every scene while making an “Eh” sound. It’s based on the true story of “murderess” Grace Marks, a housemaid convicted of two murders in colonial Canada in 1843. Adapted by Sarah Polley (the actor-director-writer who made the terrific “Away From Her” with Julie Christie in 2006) and directed by Mary Harron (best known for “American Psycho” with Christian Bale), it was originally planned as a movie about five years ago.

Unlike “The Handmaid’s Tale,” it’s easy to see “Alias Grace” working as a film, because this is ultimately a fairly straightforward story that could be told in a couple of hours. What the TV series does exceptionally well, though, is paint this authentic world of masters and servants, and show, to quote Grace, how one person is rewarded and another punished for the same sin.

The show’s format is a little formulaic – lots of two-hander scenes in which a doleful Dr. Jordan (Edward Holcroft, who looked equally forlorn in the excellent British thriller “London Spy”) quizzes prisoner Marks (Sarah Gadon) about her life and the crimes for which she was convicted, followed by flashbacks accompanied by her seemingly omnipresent voiceover.

It could just as easily be called “How to Make a Canadian Quilt,” since Grace is constantly seen sewing and washing them – Atwood even named each of the novel’s 16 chapters after various quilts – and we’re left questioning whether Grace is merely embroidering an elaborate tale about her past for the doctor’s (and our) benefit, or if she is indeed guilty of murder.

I found the concluding episode a little rushed, especially in comparison to the languid middle section. But Gadon remains mesmerizing throughout – and her maid friend Mary Whitney (Rebecca Liddiard) provides some welcome effervescence.

“People want a guilty person. If there has been a crime, they don’t like not knowing,” says Grace early on. That supposition may be tested by the show’s own revelation – though I doubt you’ll reflect, as Dr. Jordan does toward the end, “I feel I have not learned anything other than I have not learned anything.”

And look out for Atwood doing her bit to rival Stan Lee for cameo appearances with a sour, stinging one-liner in episode four.

Bubbly concoction

While the class of “Alias Grace” comes telegraphed (and in case you didn’t get the message, each episode starts with a quote from a literary luminary), the unabashed fun of “Mary Kills People” arrives as a complete surprise.

If you can imagine “Moonlighting” (for those of a certain age) mixed with a single-mom family drama mixed with a medical show – oh, and euthanasia – then you’re getting close to what this offbeat six-part Canadian series is like.

It opens with Mary Harris (Caroline Dhavernas – who presumably gets the roles Ruth Wilson doesn’t have time for) and Des Bennett (British actor Richard Short – who presumably gets the roles Dominic Cooper doesn’t have time for) performing an assisted suicide on a terminally ill man in his bedroom.

“We’re afraid because we don’t know what to expect but just because there’s uncertainty doesn’t mean there’s anything to fear,” Mary counsels him, before administering a lethal cocktail of pentobarbital and champagne.

The champagne is the key thing here, for this is a surprisingly bubbly concoction about death that could quickly go to your head. I found myself laughing throughout, thanks to the repartee and chemistry of the two leads – she an ER doctor with a surprisingly large amount of time on her hands for extracurricular activities; he a former plastic surgeon and recovering drug addict.

Nothing about the show suggests it was shot in Canada – though it’s actually filmed in some very picturesque places around Toronto (Mary’s rather splendid beach house, while not quite rivalling those of “Little White Lies,” is on the shore of Lake Ontario). We can assume they deliberately made it as universal as possible – indeed, Des’ sigh when someone chooses Canadian singer Sarah McLachlan’s weepy “Full of Grace” as their “deathbed song” is one of the few overt bits of Canadian culture I spotted.

The show does get darker as it progresses, but its smartest move was to make it a limited series. Things get complicated fast for the eponymous lead, for reasons I won’t divulge here – suffice it to say they revolve around a cancer patient called Ben (New Zealander Jay Ryan, who people may recognize from “Top of the Lake”).

Rather than giving us a “mercy killing of the week” procedural, we get a delightful, blackish comedy-drama that handles its subject matter with dignity (not Dignitas), and comes highly recommended. Season two has already been commissioned, so grab a glass of champagne and start watching.