Home > Politics, Reviews, Television > Marginalization, Abuse, and Female Agency in Alias Grace and Big Little Lies

Marginalization, Abuse, and Female Agency in Alias Grace and Big Little Lies

Although they are very different in tone, themes, and historical-geographical setting, Alias Grace and Big Little Lies both utilize the limited-series format of prestige television to explore women’s struggles in self-definition and establishing agency in contexts of subordination, marginalization, and abuse. Narratively constructed around murder mysteries in each case, both series employ shifting ambiguities of responsibility and motive not only to maintain suspense and audience involvement but also to suggest perilous truths about a woman’s position in demanding societies.

Although both shows are grounded in murder mysteries, neither is structured precisely as a classic whodunit. Alias Grace focuses on Grace Marks (Sarah Gadon), an Irish immigrant to 19th-Century Canada who becomes a household servant and is implicated in and imprisoned for the murder of the well-off bachelor (Paul Gross) who employs her, as well as his housekeeper/paramour (Anna Paquin). The facts of the murder itself are not much in question, nor is Grace’s intimate involvement in it, at least in some form. But the narrative casts proto-psychologist doctor Dr. Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft) as its detective figure, teasing out through memory-probing conversations with Grace how exactly she contributed to the killings and why they happened.

Big Little Lies, meanwhile, casts a semi-satirical eye on the well-to-do social circles of the contemporary enclave of the Bay Area elite in Monterey, California. A suspicious death has occurred at a lavish charity event, drawing in five disparate but connected women, but the series keeps the identity of not only the killer but also the victim secret until its closing stages. The hanging question of the murder – gestured to in brief expressionistic flashes and foreshadowed in intercut side-narration commentary clips of police interviews with witnesses – provides the constant tease and frisson, but Big Little Lies is not about the mystery so much it concerns as the lives, desires, and choices of these five women and those around them.

If Alias Grace cuts more deeply and subtly than its counterpart, that may be because its behind-the-camera creative core is made up of women. Based on the novel by Canadian literary giant (and suddenly-hot property, following the Emmy-winning success of another adaptation of her work, The Handmaid’s Tale) Margaret Atwood (who cameos in one scene as a disapproving churchgoer), Alias Grace was adapted for the screen by Sarah Polley with Mary Harron directing. Big Little Lies, on the other hand, though based on a novel by Liane Moriarty, has a screenplay by David E. Kelley (Ally McBeal, Boston Public) and was directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (The Young Victoria, Dallas Buyers Club, Wild). Beyond the fundamental biases of the male gaze, Big Little Lies does not always benefit from the blatant hammerstrokes of Kelley’s grandstanding writing style, as Todd VanDerWerff details in his review of the series for Vox.

Big Little Lies benefits greatly from a dynamite all-star cast almost uniformly working at the top of their collective game to elevate the material that has a tendency to be too on-the-nose and leans towards the sordid and soapy. Reese Witherspoon (Vallée’s star in Wild) headlines as Madeline, a stay-at-home mom who rarely stays at home, volunteering at the local community theatre (which is putting on a controversial production of the profane puppet musical Avenue Q), popping out for coffee with friends, and far too frequently becoming embroiled in rivalries and dramas around town (the performance only improves if you imagine Madeline as a grown version of Tracy Flick from Election).

Divorced from but constantly griping about her ex-husband Nathan (James Tupper) who has remarried neo-hippie yoga instructor Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz), the flinty Madeline creates tension with her decent-but-dull current husband Ed (Adam Scott) and her rebellious teenaged daughter Abigail (Kathryn Newton). Her best friend is Celeste (Nicole Kidman), a retired lawyer married to a young, handsome jetsetting businessman, Perry (Alexander Skarsgård); Celeste and Perry have twin boys, but also a volatile, sexually passionate, and troublingly violent relationship. Madeline and Celeste befriend a new single mother in town, Jane (Shailene Woodley), who has a young son and a traumatic history with his father.

Madeline and Jane soon become caught in a loop of conflict with driven corporate executive and mother Renata (Laura Dern, in one of her three superb 2017 roles) when Jane’s son Ziggy (Iain Armitage) is acused of being rough with Renata’s daughter Amabella (Ivy George). Given further impetus by Madeline’s sense of self-righteousness (which is inflamed by the city’s attempt to censor Avenue Q), this conflict comes to a head alongside Celeste and Perry’s abusive situation at a school charity ball.

Big Little Lies remains compulsively watchable throughout, but soon enough it becomes clear that its most compelling and unsettling feature is its depiction of this abusive relationship. Vallée skillfully withholds and obscures the most damning evidence of Perry’s violent and angry nature in the early stages, peppering his harsher moments with passionate sex scenes, and emphasizing his attentive and playful fathering towards his boys (although his playtime alter-ego, “The Monster”, is a bit too on the nose, truthfully). There’s enough to give the audience even more pause than Celeste, but the effect in general is that her battered-woman denial about his abusiveness is nominally shared by us. A long, riveting, uncomfortable intervention by her marriage counsellor (HBO vet Robin Weigert) is necessary not only to dispel this denial and spark action on Celeste’s part, but to remove our doubts as to what this relationship really is as well.

Alias Grace, meanwhile, bombards its titular female protagonist with misfortunes and mistreatment of a greater magnitude. Grace’s mother dies on board ship during the passage to Canada from Ireland; her father abuses her verbally, physically, and sexually. Her first and best friend during her initial servant posting, Mary Whitney (Rebecca Liddiard), is impregnated by the eldest son of her employer and dies after obtaining a secret abortion, a passing that haunts Grace far more literally than might have been guessed. She suffers the tongue-lashings of Paquin’s Nancy at her last serving position, and the weakness of her situation is exploited by the violent and lascivious James McDermott (Kerr Logan), her partner in the murders. She is then mistreated, abused, and raped in the women’s prison in Kingston after her conviction. Even the interviews with Dr. Jordan which serve as the narrative flashback device, ostensibly intended to aid her in obtaining a pardon, are construed as a violation of her memory akin to rape, a dimension given contour by Jordan’s frequent sexual fantasies involving her, which he transmutes into a sexual liaison with his landlady (Sarah Manninen).

Alias Grace is a nuanced, often poetic portrait of the thousand pinpricks of women’s marginalization. Deprived of power over her own fate and choices, Grace makes a series of limited decisions – predominantly small but then suddenly momentous – to diminish her sufferings, to channel herself towards survival and endurance. The women of Big Little Lies have inordinately greater liberty, wealth, and privilege, but are likewise cosseted by insecurity, social expectations, past trauma, and above all by the power of men, sometimes benevolent but more often not. Like Grace, they find a certain agency and satisfaction in hard-won female solidarity and in the extremes of reactive assertion. Unlike Grace, their story will continue, with a second season (not an uncontroversial one, either, especially to their competitors in the Emmy’s Limited Series category) to draw out the implications of that assertion and probe the boundaries of their claim to a greater agency.

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Categories: Politics, Reviews, Television
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