Over the last couple of weeks, we watched the 2017 Netflix series Alias Grace. It is a smart, stylish adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel, with strong writing by Sarah Polley and direction by Mary Harron (of American Psycho fame), and the acting is impeccable, especially when it comes to Sarah Gadon as the Irish maid Grace Marks who may or may not have helped murder her employer and his housekeeper. The series handles tone and genre well, navigating between historical drama, dry black comedy, true crime, gothic horror and deft commentary on gender, class truth and fiction.
And about halfway through the final episode I thought that Alias Grace isn’t all that different from that film with the robot.
In Alex Garland’s Ex Machina (2014), Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a young programmer, is asked by Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the founder of the company Caleb works at, to perform the Turin test on Ava (Alicia Vikander), a female humanoid robot that appears intelligent, sensitive – and clearly very attractive to the man. Is Ava genuinely capable of thought and consciousness? Or is she just imitating the appearance of consciousness? At what point does the performance of something indistinguishable from genuine self-awareness become the thing itself? And who is in control of these conversations between man and machine: is it Caleb or is it Ava?
In Alias Grace, Grace Marks is visited by Dr Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft), a young American psychiatrist who develops more than just a professional interest in his subject. He has been hired to do a psychiatric evaluation of Grace, though not so much to find out if she is innocent or guilty; she was convicted of the crime, though her death sentence was commuted, and she has been imprisoned for the past fifteen years, but she claims that she has no memory of the actual murders. Dr Jordan is not unaware that Grace may, knowingly or unknowingly, be manipulating him through what she tells him, but as he tries to understand her, he is in no small way manipulated by his own attraction to Grace.
Both stories could go very differently, and we’re probably more used to watching those different versions: Ava and Grace could be damsels in distress, held by controlling, evil men, and Dr Jordan and Caleb could be the heroes that first listen to them and then save them. Those are clearly the versions of the story that the two male protagonists would like to see happen. It is not that they consider Grace or Ava stupid, incapable or even incapable of manipulation, nor do they think they themselves are faultless – but those are the stories they’ve been told, the stories that their cultures are built on. Women need saving, men do the saving, and while they aren’t necessarily fully aware of it, they still think that male saviours get rewarded with love (and, yes, probably sex).
Except neither Ava nor Grace will have it. They both sit in narrow cages of their own, and it’s the men in their lives that hold the keys, but neither is happy or willing to act as a blank sheet of paper on which these men write the stories they wish for. And both have the same immediate power over the men who come and talk to them: the power of telling a story of their own. In the final episode of Alias Grace, another male character who got his kicks out of projecting onto Grace, namely the lawyer who defended her at the murder trial, compares her to Scheherazade, the storyteller of the classic Middle Eastern collection of tales, the One Thousand and One Nights, who kept herself alive by telling the king an endless stream of tales, never finishing the one she had begun until the next night. The king of those tales too fell in love with Scheherazade: and, like her, Ava and Grace subtly rewrite the men who have come to write onto them their own versions of who these women are. (Brief footnote on this designation: one of the core themes of Ex Machina is whether Ava can really be seen as equivalent to a human being at all, so arguably her femininity lies entirely in her outward appearance – but the point is how these men see the women they’ve been asked to define, and Caleb most certainly perceives, and reacts to, Ava as a woman even while he is in doubt as to what she actually is.) In Alias Grace, it isn’t even just many of the men who use Grace as something to project their wishes and needs onto; both Atwood’s novel and the Netflix series are quick to point out that it is also her middle-class employers and others of higher social standing that see her as a canvas for their own projections. But the focus mostly remains on Grace’s position as a woman, which, if anything, is amplified by her social standing.
Ava is more overtly dangerous than Grace, as transpires over the course of Ex Machina, and arguably the film ends up taking the shape of a sci-fi film noir, with Caleb as the convenient patsy and Ava as the femme fatale. As a result, Ex Machina comes across as a more ruthless version of the story: Caleb’s final, chilling fate is entirely designed by her, even if he did his part in bringing it on himself. Dr Simon’s fate is also unkind, but it is not as directly authored by Grace. In some ways, Ava is the more unknowable of the two characters, since we have Grace’s voiceover to go on, but Atwood’s prose neatly translates her unreliability as a narrator onto the screen. The question is not just whether she plays Dr Jordan but whether she plays us at the same time, and in the same ways.
At the end of Ex Machina, Ava triumphs, leaving behind destruction and death – but the men in her life, Caleb and Nathan, share much of the responsibility of what happens to them. Grace’s story ends more ambivalently for her, and probably more realistic too; she is not free of men who need her to be one particular thing, and she is not free to ignore their needs, but she finds increments of freedom in playing these needs to her own ends. Do we ever see the real person opposite ourselves, or do we see the person we need them to be? To most of the men that come to listen to them with the intention to decide who these women really are, Ava and Grace are mirrors: attentive, attractive mirrors that show Dr Jordan and Caleb who they wish to be themselves. And while these neurotic, needy male protagonists with a saviour complex learn at their own peril that women are not mirrors, Grace and Ava discover some kind of freedom for themselves while they are looked at but not really seen.