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TV show review: Alias grace and Mindhunter

TV show review: Alias grace and Mindhunter

TV show review: Alias grace and Mindhunter

6 February 2018

Sarah Gadon stars as convicted (and later pardoned) murderer Grace Marks in Alias Grace.

By Mark Hadley

Where does evil come from? Is it a factor of nurture, or nature? Are some people just intrinsically bad – genetic outliers on humanity’s moral horizon? Or do the seeds of wickedness lurk inside all of us?

Tackling the question has involved every discipline from theology to psychology, and even spawned a few new ones. For a brief period in the 19th century, science believed that phrenology – the study of bumps on the human head – held the answer. Next to that, it hardly seems strange that streaming television would make its own attempt. And, remarkably, two new Netflix shows, Alias Grace and Mindhunter, have hit much closer to the mark.

Alias Grace is based on the novel by award-winning author Margaret Atwood. It follows the true story of Grace Marks, (pictured), a young Irish emigrant played by Sarah Gadon, who served as a Canadian domestic in the 19th century.

Marks and a stablehand named James McDermott were convicted of the brutal murder of the master and housekeeper of a home near Toronto. The Netflix series picks up the story 10 years on. McDermott has been hung, but due to the jury’s sympathies, Grace’s punishment was commuted to life in prison. Dr. Simon Jordan, a fictional student of the mind, is called to make an independent assessment of Grace’s guilt. 

Alias Grace revolves around the early emergence of the discipline that will one day be called psychology. Its sister-series Mindhunter runs a parallel course with the development of criminal profiling. (Pictured right: Jonathan Groff plays FBI agent Holden Ford in the series)

Both Netflix series are incredibly well produced, and make for compelling watching. Their strongest link, though, is the way they challenge conventional thinking about the nature of good and evil. We live in a world where information and entertainment media still tell their stories in terms of good and bad people – two basic types, with little overlap.

If someone does something particularly despicable, the media dig until they discover the evidence that proves in which category they belong. In short, evil people are born that way, ticking time-bombs waiting to go off. However, both Alias Grace and Mindhunter suggest there may only be one type of person.

Social circumstances, our education and up-bringing, may place a break on our behaviour, but the root of every vile act already resides within us. As Jesus sees it, our problem is heart-deep: “For out of the heart come evil thoughts – murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person” (Matthew 15:19-20a).

Our sinful hearts only wait for the right combination of need plus opportunity to give birth to sinful actions. Alias Grace and Mindhunter do us a service highlighting the fact. The world would like to continue to believe in the “truly evil” person because it allows us to credit ourselves with more righteousness simply because we do not do all we could, all of the time. But that sort of self-deception will only lead us further away from the salvation Jesus offers.

As C.S. Lewis put it, “When a man is getting better he understands more and more clearly the evil that is still left in him. When a man is getting worse he understands his own badness less and less.” 

Alias Grace and Mindhunter are rated M and are avaiable on Netflix.

Mark Hadley is the culture writer for Others and is one of Australia's leading Christian communicators.

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