Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Almost halfway through, The Alienist decides to try being a good show

Illustration for article titled Almost halfway through, The Alienist decides to try being a good show
TV ReviewsAll of our TV reviews in one convenient place.

“Can I ask you to button my boots?”

The Alienist has had a rocky beginning—partially in attempting to adapt the source material, and partially in attempting to make a space for itself amid a sea of prestige procedurals and period dramas. “These Bloody Thoughts” offers a version of The Alienist that’s much more promising.

Here’s a New York awash in color (deep blue walls, vibrant green parks), where shadows aren’t just darkness, but something distinct and pressing. It’s a city where everything’s happening at once: Vitascope shows and press upheaval and suffragettes marching in the streets, dentistry and tenements where you have sex one curtain away from the baby and houses so grand there’s a whole room just for the people waiting for you to judgmentally descend a staircase. Birds’-eye and worms’-eye shots reinforce the killer’s point of view. Even the sound design feels newly present here—the scrape of ominous pebbles, the burst of chaos that accompanies a carriage, the warped sounds of jump-rope games and fountain water as Sara thinks about the woman who drowned her children.

When John Moore looks across the rooftops, the sheer scope and density of the city makes it feel, for the first time, like someplace vibrant, menacing—something alive and out of control. Even the doctor’s boots are Byzantine, and require servants, determination, and/or power games to navigate.


And for what seems like the first time this season, we get versions of John and Dr. Kreizler who feel like they knew each other before the cameras started rolling, and who have a friendship to risk.

Honestly, to watch this episode after such a rocky first act makes for a fascinating case study in how small things can make a big difference to the overall tone and effect of a familiar rhythm. Little silences are put to great use, and the most is made of the tensions between our core three. This episode (written by Gina Gionfriddo and Cary Fukunaga) feels like the first time the show is allowed to breathe rather than being asked to cover bases. Part of that was the demands of setting the scene, but part of that was something deeper; maybe it’s the sense that until now the show was trying to ramp up the stakes through the murders (the show’s weakest aspect), and this episode spends most of its time raising the stakes for the characters.

Take “I spoke to a dentist,” which could have easily been more exposition. With a few beats of tension between the increasingly invested John and the increasingly frustrated Dr. Kreizler (and the shadow of a favor that becomes a power game), it becomes a gauntlet—a symbol of broken trust, and an extension of that power play. A few small scenes can do a lot of work. (“Button your own boots” was more effective than it had any right to be after such a small scene, but both actors were having a ball with it, and it did exactly what it needed to do.)


Unfortunately, we’re still adrift any time the story requires it to address gender, sexuality, and the exploitation of the children who are the killer’s potential victims. (Perhaps if there had been more time spent on the children themselves—their self-identification, hints of friendships between them that aren’t just about posthumous clues—then moments like “They call me Bernadette.” “What’s your real name?” would feel a lot more nuanced than they do.) It doesn’t help that so much of this is wrapped up in the obligatory procedural beats where everyone trades necessary exposition to move things along.

But this episode also has the advantage of being at a point in the investigation where the psychology is irising out as much as the camera is. The conversation about the woman who married young and then drowned her children and lost her mind in the process (she “did not form herself. Rather, society formed her”) is still a little clunky, but we understand the significance when he and Sara argue about the “raw material” for violence and the impact of upbringing—and it’s balanced alongside Kreizler’s frustrated outburst with a young patient whose cruelty hits too close to home. By the time they all gather to discuss the killer’s letter, there’s a little overdue weight to everyone’s horror.


It’s good progress after such a rough start, and the show seems to know it. So confident is “These Bloody Thoughts” that it even introduces the man with the silver smile in its final moments, collecting the theoretical into a reality. Our crew are past discovering the profiling process itself; now, they’re beginning their hunt for a man. And this episode has all the pleasure of handling all their most significant enemies: the man with the silver smile, the passing of time, those who want the whole thing hushed up, and—to their emerging dismay—our heroes themselves. (And this isn’t limited to their understanding of their capacity for violence. We know from last episode that Kreizler coming so far as the door of the kitchen is considered a major gesture. That he goes into Mary’s room and touches her things is one of the more uncomfortable parallels between criminal and crime-solvers we’ve had yet.)

If future episodes can carry forward this same sense of character depth and the stylistic grace notes in the surroundings, the second half of this season has the potential to be a gripping drama. I hope it does; after seeing a glimpse of this Alienist it would be a shame to lose it.


Stray observations

  • Sean Young’s Mrs. Van Bergen looking at her dog as if for advice is the most sublime moment so far of this show, or possibly any show.
  • Marcus drew the short straw on clunky pronouncements this week, I see.
  • Q’orianka Kilcher is making every second of screen time count. Mary could very easily be an object of pity, or an afterthought, or the angel of the house. Instead, Kilcher gives her the same jealousies, technological curiosity, fondness, and bone-deep loneliness as any of the core three have. She’s selling a much more complex character than she needs to. (I’m even here for a little jealous pining, though if the show doesn’t address that Kreizler’s crossing some boundaries, I’m going to have questions.)
  • I talked last episode about how the show seems to recognize opportunities without knowing what to do with them. Wiping the makeup off Bernadette is clearly meant to be a beat of “John Moore is increasingly unable to handle the unchecked horror of child exploitation that he’s been able to stay oblivious to until now.” But putting it after these two dialogue exchanges makes it feel much more pointedly about gender than about cruelty and exploitation.
  • Connor mentioning the “boy whore–excuse me, child murders” is either meant to remind he’s the Real Bad Guy, or suggest that the separation between hero and villain is that one of them wants to catch the killer, and the wider issues are equally troublesome for both sides. Taking all bets.
  • We’ve moved from general scene-setting to something more pointed in Kreizler’s background cases: the woman who drowned her children, the teen who tortures animals, the dominatrix who was on her way to becoming someone dangerous until she was able to find an outlet.
  • Sara’s been around some very pointed incidental pastimes, but “put him in the bathtub to see if he could swim” still works.
  • Given the precinct’s too-narrow, warren of rooms, and lack of egress, Connor’s ability to inhabit the station—crowd Sara, gather support from other cops—is almost vampiric.
  • Marcus, you brought the whole fingerprinting angle into this! Why are you picking things up with your bare hands?
  • The scene at the dentist was so interesting; this show keeps feeling like it wants to have more fun than it’s having, and moments like this really highlight how surreal comedy could be working in its favor.
  • You know what else Josef Altin was in? Harlots. (Though, to be fair, he never got to flash silver teeth with a cash-register sound effect in Harlots, so.)

Share This Story

Get our `newsletter`