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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Maybe the real mystery of The Alienist was the show it made along the way

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“Castle In The Sky” ends The Alienist. It would be overstating the case to say it finishes The Alienist. It was going to be a trick to wrap a miniseries that’s always felt like a surplus of disparate pieces that never quite connected. The finale we end up with is not particularly satisfying, but it’s also not a surprise.

The lack of satisfaction has little to do with the killer. He’s always been a cipher. The impression the show made of him is a soup of half-explored gender issues, sexual trauma, parental abuse, and Native American peripherals, so there was likely no clean way to condense that. Better to have the killer refuse to explain; we’ve seen so little of him that his motives wouldn’t have mattered much anyway. He’s a collection of sensationalist possibilities, gone before anyone had to try to reconcile him to us. Given the actual wrap on this—”Somewhere inside I believe he wanted society to know he’s its tormented offspring. A living reminder of all the crimes they commit behind closed doors”—maybe that’s just as well.

Also not a surprise, in true Alienist style, there are several interesting elements in this episode crying out for better architecture. (Metaphorically, obviously; the actual architecture is, as always, a delight.) Part of the reason this series felt disconnected and sometimes stodgy is the source material. Part of the reason seems like things crowding one another out behind the scenes. And this episode feels, in small and sometimes surreal ways, like mandatory resolutions made with scenes from a show that didn’t actually happen in the interim. For The Alienist, its own story was the real mystery all along.


Some small moments resonate. The overhead pan of Kreizler at his table, impeccably set with no one to join him, does a lot. As a character who came to be defined by loneliness, but who spent the first few crucial episodes largely delivering exposition and collecting the team, food handily informed his character. (His presence in restaurants is both a show of wealth and a reminder that he doesn’t like to eat alone.) Here, it hints at his mourning, his frustration about the case, his self-imposed exile from the team that, apparently, he misses.

For me, this show is its most frustrating when it just can’t pay it out its most interesting implications. Somehow it’s easier when something is just flat bad; the paint-by-numbers of John and Sara pretending they like each other whatsoever is numbing, and there’s nothing to be done about it. Connor’s entire presence is tissue-thin, and that’s just how it is. But there’s so much potential around, say, Don Giovanni, that it makes you think about the show that could have been.

The performance itself is perfectly edited as an opera you’re not paying attention to—a series of beautiful, unconnected notes by well-turned-out singers doing bizarre things you’ve lost the context for. And on his way inside, John Moore runs into Jack Astor, who sneers that nobody bothers with the first act (in which Giovanni repeatedly eludes comeuppance). Despite the hamfisted reference to John’s lost fiancee, this introduces some interesting tensions for John among the gilded class we glimpsed earlier in the series, but we’re out of time for such introductions; it’s a conclusion to some subplot we never really got.


The whole series is dotted with these beats. I loved any hint of the vibrant city around them—and the series had some good ones—but that central story often tripped over itself, preventing characters and story from connecting. There’s no particular emotional heft to Kreizler’s return, because there hadn’t been any real heft to his departure; even as everyone raced for the reservoir, there was no sense that, say, Sara might not get there in time.

It’s even more frustrating for moments that feel like they’re building something and then vanish. It’s nice to think that Kreizler half-demanding “Forgive me” is supposed to highlight his selfishness and arrogance, and Sara will be forced to compromise her pride to stay on the team at this crucial moment. But Sara perfunctorily asks for forgiveness herself, less out of any feasible character feeling than the need to hit the next mandatory character beat. It’s enough to suck a lot of the emotional air out of what follows; characterization relies on narrative consequences, and often, when it matters, there just isn’t time.


And we come so close! There are such tantalizing hints of people trying to peer into a vast, incomprehensible, and rapidly-approaching future. When Sara tells John, “We can’t understand him. Neither you nor I nor anyone,” it sounds as if she’s trying to convince herself of the line between understanding and sympathy. When John, moments later, asks her “How can we be civilized when we’ve experienced something like this?”, we come so close to fascinating subtext about trauma, social norms, and the us-against-them mentality they’ve apparently developed, before the plot takes over.

This is a moment that suggests the crushing weight of respectability in a way we’ve rarely seen for our heroes. A woman in the park who crumbled under it, yes; young Van Bergen’s exemption from it, yes. But if it affected our well-to-do trio beyond the occasional gripe, we missed it. Is this veneer of “civilization” newly important for our core trio? How do they rank their Astors and their Kellys in being ‘civilized’? Where does a moment like that belong in the scheme of things as everyone tries to return to normal, talking about the next case and trying to find forgiveness? We got glimpses of the Gilded Age at work with this team; rich men throwing their weight around and the children of poor immigrants at the mercy of everyone else. Respectability is a subtler pressure that could, in itself, still crush our heroes—but even now, we don’t have quite enough grip on the characters for it to matter.


This is an undoubtedly competent production, polished to a high shine with every prestige trapping available and filmed with cinematic sensibility. But its best moments were its strangest ones, and it felt too tied down to make the most of those. (Perhaps the weight of respectability was heaviest behind the scenes.) So the show is in the fascinating but unenviable position of being most interesting in its near misses. With the gloss of confidence everywhere and powerhouse names behind the scenes, The Alienist had every component it needed to impress. But it just couldn’t clear escape velocity of the novel—hidebound enough that the most intriguing things had to slip in around the edges. In the end, The Alienist leaves as it arrived: a collection of components, still waiting for a story.

Stray observations

  • Sure, Sara walking into the precinct break room, asking “Has anyone seen the commissioner?”, and getting no response would have made a fantastic introduction in the first episode. It tells us, brutally and economically, what her work with the police is like, and how hard she has to work against a near-complete lack of respect and create an inertia that would underscore why no one stops Connor from harassing her throughout. By the time John Moore is giving her the Class Reunion Special of well-meaning incredulity, we would have a much stronger base for the tension the show kept asking us to pretend was there. But I suppose it’s never too late to introduce a character for the first time!
  • So, did Byrnes just enjoy the curtain call and then go home?
  • “He knows we’ve been watching the rooftops.” ...have you? The last time you were all on a rooftop feels like a while ago.
  • Grit-teeth medal-awading Roosevelt is my fourth least-favorite one. (As a perennial sucker for narratives in which the engines of the state threaten to consume people’s moral compasses wholesale, this takes some doing, but something about the way this show quietly purified Roosevelt is just too absurd to hang on to.)
  • Lead balloon of the week: “It’s not only love that resides in the heart, John. It’s pain.”
  • I found the ‘apology’ Kreizler gives Sara to be deeply unearned, but I enjoyed the shot of Sara and Kreizler after their mutual confessions of trauma—two small figures amid an overfurnished room, in a thin soup of light. (We see that light again later; it’s the color of loneliness, which feels important to see even when he’s there with Sara.)
  • So, the very specific rape threat in the last episode was just to make sure Sara was justified in shooting Connor, because the previous instances of physical assault and murder wasn’t enough? (Makes you wonder if they were concerned that, without the rape threat, people would think that Sara shot him just because of the constant workplace harassment. Interesting.)
  • So, Joseph made it out alive! Who knew? Now explain to me again why Mary had to die to make Kreizler upset enough to retreat from the field for an episode.
  • John’s declaration of feelings to Sara and their conversation at episode’s end are some of the most perfunctory romance beats imaginable. I wish they’d just let Dakota Fanning lean in to the affect of someone delivering secret codes; the best things about this show were always the strangest ones.
  • And so, we reach the finale of the show in which Sean Young looked at a dog for legal advice, and somehow we pretended other things were ever going to be more interesting than that. Thank you for reading!