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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Alienist gets personal (and it pays off)

Illustration for article titled The Alienist gets personal (and it pays off)
Image: Kata Vermes (TNT)
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“There are two reasons a man does what he does. The good reason, and the real reason.”


Given how many of The Alienist’s most interesting moments have been the surreal effect of its disconnects—within the dialogue, between characters whose actors are pitching two different levels of self-awareness, between theme and execution, between Sean Young and the dog she looks to for legal advice— it’s very interesting to see the show center an entire episode on relationships, power games, and shows of force (not mutually exclusive), and have it come together so well.

This is an episode in which subtext is driving the action, and connections are made without exposition. It’s the kind of episode in which a character we’ve barely seen before can deliver a line like, “You are fighting a monster, one that reaches from Millionaires’ Mile all the way to Mulberry Street, and if you’re not careful, it will devour you long before you find your child killer,” and the episode sufficiently bears it out.

Naturally, the bulk of the work is in building little frustrations between the main characters. But we still get telling glimpses at the edges of these fights. Mr. Kelly and Mr. Morgan have very different kinds of power they wield exactly the same way; Byrnes and Connor’s pretense of brotherhood melts instantly under a shared threat; the sweet shop owner ignores John Moore’s kidnapper because if the guy isn’t already police, he’s paid the police enough that calling for help wouldn’t matter.

Some beats in “Many Sainted Men” make you wish the story had trusted itself a little more at the beginning. When Sara flatly requests, “Please don’t look at me like that. Or each other,” we understand more of her loneliness and exhaustion at proving herself than we did from all her quips in the opening episodes. And there’s enough time spent on Dakota Fanning’s reactions to the gauntlet of shackled women in the asylum that the subsequent exposition vibrates with the bone-deep horror of being in an office with a man who could do that to anyone (even her). For once, her seeking out John’s company makes sense; the worst he’s done is patronize her.

Plus, it’s not like she can go to Kreizler.

After having some concerns about how the slap from last episode would be addressed, I’m fairly happy with this fallout. Sara determined to keep investigating but antsy about facing him; John the white knight; and Kreizler, finally earning that freefall he telegraphed in the pilot.


It comes in from all sides. Kreizler and John Moore snap at each other via Stevie in a return to that off-and-on tension; John now has skills and opinions beyond what the Doctor may have wanted, and that friction is used well. (It’s an interesting contrast to how they are in public—that unified front at all costs in the face of police, or Mr. Kelly, or Mr. Morgan.) Kreizler tries a number of small things to recalibrate the unease he can’t bring himself to face head-on, and nearly all of which are shows of force: stabbing the body, a moment at the piano in which he’s the object of his own violence, insulting John where he knows John’s weakest. He’s looking for control anywhere he can get it, and for the first time we’re getting a sense of the problem.

But probably the most significant arc this episode is Kreizler being repeatedly confronted by, and about, women. The way he handles John’s confrontation about Sara is the most overtly terrible—he’s so unrepentant that it fractures the men’s friendship (again). But that ugliness is honest for a man who’s a little overdue for a reckoning. It’s a less genteel version of his meeting with Cyrus’ niece, with whom he’s patronizing (something she expertly, wearily rebuffs: “Miss Joanna would make you Mr. Laszlo,” she offers with a strained smile), and is vaguely offended that she would suggest he’s taking Cyrus for granted. Still, her words affect him; he ends up thanking, excusing, and finally apologizing to Cyrus and Stevie for taking them for granted—in reference to the case, of course.


And still, none of that prepares you for the obliviousness of Kreizler suggesting Mary move out: “You’re a woman now, and capable of living by yourself” he says, somehow managing to be patronizing and creepy on multiple levels in only ten words. It’s a moment he never quite recovers from; he’s been made too freshly aware of the power he wields and how easy it is to abuse to set that knowledge aside entirely just because he finally has what he wants.

It would be even more fraught than it is if not for Q’orianka Kilcher. It’s striking how much Kilcher manages with the sliver of screen time she’s given. She has to bring so much to bear to keep this moment feeling like the culmination of yearning, and not the culmination of a power game on his part; it could feel so easily like his conquest, but the slide of her fingers between his fingers at the dinner table (and how she watches their joined hands) is staggeringly intimate and suggests years of her own yearning in four seconds.


She and Daniel Bruhl both walk a very fine line here, very well. The show has been reluctant to touch on this relationship too much, partially because the grateful-servant trope so easily falls apart and the power dynamics of this relationship are fraught enough as it is. It’s for the best that this moment is equal parts tender and uneasy. Until now the show’s focus has been pulled in one direction or another as the murders (and the book’s set pieces) dictate, and things have fallen through the cracks. But this episode does such a good job of suggesting turmoil under every surface that the Kreizler who stands up to kiss Mary is the same one who slapped Sara and gently stabbed the corpse of a child. For Mary, this is a triumph, and we know he cares for her for good reason; we worry that we know his real reason, and it’s maybe the best beat of suspense The Alienist has given us yet.

Stray observations

  • In case you couldn’t tell from the overarching sense of yearning made almost impossible by an out-of-control world in a constant state of decay, John Sayles wrote this episode.
  • I am getting very tired of the lingering close-up of a dead kid’s when it’s just to remind us that TNT can show gore now that it’s trying to be a prestige channel. Exception granted this time, as Kreizler literally stabs this kid in an attempt to find out if it makes him feel any better. (It was so unsettling that, combined with the opening moments of the theme song, I had my first real hit of dread from this show in a long time.)
  • Ted Levine always looks like he’s simultaneously so invested he’s bursting the last remaining blood vessel in his brain, and at some impenetrable ironic remove from the situation. It works better for this show than it has any reason to, and is the perfect pair of competing affects for lines like, “We serve the rich, and in return they raise us above the primordial filth.”
  • A little heavier-handed is Morgan chatting about how New York will “need a compliant workforce,” but given the sorts of things politicians currently say out loud, why not.
  • “I was proud of my people back there. They’d gotten off their knees for once.”
  • You can’t take the weird out of this show. I especially liked Marcus and Lucius Isaacson looking at the correspondence on the table—not as if there’s unexpected volume, but as if they’ve never seen a letter before in their lives and the shape of the paper itself terrifies them.
  • There’s also the patented talking-head close-up in which everyone’s face and shoulders stand alone against a cruel, perfectly art-directed world filled with confusing horrors.
  • I really dig the shot of our main trio lined up watching the autopsy, each in turn trying not to make fists with their hands.
  • This episode was so solid in every way except the obligatory bad take from the novel. And we are so close to the show thinking that the go-West subplot is a gentle critique of Manifest Destiny making statements about how brutality comes from desperation and that borrowing from a culture without knowing the context just perpetuates harmful stereotypes. But I am not sure how there is any way to meaningfully get into the subject from the perspective we’re stuck in.
  • A warm welcome back to Gothic heroine John Moore, compelled to follow bad guys into the world’s most obvious traps.
  • A dynamic we keep coming back to between Kreizler and John, but is better served here than on previous tries: “Our handsome but indolent mutual friend.” “Is that what you think of me?” “No, it’s what Sara thinks of you.”
  • Life hack: In general, when you’d like to have a calm, romantic evening that won’t be inevitably tinged with tragic foreshadowing, don’t play Aida.
  • I’m concerned I’ve had tunnel vision about the dog all this time. Did we know Kreizler had a caged monkey before this? Does it give legal advice?