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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Alienist hopes maybe this time you care about the killer

Illustration for article titled The Alienist hopes maybe this time you care about the killer
Image: Kata Vermes (TNT)
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We are in the penultimate episode of a series advertised as an edgy historical serial-killer story so frenetic only a city like Gilded Age New York could even keep up with it, and in which three people (two prongs of which have known each other for years) find themselves racing to invent criminal profiling as they hunt for a brutal serial killer who forces them to face their own demons. Watching “Reqiuem,” would you know it?


We know adaptation is a tricky business; to make changes is to risk the story. But the novel came out so long ago that several period pieces and serial killers have lapped it. At this point The Alienist’s greatest tension isn’t in its plot; it’s telling the best story out of the story it has to tell. It’s succeeded at this, on and off, particularly when the characters were allowed to breathe. But faithfulness to the plot means the show has had near misses with several opportunities for a more surprising, and maybe more relevant, narrative.

Things it’s touched on: Immigrants so systemically and casually victimized their grievances are heard if they demonstrate en masse. The rich at play in a city where they own the police and avoid any consequences for their actions. Misogyny so stifling it breeds psychosis. Entrepreneur criminals, untouchable so long as the right people make money. Oligarchs dictating governance. Police corruption so systemic that real reform is only possible via tearing it down and starting over. All those are great! Good grace notes for any period piece. In a narrative that clearly wants to point directly at the present, they feel necessary; maybe the problem was that these grace notes were sometimes more interesting than the main plots they served. The center cannot hold, and we’re quickly running out of time to make it interesting.

It doesn’t help that this episode is a bit perfunctory, despite frantic editing and a dozen plot points that can feel like stalling. (We know Cyrus isn’t really going to get revenge on Connor before the inevitable reckoning next episode.) Despite Kreizler grieving on the periphery and the rest of the team closing in on the killer, nothing here really connects. It’s the kind of episode where our heroes race through montages highlight their mounting desperation and the killer’s rising bloodlust, and your first reaction is, “….why does this killer look so much like Fred Andrews?”

And this time out, the most interesting thing is some of the subtext that emerges from the show while it’s almost too busy to notice.

This past is meant to resonate; it’s why we instantly understand the relative contexts when a smug government employee talking about suspect contact between a grown man and a preteen girl smarms, “Personally I never gave much credence to the allegations,” and “I’m sure you appreciate that girls of that age have vivid imaginations.” (There’s even some bonus anti-Semitism, in case you weren’t clear that we should find his views abhorrent.)


But when we meet her, the woman in question is framed as willfully ignorant, even defensive, of the man who sought her out—less like a victim who doesn’t yet have a vocabulary for the uncomfortable dynamic from her childhood, and more like someone who loved the attention, who says her parents made the dreaded False Allegation against some socially-awkward guy who just didn’t know how he came off. This refrain is as familiar as the government man’s smarm; the purpose of it, coming from her and not from someone out ot discredit her, is muddier.

It touches on insidious, prevalent, and often accidental subtext when talking about this sort of grooming. And since we know none of her warm assumptions are true—and we’ve seen almost none of the killer to understand how exactly he reels his victims in—we’re left with a muddle. (The story seems to have stumped itself about all this, as well; Marcus asking “And all these years later, why do you think a grown man would befriend a twelve-year-old girl?” is as close as he’s come to sounding judgmental, but he also seems at a loss.)


And, of course, there’s Sara.

Sara spent significant screen time in the early episodes announcing at length to our heroes that she was a Strong, Independent Woman Of Today and could handle corpses, descriptions of sex, and other unsavories. Things improved as we were shown, and not just told, who she was: her strengths, he faults, her fears. But the show’s initial framework remains—we’re meant to understand she insists on independence at all costs.


Given that Connor has never been more than a caricature of evil snapping at our heroes’ heels, it’s weird how little the team has discussed the danger he poses. Sure, maybe Sara never told the others about Connor’s office harassment (she was already fighting to be taken seriously), but John apparently still hasn’t mentioned to the others that Connor lured him into an alley to beat him up, which seems like it would be relevant. However, there’s no hiding that Connor broke into Kreizler’s house and murdered one of their friends. (And that’s not even mentioning the serial killer who tried to kill John recently; the reason, presumably, they’re investigating in a group.) So, if there’s a reason people on the team are going home alone, that is now a plot point, not a setup for something else, and we need to hear the reasons why.

Since we don’t get any reason, and given Sara’s early speeches, Sara staying behind to lock up alone at night and getting threatened by Connor has some very sketchy subtext. Obviously Connor’s terrible, but we’re also meant to understand this as an inevitable escalation of his earlier harassment, for which she should somehow have been prepared. She should have known, is the subtext. What did she expect if she insisted on walking alone, is the subtext. Of course he was going to find her, is the subtext. It leaves an unpleasant aftertaste; however unintentional that subtext is, the show made space for this scene when it has no effect on the wider story and plenty else is getting skimmed over. We already know Connor’s terrible; this scene is telling us something else, and nothing about it is good.


This show has always been a case study in adaptation, tone, and execution; not for the first time, it’s failing more than it succeeds. Maybe part of the reason the show isn’t as engaging as it should be at this point is that, rather than dread, we have a sense of foregone conclusions. Several aspects of this episode needed something more than what the novel provided. But this is a series for which faithfulness supercedes possibility, and it’s too late to change that now. The bones of this story provided all the necessary architecture to draw an unsettling, compelling line from the past to the present. It has one episode left to get there. Godspeed.

Stray observations

  • The funeral poem is “When I am dead, my dearest,” by Christina Rossetti, which is a lovely poem that inadvertently exposes some weaknesses of characterization. Is that a sentiment Mary would have enjoyed? Is that a sentiment Kreizler felt and asked John to read? Did John take it on himself? I’d guess the latter, if you pressed me, but only because John Moore is Full Gothic Heroine whenever the plot requires. Otherwise, there’s no sense of the personal behind this choice, and it’s very strange to realize that at this point in the show.
  • In the same vein as the victim-blaming stuff from this episode, which is a weird tangle: Does the fact that Mary is canonically an “Indian lass” exist as an intentional point of conversation within a story in which Native Americans are positioned as inspiring our killer’s atrocities with their own? (We have now seen much more Native American miscellany than anything relating to his father; our prevailing image of his backstory is definitively one and not the other.)
  • ASMR Grief Counselor Roosevelt is my least favorite one.
  • Emboldened American Hero Out To Stop Corruption At All Costs By Making Announcements About It In Front of Old-School Cops in Bars Roosevelt is a close second.
  • Marcus, pointing at the piece of paper where the ADDRESS field appears clearly: “And this over here. Near the top of the page?”
  • Boy, Mary sure did die just to make a man sad, didn’t she? I will never understand how this plot point wasn’t reconsidered in the wake of...everything that’s happened culturally since 1994. (The music when Kreizler was wandering the house was nice; silver linings, I guess.)
  • Surreal beat of the week: Someone told Ted Levine to grab an off-camera extra, drag him into the frame as if into existence, slap his chest, and shove him out again, and he did it. He did it with a completely straight face.