When it comes to The Alienist, weirder is better. You can see when it really comes alive, and none of it is in the numerous serious discussions about murder; look no further than “That’s a fine armadillo you have” for where this show’s heart lies.
However, that isn’t the priority of “Ascension,” which is the most deliberately genre outing so far. It has the outline of a procedural sting episode, period-drama beats so intense they swing toward high camp, and some old-fashioned horror-flick framing. Also, murder (time permitting).
The season has found something of a foothold in recent episodes—particularly as it moved away from its...complicated approach to gender issues in its serial-killer plot and focused more on the detectives and the world around them than the murders they were detecting. This episode, which jumped with both feet into the underworld sex trade again, had its work cut out for it. All things considered, it did well enough, perhaps because it doesn’t dwell on the tricky material for long. But without much strangeness to go around, this episode also loses some of the edge that last episode hinted at; it gets to host the murder of the red herring, and otherwise is just at play in the fields of genre. (Any genre! The Alienist wants them all.)
I admit I was hoping against all existing story logic for a twist on the twist, and that the show had broken with the book and we actually did have our killer in Willem “Don’t You Know Who I Am” Van Bergen. And not just because the closer the show hews to the novel, the more delicate issues they’ll have to wade through, and that has...not gone well so far. Josef Altin’s stagey weirdness suggested the possibility the show was throwing any expectations about the second half of the season out the window for a fearlessly weird take on the super-rich at play in a city they built on the backs of its people. Now we’re back to hunting for a mysterious killer, and I’ll just have to live in hope that Sean Young has some other reason to look for advice from her dog.
Because somehow (and perhaps unfortunately), it’s genuinely hard to care for long about the murder plot on this show, especially as things around the main characters get stranger. Things were slightly askew to begin with—watching them invent forensics as they went along felt like glimpses into a series of slightly alternate universes—but the weirder things get, the better the show is. The Alienist just seems more itself when you feel like it’s fucking with you. When it tries to be serious, it runs a bigger risk of being like everything else.
And that outcome isn’t such a terrible thing; it’s just that without that sense of wrongness, we fall back on genre paint-by-number. The sting plot makes sense enough—the story moves forward, even if suddenly putting Stevie in danger feels a little odd. (I’d say this was tied in to the show’s problems with making any of the other kids compelling characters and having to bring in a ringer, but...was Stevie ever compelling either?) We get Sara Howard and Dr. Kreizler sitting in America’s first stakeout sedan. We get Marcus Isaacson, Final Girl, as he stalks the killer (who’s right behind him, naturally) through the bowels of The Slide.
We even get the old “Allow me to tenderly examine your wound” period romance beat between Dr. Kreizler and Mary. (“You’ve cut yourself,” he explains to her helpfully, in one of those moments where the show sails past stating the obvious and into something sort of sublime.) This show’s pressure on itself to avoid melodrama means that the camp aspects sort of ooze in around the edges. For moments like this, it’s perfect.
For moments like the typewriter scene, it’s harder. There’s no way we’re meant to take this seriously as a charge to the sensual atmosphere, but it’s also almost brilliantly unfunny, which leaves it in that space beyond camp where oddness thrives. Luke Evans is gamely trying to turn these moments into a lighthearted battle of the sexes. Dakota Fanning (whose aggressive slouching initially seemed like a character struggling against her bonds but at this point just seems like Millenial Posture) treats every single one of their scenes as if they’re delivering a series of coded messages rather than human dialogue. The two approaches make their moments together almost hypnotic, even if it’s not the way anyone intended.
And there’s no way of avoiding melodrama in moments like the showdown between Sara and Dr. Kreizler, when she whips out her personal detective work about his childhood—she brought Mozart to a stakeout just to get him flustered, Sara is not fucking around—and he reacts with the the sort of camp this show tries so hard, generally, to avoid. (“He slapped her!” I wrote in my notes, complete with the exclamation point, exactly the pearl-clutching I’m sure they intended to evoke.) It’s a jarring moment—both for the characters, and for the show, which even in most unabashedly genre moments tries to be understated in an increasingly losing battle against its own story.
Since it happens in the middle of so much other action, there’s no closure on it whatsoever, and I’m so, so curious how they’ll handle it. At this point in the series, it’s tried so hard to be so many different things that this feels like an accidental litmus test. How will they address it? Will it be a perfunctory acknowledgment amid fifteen other plot points? Will it be a bizarre back-and-forth cutting between the slightly-too-close-ups that have become something of a signature style? Will it be a dry apology surrounded by exposition about starlings and abusive mothers? Will they burst the bonds of sexual repression and get to second base right at the dining table as a weeping Mary watches from the kitchen door and John hurls that armadillo right into the cooking wine? Given this show’s track record, it could be anything. (Also I guess we’ll hunt for the murderer? Whatever.)
- This episode had several background details that connected, for a sense of a living city. The shot of children sleeping on the street fading out to a charity gala for the prevention of cruelty to children was slightly on the nose, but the dead horse paralleled later by street sweepers was a nice touch, and in an episode about chasing a man who’s ghosted them, Marcus having to run through what felt like a city block of disembodied laundry was really effective.
- I am incredibly serious about Sean Young and her dog. If that doesn’t happen, maybe she can just continue to murmur “It won’t be forever” in every possible situation until it becomes the Dune litany of fear for the Gilded Age.
- I assume that Roosevelt getting the “Do not betray your own kind” speech, combined with the Statue of Liberty moment, means the show intends to really dig in to the vulnerable-immigrant aspect of the narrative? (She said hopefully, well aware this could end up like everything else.)
- It is fascinating, probably, somehow, for a show to handle a central thematic concern so awkwardly that you have to actively avoid talking about it in order to enjoy yourself. This outing was less terrible than it could have been (glimmers of personality, even), but I could really go the rest of this season without ever getting another scene of laced-up children flirting sadly with men in order to provide a suitably louche backdrop for all the murdering.
- Despite all the genre elements running free in this episode, this show still comes alive most truly in the beats that are strangest, whether on purpose or otherwise. Watch Mary, whose unhurried choreography and unruffled mien makes it seem, if you squint, like she cut her finger on purpose in the hopes that Dr. Kreizler would slather some of the ol’ personal coagulant on top of it, in a brilliant long con to sexually ruin him, as if he wasn’t the guy who went into her room a few episodes ago to sniff her underwear in a move the show has apparently completely forgotten.
- Related: Please let Q’orianka Kilcher do more. She has done so much with so little; each of her scenes is a great argument to give her more scenes.