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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Alienist steps into its own...and stumbles

(Photo: Turner Networks)
(Photo: Turner Networks)
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“And what is my role to be in all of this?”

I thought a lot about Harry Potter during this episode.

The first two movies were more faithful adaptations than the movies that came later—and less interesting. Faithfulness to the source material was made easier by the fact that the main plots were less complex than the doorstoppers that would come after; it was made harder by the fact that these movies had to introduce so much important stuff, only a little of which it got to pay off in the moment. It required all the surety of putting things in motion, and all the clunkiness of having to explain them at length because the franchise couldn’t yet depend on everyone’s familiarity.


What we got was an earnest, serviceable pair of movies that felt, at times, more like a series of book scenes brought to life than an interpretation that could stand alone. But honestly, what else could they have done? A daring adaptation opens itself up to just as much criticism (look at Patricia Rozema’s Mansfield Park, which, among other things, folded Austen’s own letters and juvenilia into the infamously milquetoast heroine).

It’s the curse of adaptation: to be too faithful and to be too dismissive are equally daunting prospects. Adapting something like The Alienist, where so much rests on background historical detail and thorny gender issues, makes it impossible to be strictly faithful; adapting a book so popular makes it difficult to take too many liberties. And watching “A Fruitful Partnership,” there’s a lot of room to think about the minutiae of adaptation, mapping story over available space, the importance of design and tone as invisible narrators, and serial versus episodic pacing.

Thankfully, with the necessary setup out of the way, the series is settling into something more exciting. The production design feels more inhabited and more compelling; light in particular is a palpable commodity. The camerawork has the immediacy a nosy neighbor: scuttling along the tenement staircases as Connor beats Mr. Santorelli into submission, staring down that narrow hall toward Miss Howard’s claustrophobic office, peering around the Gilded Age grandeur of the opera house and Delmonico’s. (When Sara Howard helps Mary pick up the pieces of a broken teacup in Kreizler’s lavish parlor, the camera swings around almost gleefully to catch both Sara’s oblivious expression and Mary’s watchful one.)

The dialogue is sometimes more serviceable than sparkling (the clunker of the week might be “It was a three story drop, and Gloria didn’t have wings”), but it’s a lot less glaring now that the worst of the introductory exposition is out of the way. And though there are some missed chances, there are plenty of hints of more interesting things to come. Take the dinner in Delmonico’s; it’s less interested in developing team dynamics than it is in driving the investigation, but it’s worth it to let us absorb the idea that fingerprinting was almost supernatural to investigators in 1896.

This episode’s scene-stealers are probably Douglas Smith and Matthew Shear as Marcus and Lucius Isaacson; they get a tender beat of home life, the comic relief of being wide-eyed ingenues in the fanciest restaurant in town, and a knife-shopping scene that’s more enjoyable than anything involving a calf’s eyeball should be. (The show seems to have banked on us liking them; it sends Marcus to a side plot just to hook up with a stranger. Thanks, socialism!)


But honestly, everybody is having a better time now. Dakota Fanning’s wheelhouse is a stern horror in the face of the world’s cruelty, and this episode serves her much better than the first (she gets to stop informing us she’s a Clever, Independent Woman long enough to just be clever and independent). Daniel Bruhl’s Kriezler has already become a steady center. He’s warmer than the stereotypical genius detective, reserved and eccentric without being brittle; a man ahead of his time who would hardly read as eccentric if things around him were less parochial. (The scene with his girl patient in trouble for masturbating isn’t subtle, but it’s painfully accurate–and one of the most direct lines between past and present the show’s had.)

And though he feels as if he’s in a slightly different show than everyone else, Luke Evans is having the time of his life playing John Moore as the most begrudging, resentful case assistant that ever a procedural provided. His over-enunciated eyeroll during “And what is my role to be in all of this?” is matched only by his indignant silence after Kriezler suggests, “Perhaps you’ve already played it.” (Stop being part of this? But then who would clutch all these pearls he just bought?)


It’s so nice to watch the actors settling in that it makes up for the slightly odd pacing of the episode, which exists largely to bookend the big Delmonico’s scene from the book that everyone wanted to see. Atmospherically, the structure’s effective; those bookends in the tenements and slums set off the night of ludicrous luxury in the middle. Narratively, though, there’s something slack. There’s been a lot said about the “ten-hour movie” marketing of limited series, usually about series that are actually very good at structuring a serial story in discrete episodes; “A Fruitful Partnership” feels more like the second hour of a ten-hour movie. (A cliffhanger does not always an ending make.)

I actually wonder how much of this narrative oddness comes from one of the central issues of the adaptation; how to handle the victims (and potential victims) without falling into titillating gore, objectification, or careless categorization. Certainly the point this episode goes off the rails is the moment John sees the pair of boots dangling on the hook and heads into the brothel. I’m just not sure whether that scene itself is the problem, or the symptom of the problem.


It’s always tricky to try to map modern gender discussion over past gender discussion; non-heteronormative folks have always existed, but the framework—terms, community, identities, acceptance—varies so widely depending on the moment and place that there’s no formula for getting it completely right. Though it seems likely not all of the teens working at Shang Draper’s would have identified as transgender, the show has presented Gloria Santorelli as a trans girl, and Sally—the girl John meets in the brothel—similarly. And that’s fine, as far as it goes; these kids being the targets of our serial killer is never going to be less awkward a thing to work around, so presenting them with the maximum amount of internal life and personal agency is the best way to avoid the trap of merely presenting objectified victims. We’ve gotten as far as “being effete and being inclined to a contrary sexual instinct are two distinct things”...

...and that’s about as much work as this episode’s willing to do. The base level of sympathy is clearly higher among our heroes than everyone else, but risks making the characters’ perceptions, but everywhere else, the children in danger from the killer are still caught somewhere between titillation and victimization. The girls at Shang Draper’s are arranged in louche tableaux; the camera repeatedly lingers on performers and workers in a way that’s meant to foreground both their sexuality and their tragedy. By the time Sally’s pouting “You’re not very fun” and calling in backup—and Ellison and Kelly suggest some of the other brothel workers take care of it—there’s a sense that the show is trying to unpack something without knowing what it’s meant to be unpacking. A meta-mystery of adaptation, maybe; certainly it’s the show’s most obvious weakness.


The Alienist is beginning to come into its own. Both the main characters and the setting are beginning to breathe a little; the production design in particular is providing a sense of a story emerging outside just a series of scenes from the book. If they can figure out how to present the kids they’re worried about as people rather than part of the production design, they will have jumped their biggest hurdle. If not...I hope everyone likes the sets, I guess.

Stray observations

  • The “She’s not as strong as she’d like you to believe” / “He’s not as strong as he’d like you to think” parallel is tidy, but otherwise the hints at a relationship between Sara and John so far are some perfunctory business. (I do appreciate that John looks like he’s going to hurl himself down a flight of stairs any time Kriezler brings it up; of all the pearls he’s clutching, those are the best.)
  • “Perhaps you should measure her skull to see how it affected her.” This story occupies a fascinating moment in terms of criminal and psychological study that this is only half a joke.
  • There’s been so much other stuff to get through that the whispered “What’s wrong with your mouth?” is the first moment of real dread we’ve had, but it’s an effective one.
  • Amazing opera backdrop and costuming; couldn’t have picked a better image to set up a night of boggling plenty.
  • Cyrus and Stevie get a moment to bond outside their plot utility, which is nice even if they are stuck outside (and Stevie never actually cleans his hands).
  • Hey, get the point of Moore’s commissioned portrait? The joke is that she’s overweight and that women are vain! Get it?
  • Burning gases out of the corpses was a lovely beat to open with—the sort of otherworldly effect the book liked to talk about, that only the past can provide. (Any sufficiently antiquated science is indistinguishable from magic.)