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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The team is scattered, and so is the show, on a telling Alienist

Illustration for article titled The team is scattered, and so is the show, on a telling Alienist
Image: Kata Vermes (TNT)
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“You think we’ll see any buffalo in North Dakota?”

“If they haven’t all been killed.”

“What about Indians?”

“If they haven’t all been killed.”

Marcus Isaacson spends a lot of time behind a camera this episode. He takes a picture of the open landscape that seems so alien after the cacophony of New York; he takes a picture of Sitting Bull’s headstone (to Lucius’ dismay); he takes a picture of Sioux children in the government encampment. It marks him, not just a tourist—Lucius has his number on that in the train car, when he’s asking about buffalo—but as a bystander, with means of observation but no power. In an episode where everyone gathers information they can’t do a thing about, this should feel significant. If it never quite comes to anything...well, for this show, that seems about right.


It has been so interesting to watch The Alienist unfold. It is, I think, past the point of really coming together; we’re on episode 8 and this show is still at a loss to make us care about the killer, those who are killed, or—if we’re being honest—a lot of the side characters. (Esther has a kid, but that won’t stop Marcus from loving her! If you were worried about that, uh, congratulations.)

The show has, at times, struggled to create relationships between the main characters. It has succeeded in its strangeness more than in its grimness, and its camp more than its mystery. It’s full of fascinating passing beats and unwieldy overall themes. It’s a conversation (or, often, an argument) about adaptation you get to have an hour at a time. And after this episode it’s hard to shake the sense that the show has become its own bystander.

It’s hard to pin down a specific disconnect, with the talent behind this series. Serialization can strain pacing, but that’s the burden of many a miniseries that still pulled it off; the show has struggled to illuminate or improve on material that hasn’t aged well, but again, The Alienist is hardly alone in trying to handle an outdated source. And it isn’t that the show lacks for ambition; it’s as lovingly appointed as any of its vaulted interiors, and everyone in it is committed to the task. It’s just that when a TV show is working you don’t have to worry about the moving parts, and The Alienist has never managed to conceal its engines.

Take the meat of this episode, as our team splits up and collects neatly-fitting pieces of backstory on the killer in a series of picturesque locations that touch on the History of Our Nation. Marcus and Lucius Isaacson conduct their interview a stone’s throw from the graves of Native Americans who died trying to keep the press of Manifest Destiny out. John Moore and Kreizler sweep past a series of opulent interiors in Washington DC that are evidence of a nation trying to establish its legitimacy through grandeur, and then a small farm (echoed by Sara Howard’s journey upstate) as evidence of a nation trying to establish its legitimacy through hard work. We see the pieces at work, but there’s a sense of weight missing (particularly with the Isaacsons), and none of it ever quite comes together to create suspense about the killer. Did you think he was bad? Well, he’s worse.

The periphery of all this forthcoming testimony is interesting, given how much of this episode’s periphery involves people either being exposed in a lie or handily burying the lede. The most obvious example of the latter might be the boarding-house assistant who mentions that Beecham fell off the mountain, and then visibly stops the flow of information and waits to be asked if it was an accident before venturing, as if aghast, “An accident? His throat was cut from ear to ear.” (She’s been waiting years for someone to ask about the man that fell from the mountain, probably; she really wanted to make it count.)


But we also have Esther. We have Ignatius Blunt, the imposter at St. Elizabeth’s who still manages to give Kreizler his biggest initial clue. And, of course, there’s Kreizler himself, who gets the double-bill of declaring John will have to “get someone a message” if he dies, and then describing the throes of his love affair without naming the woman in question until John Moore is forced to say something pleasant that’s also specific enough to give him away. Taking all bets on how deliberate that is on Kreizler’s part. (There’s been an element of manipulation to so much of what he does that it’s probably easiest just to assume it and then be pleasantly proven wrong every once in a while.)

It’s these details that keep the episodes watchable, and occasionally interesting, even if the main plot is sort of adrift. But in case it isn’t enough and you need a cliffhanger, they also kill off Mary.


Mary’s been such a highlight that I kept hoping the show would break with the text on this. (That went about as well as the last time I hoped the show would break with the text; it’s possible there’s a miracle around the corner after that lingering close-up of Mary’s vacant eyes, but my guess is that this adaptation doesn’t want to risk any big changes, which also means keeping old mistakes.) Mary’s death is a loss—Q’orianka Kilcher sold a deeply fraught subplot with lightness and nuance. Even in her last moments, when we all know how this ends, she’s a powerful presence. But it’s hard to connect with such a by-the-numbers sacrifice. It’s a loss to us; we don’t yet know if this is a loss to the story.

In the wider sense, it’s likely Mary’s death is meant to be the big gasp that keeps us concerned about what Dr. Kreizler will do now. Maybe that’s what robs it of potential impact in the moment; we’re so used to women dying in the service of men’s plots that all this does is reinforce threadbare conventions. Her death should feel significant. If it never quite comes to anything...well, things are beginning to converge; cases will be solved and enemies confronted. Maybe there’s nothing left for the show to do but take pictures as the story passes by.


Stray observations

  • Sara had her own subplot in this episode, but she exists so often in reaction to the men (or in service of exposition) that it’s hard to get a handle on her sometimes. Her phone call with John was nice enough? She seems weirdly upset that Dr. Kreizler isn’t talking to her given that last episode she didn’t want to have any contact with him at all? It seems odd, given how often she’s understimated by others, that the first thing she did in New Paltz was to be incredulous that her lady host had climbed a mountain? She has a wardrobe of sensible grays and greens and chose white for her foray into the muddy woods? The show is still trying to sell us on the idea that she’s got feelings for Kreizler and perhaps for John when she usually seems like she’d be happy to murder either of them so long as she could still be on the investigating team?
  • I laughed out loud at the shot of Cyrus suspiciously watching Mary practically shoving roses directly up her nostrils out of sheer happiness.
  • Ignatius Blunt is a really solid band name, if you’re looking for one of those.
  • Of all the people forced to deliver slightly awkward dialogue in the service of the one desired line of dialogue, Brian Geraghty’s Roosevelt is consistently the least prepared. All of his awkward lines feel like a personal affront.
  • Then again, he didn’t have to deliver “But that wasn’t the worst of it. He was naked...down there between his legs, he was stiff as a flagpole.”
  • Line that landed better than I would have expected: “Took our fair share of peckers and ears along the way. Boys will be boys.”
  • Mary’s death aside, I’m curious how (or whether) we’ll revisit the doctor’s swoony confession that “there are certain things a man cannot control.”
  • The show has never quite gotten a grip on a lot of its wider themes, but I appreciate the meta of the Isaacson brothers sitting in a train car opposite a pair of Native American guys and looking extremely guilty and uncomfortable.
  • That Fig Newton name-drop was no Love, Simon, but this show is trying its best to create brand synergy across the centuries, and I appreciate that.
  • Sure, this episode may not quite come together, but Luke Evans asks a cow for directions. This show knew I’d be asking about animal familiars for the rest of its tenure, and it delivered.