“Look at your bird again.”
The Alienist is trying to do interesting things. You can see it doing all the necessary work: setting beats up, moving through them, trying to call back to them. It’s what literally every TV show tries to do. It’s just that the goal is to have people see the show, not the work. The Alienist is just good enough that we understand when it’s working, and just messy enough that we can feel it slipping out of gear like a bicycle between one moment and the next.
When everything’s working, you have a well-appointed show about a bunch of men in varying stages of disaster and an almost tediously steely woman who are inventing criminal profiling as they go along, in a city that threatens to swallow any of them up at a moment’s notice. This is the version of The Alienist where the specifics of crime-solving are up for grabs; Dr. Kreizler’s condescension toward the “professional graphologist” is matched only by the condescension he faces himself (“How would God distinguish an alienist from an alchemist or a spiritualist or someone who levitates tables and talks to the dead?”).
This is also the version that’s very deliberately setting up an examination of the ways in which the city’s old-money families own the police and fear no consequences for their actions, and which is—however awkwardly—using contemporary vocabulary of sexual abuse cover-ups to draw lines between past and present. (Willem Van Bergen is merely “a passionate young man” who loves to help the less fortunate; the boy retracted his statement to police because “things were taken the wrong way”.)
When it’s not working, however, it’s almost more interesting.
Competent, unremarkable period pieces are everywhere. Weirdness always carries an edge of excitement. Those are the moments that seem normal at first glance but can get increasingly uncanny to the point where it feels, for thirty seconds or so, as if someone fed two thousand period pieces through a neural network and had it write the scene. Underneath their obligatory banter, Luke Evans and Dakota Fanning seem quietly baffled whenever they’re alone. And by the time Dr. Kreizler and Dr. David Warner reached the “Can you suggest to me, what might I do?” portion of their conversation, I was genuinely on tenterhooks wondering how the scene was going to end. The refrain was a perfectly good one, and the setup for it was also perfectly good (I’m always here for a good molding-bird-specimen reference), but it felt like they were halfway into a conversation that was getting suddenly cut for time—and without any more exposition or context to their relationship or this anecdote to at least pad time between mentions, it couldn’t possibly just expect to end with another round of “Look at your bird.” But it did! It did.
This isn’t an episode-wide phenomenon. It would sort of be incredible if it was—a sudden left from Knick and Mindhunter to Twin Peaks—but actual narrative is fine, too. And some moments in this episode know what they’re doing, and lift quite a bit of weight. Take the scene with Sara Howard and the Isaacson brothers outside the Commissioner’s office, which manages to bring together some characters who haven’t talked much and get a few small, great character beats from them.
We know Sara’s mad at the Doctor (Marcus and Lucius know exactly why), and it’s clear to them—and us—that John Moore would clutch his Edwardian pearls and flat refuse to answer her sexual questions. Sara asking the brothers to explain sex acts makes perfect sense, then, and their game struggle to answer (only for Marcus to realize they need a dumb joke to break the awkwardness) is a nice moment. It’s even paralleled, in some ways, by her dinner scene with Dr. Kreizler, in which he desperately tries to make someone—anyone—like him again, and she happens to be 1) present and 2) the person who currently resents him the most.
But I actually enjoy this show more the weirder it feels. There are so many tight shots in this episode—even at the expense of blocking or scene flow, like a last-second improvisation by the camera team because only Luke Evans knew what to do with his hands—that it makes the entire episode feel strangely unreal, as if our major characters are moving from place to place in a talking-head documentary of their own making. And why not? It doesn’t have quite the spark it needs to be fascinating on the surface; it might as well get weirder and weirder underneath. Let it be increasingly disconnected from what we expect of a narrative. Let this entire show be the Sean Young Looking at a Dog for Legal Advice that I know it can be. Look at your bird again.
- I am very interested in the ways this show is setting up the question of domineering mothers and their effects on their potentially-murderous children, particularly given the ways Mindhunter approached similar dynamics with nuance and let the inherent discomfort of trying to sift narratives through nature v. nurture/cause and effect become part of the narrative. My hope for this show being able to navigate all this with such deftness is...not high.
- At this point, every time I try to write about the ways this show keeps struggling with portraying the crimes without fetishizing them, we get lingering shots of hair ribbons and dancing to build false suspense while the cops go on what we know is a wild goose chase because we’ve seen a procedural before and we’re only on episode 5, and I just quietly mash all the keys on my keyboard flat for a little while.
- Why does “the gilded upbringing of a handsome but indolent member of the leisure class” sound like Dakota Fanning was accidentally reading from the stage directions?
- “Is it a period piece? I’ll take it.” – David Warner, every time.
- If I see one more period procedural where the aggrieved companion-apprentice waits until they’re on the train to ask where they’re going instead of just refusing to board until they get a mission briefing, I don’t know what I’m going to do.
- The scraping-chain sound design in the prison was incredible.
- The show does better when it’s weird, but Daniel Brühl clearly came to deliver an actual performance, so it’s nice when he gets to. His moment of embarrassed horror at realizing he’d been suckered into offering comfort to someone who was making a fool of him was really good.
- The tailoring on Dakota Fanning’s Dracula suit was so nice, and she looked so perfectly out of place and severe in the restaurant (her determined slouching even in these punishingly tight dresses is sort of great), that I’m not going to tell you how long I spent researching to confirm my suspicions about the degree to which black was still a mourning-exclusive color for women in 1896.
- This show just cannot make me care about Roosevelt so long as he’s still naive enough to try to get truth or assistance out of a man who palpably hates him, while calling his Secret Investigator Team into the waiting room so Connor can get a nice long look at them on his way out.
- Another weird touch; any time they try to loop Roosevelt into the main plot, he seems gently startled that he might know people.
- I appreciate that the previouslies included the moment Sean Young looks to her dog for legal advice. That is the high-water mark this show has to reach, and I’m glad it knows that.