by Sandy DeVito
Episode 1: The Boy on the Bridge
I've been anxiously anticipating TNT's new high-profile period thriller The Alienist for about a year now (as anyone who follows me on Twitter knows quite well; I've expounded on my excitement there ad nauseam). I hadn't heard of Caleb Carr's novel before word of the show going into production began to circle, and I took an interest initially because of True Detective showrunner Cary Fukunaga's involvement; then I read the novel, and I was absolutely staggered by it ("how could this book have existed in the world since 1994 without it being a part of my life?", I wondered with exasperation). Now that the show is finally here, Fukunaga's involvement is somewhat diminished in the final product (though he's still attached as a producer), and it's impossible for those of us who weren't intimately involved in the show's production to know what is or is not a product of Fukunaga's influence - nevertheless, I was enthralled by the first episode. Not even months of anticipation, while reading the source material (enough to set anyone's expectations sky-high) could dull the thrill of this introduction for me. I'm in love.
The Alienist is set in New York City in 1896, a time of great social and political upheaval. Our story focuses on three characters primarily, starting with Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, an alienist (today, we call them psychologists), a profession considered taboo in those days (to be frank, psychology as a medical field and mental illness as a handicap is still stigmatized in the present. For this country has never been quite as far from our sordid past as we'd like). Here he is played by Daniel Brühl, an actor I've admired for quite awhile now (and not just because he speaks five languages, or because he grew an impressively perfect beard for the part, though neither of these things hurt); and though I never doubted he would be able to, Bühl embodies the quiet, deceptively calm and contained outward demeanor that is so essential to Laszlo's character, while conveying the stormy depths below with exquisite subtlety. We can see already that Kreizler has secrets he cannot yet share with us - and yet he commands our utmost respect instantaneously. Surrounded by his ragtag crew of patients-turned-loyal-servants is Mary (Q'orianka Kilcher), Cyrus (Robert Wisdom) and Stevie (Matt Lintz), Kreizler is naturally drawn to and protective of the lost ones of society; those shunned or derided by the status quo. In Kreizler's house, they are loved and understood, for he has made it his life's work to empathize with the troubled mind. But in the shadowed depths of The Alienist's meticulously crafted turn-of-the-century New York, it will take all his mental devices to catch a cold-blooded killer who is butchering young male prostitutes and savagely mutilating their bodies. The show opens with this first murder; a boy is found on the unfinished facade of the Williamsburg Bridge, his eyes cut out.
He will be aided in his journey by two key players: John Moore, a charming, disarming, and often disarmed young illustrator for the New York Times (switched out from a journalist as he is in the novel), played to a tee by the roguish Luke Evans, and the incomparable and bold Sara Howard, here embodied with fiery grace by Dakota Fanning, whose introduction is one of the highlights of the pilot episode. I was okay with them introducing Moore in a brothel of his own choosing (in the book, he's awakened in the middle of the night at his grandmother's house, but here, since this is TV, he's disrupted in the middle of an indecorous rendezvous); in the book we learn over time that John is a playboy, beholden to certain vices, despite being, at heart, a good man. In the show, I can appreciate the desire to save time and help us get to know him a little more quickly. We'll have time to see how kind he is later; for indeed, John is kind, and his good nature comes out already in Evans' performance. Howard commands our instant respect and Kreizler's as well; we hear her determined typing before we even lay eyes on her face, and as she reaches out to shake Kreizler's hand, we all, Kreizler included, have fallen a little bit in love, and are a little bit terrified of her at the same time. She's trapped in a hostile society for an independent woman, yet determined to rise in the ranks as the first female employee of the New York Police Department. I can't wait for her to whip out her guns in a forthcoming episode (she has two). In the episode overview that follows the pilot, one of the showrunners describes her as being "as arrogant as Kreizler"; we see she is a force to be reckoned with.
As the episode went on, I began to warm to Brian Geraghty's Teddy Roosevelt, far more reserved than the Roosevelt many of us have come to imagine from the annals of presidential history, and though we have not yet been given much time with them, I like Douglas Smith and Matthew Shear as the Isaacson brothers; in the novel, their professionalism as early forensic detectives is ever-present, and that was impressed upon me here as well. One of the most striking things about the series thus far, judging from this opening, is an interest in gothic imagery and lighting, from the glow of snow-lit street lamps to the somber grays of a cemetery, the stark black of Kreizler and Moore's tailored coats and jackets, the meticulous details of Kreizler's study and Institute, the voluminous sleeves of Sara's dresses and the painful stripes on her torso from the tightness of her corset. The devil is in the details, the story is already whispering to us; pay attention. Don't let yourself be lulled by words, we are just getting to know these characters, we are just finding our footing. It is human nature to deceive, even accidentally. The Alienist is about the monstrousness that lies latent in us all, but to see it come to life so carefully highlights the deep beauty and horror of the source material.
I don't think anyone who hasn't read the book is quite prepared for the wonderful, harrowing tale that awaits them in The Alienist; myself, I'm just pleased as punch to be along for the ride I know is coming, particularly because I'm so happy with the cast for the central trio, and because the mood of the tale, which is so imperative to this story, is being so lovingly given life on screen after such a long wait for so many. As a limited series of 10 episodes, I think they've chosen the perfect length for this particular story to play out and to be given justice. This is gorgeous, sensuous, meticulously emotional visual and intellectual storytelling.
Episode 2: A Fruitful Partnership
As I've read the novel, I'm starting to appreciate immensely the showrunners' clear effort to not only convey the progressive ideologies of the book to the screen, but also expound on those ideologies in ways that are resonant for an audience in 2018. Dare I say, this is the perfect time for a show like The Alienist, which is about a political and social climate rife with the tectonic shifts of a new world order. As it was then, so it is now: socialism, sexuality, race, class, the intricacies of human emotion, the long-standing triggers of trauma. Not only is the show intent in touching on all of these as the original story is, it's being done with a particularly delicate attention to detail; from the interior of the Jewish Isaacson brothers' dynamic with their ailing mother, to the throes of early unionization, to the further examination of the context of sexual preference versus sexual identity or sex work, or the exploration of the immigrant experience from generation to generation with the Santorelli's, the narrative is being enriched in every instance. It's more than I hoped for.
Our gang in Delmonico's for the first time was a scene I particularly enjoyed as it's one I loved from the book; the first instance we have for our group of social misfits to come together, unified in their mutual desire to solve a terrible mystery, but aided by the exhilaration of early forensic science (the Isaacson's expound on their examination of the bones of the Zweig children, and bring up the earliest incarnation of dactyloscopy). Another aspect from the book I love is the mystery of the hinted attractions between Laszlo, John, Sara, and Mary. The running theme of the intricacies and inexplicabilities of human behavior also apply to the strangeness of attraction, and nothing is ever quite so obvious as we think it may be in matters of the heart and the, ahem, nether regions. John cares for Sara; Sara admires Kreizler's work; Kreizler is intrigued by Sara and immediately confident in her capabilities; and clearly, Mary's loyalty for Kreizler goes beyond gratitude. I'm looking forward to the show expounding on Kreizler's household; Mary, Cyrus, and Stevie are three of my favorite characters in the book, and I can't wait for everyone to get to know the particulars of their relationships with Kreizler. They are each fascinating in their own spheres, but they also expound on what kind of person Kreizler is at heart - their fierce loyalty to him proof most of all.
I appreciated the cliffhanger of this episode (the chapter in the novel wherein the scene occurs ends on the same cliffhanger), and I continue to be utterly enamored of Bruhl, Evans, and Fanning as the central trio (on a personal note, they are a bisexual's dream); they are everything I could have hoped for and infinitely more. The attention to detail continues and I am utterly won over by Shear and Smith, and (it must have been those tiny pince-nez spectacles that did me in) far more impressed with Brian Geraghty's Roosevelt. I was utterly devastated when this episode ended; I felt completely immersed in this world, even more so than the first time around.