by Sandy DeVito
It's important to consider The Alienist in the context of 2018, and the showrunners here are hyper-aware of its themes in a contemporary mindset. I keep expecting TNT's premiere drama to play out as a more conventional adaptation of the novel (which is wonderful, don't get me wrong), but it's building on Carr's world with subtle, masterful precision. In the scene in this episode where John takes Mary to see a vitascope projection, a lovely scene in the book, the context is given new layers when we see the tumultuous world outside Mary's usual controlled environment inside Kreizler's household; suffragettes campaign for voting rights, and we witness the frenzied reactions of spectators to the new invention. Likewise, we are given a rich new scene where we get to see the meeting between Kreizler and Sara that prompts the outing between John and Mary, a scene we are excluded from in the book; in it, Kreizler deftly asks Sara if it would be possible for her to empathize with someone who had murdered. Sara immediately balks at the idea, but Kreizler proceeds to tell her about a woman they see across the path, who was convicted of killing her two young children but acquitted as she was from a wealthy family. She now brings an empty perambulator to the park every day, and sits with it quietly. The ills that society wreaks up on the human mind, Kreizler points out, can push anyone to madness and violence; and women are given darkly heavy burdens.
"...the expectations our society bestows on women: to marry, to have children, to smile when you feel incapable of smiling...I believe we all possess the raw material required to commit horrible acts; we just need the right or wrong combination of events to make the raw material combustible."
We want to believe we are incapable of committing unspeakable acts, but Kreizler knows that to look within means to confront the horrors we may not even have been aware existed; something Kreizler himself has difficulty doing. Inward trauma breeds outward violence. The show continues to expound on these themes with a nuance that is breathtaking.
Bruhl continues to craft Kreizler into a manic tangle of hidden raw nerves and complexities; if he continues in this masterful vein, and I have no reason to see why he would not, he's creating one of the most nuanced on-screen characters in recent memory. We continue to witness Kreizler's penchant for demanding objective truth from others, but never from himself. He believes his profession ostracizes him from self-truth, when in reality, his self-actualization will be imperative to his finding the killer. It is the missing link in the chain, the remaining piece of the puzzle that will set them on the right path. We repeatedly see Kreizler's mounting inner turmoil in this episode; with the boy patient and the ball, when John returns from his outing with Mary and when Kreizler timidly and tenderly touches Mary's belongings. Teddy's story to Sara about Kreizler attempting to fight him at college illuminates the depths to which Kreizler's pride goes; he cannot accept his personal weaknesses, rather, he would wish them nonexistent. His objective obsession with the human mind stunts his ability to introspect. He will learn subjectivity; the price he will have to pay to learn, however, may be great.
There is a particularly great moment in the behind the scenes feature for this episode where they're speaking with Q'orianka Kilcher, who plays Mary; she mentions that though Mary is clearly insecure and jealous of the relationship between Sara and Kreizler, it's not the kind of jealousy that would normally exist between romantic rivals, rather, Mary's sadness and hurt comes from the fact that clearly much of the blooming relationship between Sara and Laszlo comes from their shared intellectualism. Mary, however, being mute, will never be able to have the kind of complex, nuanced verbal intimacy that they can share. The idea of this, though, clearly present in the novel, suddenly bombarded me with its deep melancholy. As a woman of color of low station with a handicap, Mary's world is a limited one in her time period - and these burdens are heavy. Kreizler owes it to her to show himself, vulnerable and devoted, to the connection they both feel so deeply but as of yet have not expressed to one another.
On a personal note, watching this show is fucking intense for me because I'm so sexually attracted to about 90% of the cast. Normally you watch a show and, let's say, you're particularly attracted to one or two characters; but from Kreizler and John Moore to Sara Howard and Mary and the Isaacson brothers and Roosevelt, this experience is a roller coaster of ardent, potent chemistry. Over the past couple years I've come into a realization about my own bisexuality, for instance, and this is one of those experiences for me that's reinforcing the measurement of my own sexual interests in me. Yes, I am super attracted to men. Yes, I am also sometimes attracted to women. Yes, intellectual conversation is a definite turn-on for me. So is meticulously crafted period dress. So is intrigue. This is the perfect concoction of extreme horniness for me. I just needed to get that out of my system.
There are lots of other nuanced moments here; we see John's deep compassion in particular in this episode, between taking Mary out or befriending Joseph, one of the young male prostitutes. We didn't get as many moments with Sara in this episode as I would have liked, but the moments we do get are layered and important. The scene with the letter is extraordinarily well-crafted here, giving a whole new layer of menace as it's revealed the killer himself brought them together with summonings orchestrated to have been instigated by Kreizler. The letter is the same letter as the one in the novel, which thrilled me, as it's such an integral part of the story, as we'll come to see in time. There are characteristics about the killer they've been changing, but film needs visually arresting plot points and characteristics. Next week is the half-way point in the series (as a limited run covering the source material, 10 episodes is the perfect length) and we're truly getting to the meat of the story. It's sensational to see it all done with such marvelous precision.