by Sandy DeVito
At its core, The Alienist isn't about finding a serial killer; it's about attempting to understand what makes people the way they are. In the third episode, we begin to be privy to some of the details of how Mary and Cyrus came to work in Kreizler's household, for instance. It's an important reminder of Kreizler's profession; his work is helping those with "a disease of the mind", oftentimes, helping those who have been forced into a violent mental state due to the trauma inflicted on them by society. We learn that both Cyrus and Mary have murdered someone in the past, Cyrus, a man who was assaulting a woman, Mary her father; but the narrative does not yet let us know why. The importance, here, comes in realizing we don't have all the information; we cannot yet judge these actions until we do. In that lies the nature of our story.
To a somewhat less morbid extent, we also realize in this episode (if we didn't realize before, though those clues have been in the previous two episodes) that there is an intricate network of intimate emotions buzzing between our three protagonists. We begin to see that the relationship between Kreizler and Mary goes beyond their professional attachments - when Mary appears at their new headquarters after a second murder is discovered the night before, Kreizler immediately reacts in anger; anger that is, perhaps, panic, and deep concern disguised as another emotion in an attempt to hide his feelings and protect her from danger. In this moment, Sara sees the truth - she mentions this later to John in the hansom. Kreizler's profession demands he remove his emotions from a situation in order to see it objectively, but he too is vulnerable to human foibles. It remains to be seen how his own fears and cares will affect the investigation.
John was engaged in the past, though somehow the engagement came to a scandalous end; we are starting to see that that scandal took a real toll on him, and his drinking may be worse than we originally assumed. It's clearer than ever that he still feels intense emotional attraction towards Sara as well (though she clearly is not convinced she feels anything for him in return beyond friendship). Sara's emotions for her two comrades in Kreizler and Moore are perhaps the most complex of all. I see a lot of myself in Sara, especially at Dakota Fanning's behest, drawn to a man like Kreizler out of intense respect for his intellectual capability, yet frustrated by his buried self-awareness and tendency to react to vulnerability by lashing out at those around him, as we see at the headquarters after he orders Mary to leave. He turns his fear on John and Sara, demanding they divulge intimate details of their trauma without divulging any of his own, which will remain a barrier in their effort to find the killer. Sara also feels a duty to her work, work that hasn't been afforded to her gender before, work towards which she feels passion, obligation, and determination. There's a scene where she has to go to a party, surrounded by women performing more traditionally feminine roles in their personal lives; she quips to her friend that they are the only "old maids" left, but her friend reveals she is engaged. We get the impression that Sara doesn't really want to be married, but she's realizing she is not immune to feeling drawn to the men in her life, either. She's just not sure what to do about it yet.
In order to find this killer, the need in our protagonists to find kindred spirits with whom they can share their darkest secrets is intense. But they are still learning to trust each other - and we, the audience, are being given small clues which we must weave into the tapestry of their natures. I love how wonderfully the show is expounding on the themes of Caleb Carr's novel; wherein he gives us those clues about Kreizler, John, and Sara, in the show we get to see those emotional intricacies. Bruhl's Kriezler, in particular, is a mastery of extremely subtle emotional cues - as in the scene where Kreizler exhibits frustration trying to remove his soiled shirt, struggling with the use of his handicapped arm, changing to embarrassment and vulnerability as Mary enters, a man who seems so self-possessed suddenly reduced to a tangle of intensely personal emotions. It's some masterful work from Bruhl, and it makes us love Kreizler fiercely. We see he is human after all.