by Sandy DeVito
The final three episodes of The Alienist will no doubt be largely devoted to the killer, a man we have only seen from the back and one whom John cannot even seem to draw with direction from Stevie, the only one from our group of misfits who has looked at his face. I'd also assume this knowing where we are chronologically compared to the novel; I can't possibly divorce the source material from the show as I've probably demonstrated already. Last week's episode was the only one that I was sort of actively disgruntled with; this week is a marked improvement, though it's still not trying to tie up everything that bothered me in Ascension yet.
Among the stronger moments here is the inclusion of a great scene from the novel, wherein John and Laszlo are kidnapped and deposited on the doorstep of J.P. Morgan, who represents the larger forces at work in American society that have always done their best to prevent ordinary citizens from finding a means to justice; as Kreizler says to John after refusing financial help from Morgan: "You don't take something from people like that without them expecting something in return...I don't know [what he might want], but I'm most unwilling to find out." There are two other scenes I loved that do not exist in the book; one between Kreizler and Cyrus' niece, wherein she chastises him for her uncle's injury and actively questions his own inclination to keep Cyrus, a man of color, in servitude; and the other wherein Sara visits a mental hospital in search of records that might belong to the killer. A woman strapped to a chair begs her for help; "I'm not crazy," she insists. Distressingly, it was not uncommon for young women to be forcefully admitted to asylums around this period in American history; any history on lunatic asylums from the time serves as chilling example of the misogyny that has poisoned civilization at every stage. I appreciate the showrunner's continued effort to expound on the themes of otherness, what effects or dictates mental health, the ill effects of the patriarchal insistence on conformity, and emotional violence in all its forms.
Regarding my annoyance with the previous episode, at least we get a moment where Sara all but confesses to John that Kreizler slapped her. She is noticeably shaken and John is livid. However, when he confronts Kreizler, Laszlo brushes him off. The show seems intent on making Kreizler pricklier than he is on the page; this seems to be an objective of the writing rather than something Bruhl is actively trying to imbue into the character. In the opening scene, when the killer's latest victim is lying on an autopsy table and Kreizler is alone with it, he stabs a scalpel slowly into the torso flesh of the corpse, as if to see what it feels like; as if to experiment with his own mental state, see if he feels as if he would be capable of such an act. Immediately, he quietly apologizes, in German, to the corpse. The moment has a comical morbidity to it; we are repulsed by Kreizler's inclination to do this, but in honesty, know that we have all wondered what it would feel like to stab someone. It's human nature to hypothesize about our own inclinations to act violently. At least, it always has been for me. Kreizler only wants to be clinical and removed, utterly professional and untouched by his work. He isn't any of these things in his heart of hearts. The real Kreizler is prone to anger and deep melancholy, self-pity, a contemptuous ego, and an inclination to isolate himself when he feels vulnerable.
This is the reason the final scene between Kreizler and Mary is so cathartic to him and to us; we are aware of his shortcomings all too well by this point, for he has exercised them on everyone who has tried to be close to him. Mary is the only person who can truly disarm him. It's an exceedingly healing and tender moment; I particularly appreciated the subtlety of Mary's hands caressing Laszlo's beard, a physical shield that represents the mental and emotional shields he places around himself. The key to being better is opening yourself emotionally to others; through loving someone else, one always becomes better. Love is true empathy, the ability to subvert your own emotions in favor of the emotions of another. It's only through finally realizing how much he loves her and needs her that Kreizler can become a better, kinder person - and only through his own self-mastery will he ever find this killer.
Episode 8: Psychopathia Sexualis
As expected, episode 8 delves deeply into the final third of the novel, albeit with more emphasis on the two women who are central to the Alienist narrative, Sara and Mary. As with previous episodes, the showrunners clearly considered it a personal duty to give them more to do, or at least, more to do that we are privy to. In the novel, while Kreizler and Moore go to Washington to talk to Adam Dury, the Isaacsons go their own way and Sara goes. In the novel, we don't get to spend any time with her during this venture; it's narrated by John Moore, so we spend the novel more or less following him around. In the show, however, we have free reign with all our characters, depending on where the showrunners choose to direct us, and I was glad they chose to give us some time with Sara here, especially after deciding Kreizler needed to slap her in her face for reasons that still remain unclear to me. In a scene created for the show, she meets a frontierswoman who also has had to fight for her place in a world built for men; as far as I'm concerned, any scene that features one more woman is a scene I can get behind. It gives Sara a rare moment of vulnerability and comfort that she seldom has been able to experience, spending so much time with men, albeit men who believe in her abilities.
On the other hand, being able to spend time with the women in the story more specifically than the source material has its downside here, too, or rather, its upsetting side. I had a strong feeling from the pacing that this would be the episode where Mary is murdered; I was right about that. In the novel, of course, we are told after the fact about what transpired at Kreizler's house while he was in Washington, and on the eve of his return, hoping finally for the joy he has been without with Mary, who he has finally admitted his feelings to; on the screen, it's far more devastating to see her wide-eyed corpse ourselves. In terms of narrative, I understand Mary needing to be a catalyst for Kreizler's coming despair, one that causes him to withdraw from the group and the investigation; when she's been played so brilliantly by Q'orianka Kilcher, a woman of color, it's much harder to stomach her death in the show's iteration. As much as I know death is an inevitable part of life and also of storytelling, seeing a woman of color die at the hand of a white man is never something I will become used to, and I don't think I ever should. It's a difficult scene to watch, and I am so sad to see her go.
Otherwise, we see the pictures of mutilated men from the west, and it's emphasized that Indians would not kill the way the murderer rends his victims, a point in the novel that is better expounded on here to a certain extent, regarding the prejudices and misinformation of the time and the psychological nature of a sociopath versus a cultural, ritual killing. One of the most important and lasting aspects of the story, to me, is the way that sexual violence can cause deep and abiding trauma; we hear from Dury that his brother was assaulted when he was young, and it's a stroke of realization in Kreizler, Moore and us that the mind of one who has been traumatized is forever altered, slashed with agonizing pain. Sexual assault is inherent violence, and violence is inherently built on the idea of exerting power over another; power is the desire for control over one's own destiny. And so, though our players have not yet met the man face to face, they now know him intimately; his pain is his motive.