by Sandy DeVito
This episode features two of my favorite scenes from the novel:
The first is the disagreement between Kreizler and Sara regarding the effect of the killer's parentage on his trauma and subsequent inclination toward violence. Kreizler insists only a father could have instilled violence in the son; Sara feels that there's a strong chance the mother was the perpetrator of the worst violence, emotional most likely, in the killer's life. Though Sara has been accepted into our group of social misfits with relatively open arms, this is an instance where her social standing, even in the eyes of her friends, is diminished and thwarted. Kreizler dismisses her suggestion as impossible, but we know Sara too well to believe she would give up so easily, and she presses the matter. Kreizler explodes with anger, startling her, John, the Isaacsons and the audience; clearly there is something about Kreizler's past he has not shared to make him react so strongly to such a general suggestion. Sara storms out; there's no reason for Kreizler to be so dismissive or cruel, and yet he has been, and Sara is not one to take kindly to those who underestimate her. Once again Laszlo's pride and inability to introspect effectively have hindered the case.
The second is Kreizler and Moore's visit to Sing Sing to speak with Jesse Pomeroy, a notorious child killer with an unnerving facial abnormality, a trait akin to what our friends believe the killer may also have. I found this scene significantly tamer than that in the novel; in it, Moore fights one of the guards after Jesse brandishes a shank at Kreizler, and Jesse is described in rather more grotesque language than the final look the showrunners give Stephen Louis Grush. It's a chilling scene in the source material; here it's used more so as a device to further frustrate Kreizler's way of thinking about the case. Wherein he expects Jesse to confirm his suspicions about trauma rooting in the home among family, Jesse merely taunts him instead. He will have to find answers elsewhere.
The title of the episode comes from a scene created for the episode that does not exist in the source material, where Kreizler goes to see an old professor, Cavanaugh, played by David Warner (he also plays Van Helsing in Penny Dreadful - I am forsworn to mention it every time an actor from Penny Dreadful shows up in something else, sorry, that's the rule), seeking the answer to a question he no doubt is already beginning to realize. They reminisce about a study Cavanaugh assigned Kreizler when he was his teacher; he gave Kreizler a taxidermied starling and asked him to describe it. Again and again Kreizler would come back with the bird, again Cavanaugh would send him away, admonishing him again to "look at your bird." Eventually, the bird began to molt; "it was only then that you stated: I had finally seen my bird." "It wasn't what you learned," Cavanaugh replies, "but how you learned it." Believing that you know the shape of a thing without observing it with an open mind will only lead you down a path you've already tread. "Much to my dismay, theory seems to have replaced pragmatism," Kreizler admonishes wearily to Cavanaugh; Kreizler is beginning to see that his own emphasis on what he's been taught professionally will never truly give him the answers he seeks regarding the human soul. To find those, he will have to search within; and search among that which he has not examined closely enough, if at all.
Dakota Fanning's portrayal of Sara Howard continues to be one of my absolute favorite things about the series. Besides the fact that she's serving some intense looks in this episode (that black velvet with a red collar!!!), she's clearly done being patronized to by Kreizler, and she's not going to let any of the continued advances by Moore distract her. As we know earlier in the novel, Sara was primarily raised by her father, as she tells Kreizler over a whiskey at Delmonico's; he taught her to shoot, to ride, and to drink, as well as to hold her own among men who would underestimate her; "to live without fear of my own convictions." Kreizler owes her a sound apology, for Sara is right about the killer's mother, and he knows it. The tension between them is upped by the intoxicating presences of Bruhl and Fanning, a tempestuous mixture of professional respect, intellectual sparring and a certain attraction that, even if it is never realized, adds to the intensity of their scenes together. I just ask that the show catches up to the novel here, and gives Sara her gun already.
On one hand, I appreciate how the show is trying to push the envelope regarding certain things in the book. It's a very intellectual novel, content to describe and analyze, but film is a visual medium, and the method by which a story is told is inevitably different. Most of the changes the show has made thus far have been done well and are relatively necessary, but the sixth episode is perhaps the portion of the story that has deviated most severely from the source material. I think part of the reason is because in long-form storytelling it's more difficult to maintain a momentum on screen versus on the page. Regardless, this was the only episode so far that was a bit dissonant for me.
There were two moments that I didn't quite fathom the use of in the narrative, neither of which exist in the novel. Since this episode didn't have a behind-the-scenes (which was odd; all of the previous episodes have had one as far as I recall), I didn't get any answers from the showrunners as to why, either. One scene was a moment where Mary is serving Kreizler and he notices she's cut her finger; he proceeds to spit on his fingers and rub at the blood while stating that saliva is a natural coagulant and will help stop the bleeding. I mean, I know what this scene means (sex, everyone, it means sex), but, well, is Kreizler spitting on Mary's finger the best way to symbolize this? Is it meant to show us how awkward and inexperienced he is when it comes to women? The previous scene in the second episode where Mary takes Kreizler's shirt is a much better representation of Kreizler's inexperience and shyness when it comes to his affection for Mary. This scene just didn't do anything for me to elaborate on the tenderness between them. The other scene was as Sara is trying to get information about the nature of the event that caused Kreizler's arm injury, she consistently hounds him until Kreizler (at least, the show's Kreizler) slaps her in the face.
Nowwwww. Kreizler in the novel never lays a hand on a woman. I get that they are trying to establish that Kreizler is deeply upset by Sara's questions, upset to the point that he becomes volatile, but slapping a woman, that is, resorting to violence against a woman, irrevocably changes Kreizler's character in a stark way from his original. I'm not sure what kind of scene may be planned as far as Kreizler apologizing to her, but this scene shocked me. I am certain that despite his flaws, we are absolutely meant to sympathize with Kreizler as a character, in the novel and in the context of the show. But striking a woman in anger is a longstanding act in toxic patriarchy that functions as a blow to a woman's autonomy, her ability to speak and act plainly and honestly. It's always meant as a method of silence and control. Why did the showrunners think a slap from Kreizler here would be necessary? Carr clearly did not think such a slap was necessary. The reasoning is cloudy to me.
All in all, this episode felt like filler, like a step towards the main narrative which no doubt they are going to commit to fully in episode 7 as it's one of the remaining four we have left till the end of the series (it remains to be seen what the showrunners will do after the initial 10-episode run, which I assume is self-contained and meant to cover the material of The Alienist; if they have any plans to adapt the second Kreizler book, The Angel of Darkness, it hasn't been announced yet). Episode 6 felt mostly unnecessary but for Stevie's encounter with the real killer. I'm hoping this episode will be the only misstep of any significance for me for the rest of the show.