REVIEW: The Alienist, S1 Ep1 – The Boy on the Bridge

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This week, TNT debuted their new historical drama The Alienist, a 10-part limited series based on the bestselling novel by Caleb Carr. In some ways it feels like a later iteration of Copper, the short-lived series that precedes the setting of The Alienist by 30+ years. There are shades of the same themes: a police department rife with Irishmen, widespread corruption, child prostitution, and New York’s dark and murderous underbelly in contrast to the well-appointed rooms of its society citizens.

At its best, The Alienist is atmospheric, drawing its audience in with an immersive view of New York City in 1896. Snow-laden streets where horse-drawn carriages clop along, drab brick buildings under a hazy sky, a city evolving at a rapid pace. Men in three-piece suits with impressive facial hair, women in fashionable hats and gowns with ridiculous sleeves, edging closer to the turn of the century. The cinematography accompanies the meticulous detail to recreating the time period well, and becomes one of the most memorable aspects of the episode. From the overhead view of an officer trudging through a snowy, deserted road at night to the close-ups of a child’s bones laid across a coroner’s table, the shots are composed with a stunning beauty despite the macabre subject matter.

And gruesome it is. The body of a young boy, Giorgio Santorelli, is found brutally murdered and mutilated on the still-under-construction Williamsburg Bridge. Santorelli is revealed to be a child prostitute, his body found wearing a dress. John Moore (Luke Evans), the womanizing illustrator for the New York Times, finds himself pulled away from a high-end brothel to the crime scene at the behest of his friend, the titular “alienist.” He’s unexpectedly squeamish and far from happy about being dragged into this.

It’s there in the blustery shell of the bridge that we first meet Theodore Roosevelt (Brian Geraghty), then commissioner for the New York Police Department. This isn’t the portly Commander-in-Chief we’re all familiar with, though the infamous spectacles do make an appearance in the episode. Roosevelt comes off as your stereotypical no-nonsense lawman, so here’s to hoping that we see some of his genuine personality developed through the course of the series. He’s waist-deep in corruption left to him by his predecessor—complete with some gangsters, who are a bit flimsy in their own characterizations at this point—so he’s got other problems to deal with on top of a new murder case.

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Despite the police department’s best efforts to elbow him out of the case and pin the murder on another suspect, Dr. Laszlo Kreizler (Daniel Brühl) has other ideas. An “alienist,” Kreizler often consults on cases and runs a school for problem children, studying mental illnesses and cultivating methods in forensic psychology. His line of work is met with contempt, which isn’t all that surprising given this time period’s attitudes toward the mentally ill. This becomes especially apparent when Kreizler and Moore visit the notorious Bellevue Hospital, an asylum where criminals and those with mental illness are lumped together, subjected to all kinds of horrific “treatments.” While Kreizler questions the department’s suspect (and determines the man’s innocence in the boy’s murder), he seems to regard him calmly, without fear or prejudice.

The Alienist covers a lot of tough material even in its first episode that would come off as problematic if not handled correctly, but so far the series has treated it with a deft hand. The prostitution of young boys is a focal point in the murder case; when one smarmy police captain calls the Santorelli boy an “it” and a “degenerate,” Commissioner Roosevelt and John Moore defend him vehemently.

As Kreizler starts to see a connection between Santorelli and an earlier murder case of twin children, he often notes the boy’s desire to dress in his sister’s clothing. In every scene where Kreizler speaks about the young boy Benjamin Zweig, who would have probably been considered transgender or gender nonconforming, he treats the boy with respect. He seems like a man above his time, encouraging the mother to let her son give into his “true nature.” There’s no derision or judgement when talking about it, which is unexpected given the time period. Instead, it’s a glimpse into Kreizler’s character and the kind of man he is, beyond his title as an alienist. It’s refreshing to see a detective in a lead role who isn’t obnoxiously arrogant or grating, who has a quieter disposition instead.

Though The Alienist does fall into some police procedural tropes, Miss Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning) isn’t one of them. Her dialogue feels a bit stiff at times, but her presence is a breath of fresh air in the male-dominated cast. The first woman to work within the New York Police Department as a secretary, Howard is drawn into the Santorelli case after her initial reluctance wears off. As it turns out, the Moore and Howard families have a good social standing together, making the two of them childhood friends. There’s a less-than-subtle hint of a romantic past that will undoubtedly present itself sometime in the future. But for now, Howard assists Moore and Kreizler by presenting them with the files needed to hopefully connect the Zweig case to the Santorelli boy.

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In part, Howard’s sneaky move is fueled by the rampant sexism that surrounds her work at the police station. Men make lewd jokes or shoo her out of the room because of her “delicate sensibilities.” Well, Miss Sara Howard isn’t having any of it. She rebuffs the lewd jokes with a jab of her own, listens with an ear to the door that was closed on her, and basically says “screw them” to her maid while she peels off her corset for the night to relax in bed with a cigarette.

Speaking of the restrictive corset, it’s an especially nice touch to linger on the lines embedded into the skin of her back after she’s untied from it. Unlike the other scenes of nude women in the episode (a prostitute in bed with Moore, shown both times naked whereas Moore has the luxury of being fully clothed), it seems less male gaze-y. It feels more like a human moment, a moment to relate her to the audience that’s surprisingly effective.

When the case file turns up no obvious clues to connect the victims, Kreizler adds two new additions to his ragtag crew: the Isaacson brothers, on loan from the coroner’s office. They’re enlisted to take a closer look at the exhumed body of Benjamin Zweig. Like Kreizler, they’ve begun to develop new methods in their field, which has earned the ridicule of their associates, coupled with the simple fact that they’re Jewish. We don’t meet them for very long, but it’ll be interesting to see what exactly they bring to the case. This is an era without the modern advancements afforded to our present day law enforcement and forensic specialists. This also might be one aspect that could set The Alienist apart from other police procedurals, even the ones who skirt the genre of historical fiction. Seeing the invention of methods we’re already familiar with in their primitive stages, to catch a type of killer that they don’t even have a name for at this point in time, will be intriguing if given the right depth and scope it deserves.

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The episode reaches its peak with Kreizler finding a grisly gift in his carriage: the Santorelli boy’s tongue, wrapped in the newspaper where article about the murder appears. We’d seen the killer’s Hannibal Lecter tendencies earlier in the episode, when they were shown frying up organs and feeding some of them to a cat. Kreizler sees a figure hidden under a hat, buried in a coat, but the chase that follows leaves the presumed killer lost to the wind and snow.

At the end of the episode, we almost expect Kreizler to whisper “This is my design,” a la Will Graham in Hannibal, as the camera pushes closer in on his face with dramatic string music to accompany his quiet speech. He realizes (as we see another unlucky young boy being hunted by the killer) that in order to understand this new type of murderer, he’s going to have to “become” him—understand his mind by putting himself in the mind of whoever this is. There are always cold blooded killers out there, Kreizler says, but this one is a different breed altogether, an evil that none of them, especially the New York Police, are prepared for.

Overall, The Alienist’s debut leaves some intriguing threads to pick up the rest of the series against the backdrop of a gorgeously rendered Gilded Age New York. Despite some heavy-handed and stilted dialogue and characters that so far seem a little emotionally hollow, it’s fair to give the series some time to find its footing.