REVIEW: The Alienist, S1 Ep6 – Ascension

alienist s1e6 moore kreizler

Although it seemed like last week The Alienist couldn’t possibly get any better, the show manages to knock it out of the park with the latest installment, “Ascension.” The series feels like it’s finally hit its stride, which is kind of a shame given that there’s only four episodes left. “Ascension” is a tightly-plotted and well-paced episode that delivers on all fronts, balancing tension and tender moments with chase scenes and explosive character dynamics. It’s in this episode that a lot of the side characters get to shine and the plot is better for it, as it creates a richer, more complex world where the stakes are painfully high.

On the heels of last week’s misdirection, the team plots an undercover mission to catch the killer on the Feast of the Ascension now that they know he’s following the Christian calendar. Commissioner Roosevelt is still convinced that Willem Van Bergen is their man, but Kreizler holds firm that while Van Bergen is a gross human being, he isn’t the one they’re looking for. To lure in the killer, they employ young Stevie, one of Kreizler’s wards, as their decoy. Roosevelt isn’t thrilled with the idea of sending Stevie, a child, into territory where he’d be used for sex (even though it wouldn’t get to that point), and clearly Stevie is none too happy about it, either. We can’t blame him, especially when he looks so uncomfortable in a corset and makeup, used as bait for a dangerous man.

The team’s plotting leaves both Kreizler and Sara on the sidelines, as Kreizler deems himself a cripple (though the Isaacsons won’t say it outright, Kreizler seems to have little issue using the term) and Sara is labeled the “weaker sex.” Sara looks indignant—which she has every right to be, since she’s been putting up with sexist crap for the past five episodes and she’s one of the most intelligent parts of the team—but brushes it off because they’re under a time crunch. In any case, it gives her and Kreizler some interesting scenes while the Isaacsons, Moore, and Cyrus keep an eye on Stevie.

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While Sara puffs on a cigarette in the confined quarters of Kreizler’s coach, she finally asks him about why he’d labeled himself a cripple. He explains that his withered arm is the result of a congenital defect, malformed and useless. Sara claims she’s never noticed, but given her observant nature—not unlike Kreizler—this might not be entirely true.

Stevie’s undercover mission yields no results, due in part to his terrible acting skills and inability to maintain his cover story. It’s kind of endearing if you don’t think about how messed up the entire situation is, and certainly Stevie’s sense of humor adds much needed levity to the investigation.

None of the team see a figure about to approach Stevie, but we do: a man in a hat and a large overcoat, everything else in shadow. Similar to the figure that Kreizler chased in the beginning of the series when a tongue had been left in his carriage. So, it’s looking like Van Bergen isn’t their guy, just some high society pervert who preys on children. The figure makes a sharp turn once he overhears Stevie telling a friend he’s working for the police, which ruins their whole operation for the night.

Unhappy with the outcome, Kreizler begins to doubt himself and his own theories. Kreizler’s a stubborn perfectionist, so tugging at the frayed ends of his own deductions to unravel the whole thing seems on point. Moore can’t even talk him out of it, because his own frustration stems from a place of concern for the young boys. So when Kreizler walks away in a huff, Sara picks up the pieces, reliable and level-headed as ever. They have nine days until the next Holy Day, the Pentecost, to try and bait the killer again.

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The interim days allow The Alienist to languish in some character development, which really helps to balance the grim murder investigation. Moore enjoys an outing with his grandmother at a gala/auction benefit for children, blissfully sober. Sobriety looks good on him, especially when he finds Sara waiting for him and they share some more flirtatious, playful banter over a typewriter. They have an easy chemistry now, less forced and more natural. You can tell that they’ve known each other for a while, and maybe are reconnecting in a way they haven’t before. Moore is a total softie who respects Sara’s intellect and sharp wit. So, like Van Bergen, maybe her interactions with Kreizler, while on the flirty side, are a misdirection.

Sara approaches Moore with a startling piece of information concerning Kreizler. In a society newspaper clipping from 30 years ago, a young Kreizler held a recital of a piece by Mozart to entertain an audience. The problem? The piece can only be played with two hands. Sara’s astute detective work leaves the two of them jarred by Kreizler’s lie—a lie he’s been telling for some time now, as it’s the only explanation Moore has known. Kreizler’s never been one to divulge much about himself or his life, but why tell such a huge lie? Was he ashamed in some way? Forced to give a false explanation? Abused as a child?

At Kreizler’s home, Mary serves him stew and he notices a bandage on her finger. Unraveling it, he sees she’s cut herself while preparing the meal; not deep enough to need stitches, but still bleeding. He takes her hand in his very gingerly and licks his finger, using saliva on the wound. He explains that it’s a “natural coagulant,” and Mary seems charmed by his affection even if it’s a little weird. (Okay, it’s very weird). This is the same man who’s sniffed her underwear, so Kreizler’s romantic antics are par for the course. He hangs his head a bit once she leaves as if he just knows that his awkward attempts at romance are terrible. In spite of the weirdness, the tender, Pride and Prejudice-esque touch of their hands is sweet and the tension between them is palpable even though Mary doesn’t speak. Q’orianka Kilcher conveys Mary’s quiet longing beautifully through small smiles and yearning glances.

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Meanwhile, at the same gala/auction, Roosevelt makes an appearance with his wife and young daughter Alice. (There was a lot of history nerd fangirling here, as Alice Roosevelt will grow up to be a fascinating, mischievous historical figure). Unfortunately for Roosevelt, his outing isn’t as pleasant as Moore’s. Cornered by J.P. Morgan, he’s warned about the investigation and its consequences for the wealthy elite. Morgan isn’t happy about their alienist questioning members of the church and their connection to the Van Bergens, all of whom helped put Roosevelt in his current position within the police department. When Morgan tells Roosevelt that Van Bergen is being shipped off to Buenos Aires and will no longer be a problem, the commissioner retorts, “What about the children of other cities?” Even as Morgan tries to strong-arm Roosevelt into looking the other way, Roosevelt stands his ground, one built on morality. He won’t put money and power above the lives of innocent children.

The arrival of the night of the Pentecost finds a distraught Willem holed up in a dingy attic room, awaiting his ship for Buenos Aires. But Willem is driven by his awful impulses, drowning himself in alcohol while he slowly goes mad at being kept off the streets. At the same time, the team is in the middle of another stake out; Sara has arranged for Stevie to be placed inside the brothel to lure the killer. Moore and Marcus Isaacson hide among the brothel patrons to keep an eye on Stevie while Lucius Isaacson and Cyrus establish a lookout on the rooftops, leaving Sara and Kreizler in his carriage. Marcus occupies his time by reciting dirty poetry to a kid by the name of Rosie, as Moore takes up conversation with Joseph, the boy he’s pretty much adopted.

Moore and Joseph’s relationship is one of the poignant character dynamics of The Alienist. Joseph lends a face to the nameless group of children forced into prostitution, and therefore shows Moore just how high the stakes are if the killer isn’t caught. Joseph brings out the best in Moore, who earlier in the episode paid for the boy’s egg cream at a soda shop and told him about his job as an illustrator. Moore’s concern is genuine, as he constantly reminds Joseph to keep his window locked, to stay out of the killer’s path. Joseph seems to like Moore—though he called Moore’s job “stupid” earlier on, he asks about it again at the brothel. Moore shows him that there are other possibilities, other ways to make a life in the world that Joseph has never even had the luxury to imagine. (Just adopt this boy for real already, Moore).

alienist s1e6 moore joseph

Fed up with his mother’s plans, Van Bergen makes a run for it. But he doesn’t get very far. Disgraced Captain Connor gets word that Van Bergen is on the city streets and tracks him down, out for blood now that he’s a social pariah. The chase ends on the unfinished bridge where the case began, and if it wasn’t clear that Van Bergen isn’t their killer before, it is now: he’s terrified to be on that bridge. All of his whining about his fancy surname gets him nothing but a bullet between the eyes, because Connor doesn’t care anymore. (Which at least makes Connor a more interesting antagonist).

Away from the action, Sara confronts Kreizler about his lie. She says what we’ve all been thinking: that Kreizler asks everyone to look at themselves but won’t dare to do the same, that he’s a coward who should face the truth. And then he slaps her, because he can’t stand that she’s right. Sara is the voice of his own conscience, his worst fears and all of those demons he’s trying to bury thrown right in his face. If anyone can match wits with Kreizler, it’s Sara. He can’t hide from her keen observations and curiosity.

As the killer sidles up to Stevie to make a move, Moore and Marcus notice Stevie’s signal at the very last moment. Marcus chases after the killer once he’s spooked, and a gunfight erupts—surprise, Marcus Isaacson is a bit of a badass—but the killer escapes, cloaked in darkness. The team is thrown in all directions, from the rooftops around the brothel to the brothel itself, where Stevie has moved into one of the rooms in a last-ditch effort to lure the killer back in. But it isn’t until they’re on the rooftops again that they all realize their plan has failed. The killer got what he came for, and it’s one of the boys who work at the brothel. (And, he managed to knock out Cyrus). An open window is the only evidence left behind.

alienist s1e6 sara kreizler

The Alienist closes the episode with a gruesome bookend to its opening shot, a heartbreaking parallel that really drives home the terrible consequences of the team’s failures. “Ascension” began with a dead horse lying in a street, a child called Rosie reaching out to pet its mane, sadness in their eyes. And “Ascension” ends with Rosie lying at the foot of the Statue of Liberty, the killer’s latest victim.