REVIEW: The Alienist, S1 Ep7 – Many Sainted Men

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This week The Alienist dialed back the action and suspense in favor of highlighting personal relationships, power dynamics, and the society and politics of the era. While there were new developments in the case, most of the episode focused on outside forces conspiring against the team as Kreizler took a much needed freefall from his privileged throne.

The previous episode firmly established that Willem Van Bergen wasn’t the killer (and he’s somewhere at the bottom of the river, unable to prey on children), but it also left the team at a loss. The body discovered at the feet of Lady Liberty herself is Rosie, the child Marcus Isaacson had befriended while he, Moore, and Stevie were undercover at the brothel. Marcus is visibly upset when the brothers show the rest of the team the young boy’s mutilated body. Rightfully so, because this is one of the more gruesome close-ups of a victim that we’ve had on The Alienist. This time, only one of the boy’s eyes was missing, but the killer also took the child’s heart and scalped him.

An off-handed comment from Roosevelt piques Kreizler’s interest. Roosevelt explains that when he was out West, he saw the same mutilations—the scalping, missing eye, and genitalia—after Native Americans from the Plains massacred white men. Following this new lead, Kreizler sends the Isaacsons and Sara off to find some connection to the West in the patient information they’ve received from institutions. Left alone with the boy’s body, Kreizler proceeds to grab a scalpel and stab the torso in an unnerving scene where one can assume he’s trying to see if it elicits any kind of response in himself. Does he feel remorse? Does it excite him? The flat “I’m sorry,” he says in German afterward doesn’t do much to convince us of anything resembling sincerity.

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Honestly, it’s one of the more disturbing things The Alienist has done, a scene that leaves you feeling so uncomfortable that you’re almost thankful for the eerie theme of the opening credits. And for a man who has a storied history of creepy antics, this one crosses a definite line. If we weren’t sure before that Kreizler’s been diving a little too deep into the case, we are now. (What exactly did he tell the brothers when they saw the fresh stab wound in the boy’s corpse??).

While poring over the correspondence from hospitals and mental asylums, Lucius Isaacson comes across a description from a patient who saw the aftermath of Little Bighorn. Lucius is reluctant to read it aloud with Sara present…even though they were all just previously in the same room with a mutilated corpse. As Lucius reads the firsthand account, they realize it describes similar gruesome body horror.

This could have been handled in such a problematic way, and for a moment it seemed like The Alienist would make their killer Native American. Thankfully, that’s not the case. A visit to the Natural History Museum determines that the mutilations are based in spiritual rituals and beliefs, only committed on those who are considered a threat. Which means that a Native American who would practice something like this would never do so on a child. That makes our killer some white guy who’s performing the most brutal form of cultural appropriation—he might’ve witnessed the rituals as a child, but he doesn’t understand the meaning behind it. And he’s putting his own twisted significance to his killings.

Sara, arguably the most competent of the investigative team when it comes to straightforward detective work, chases a lead to Blackwell Island, a mental institution in the city. It takes a lot of inner strength for Sara to even set foot in that place, let alone be confronted by the blank-eyed stares and suppressed agony of its female patients. Her discomfort is most apparent when she’s confined to an office, questioning the doctor in charge; probably not unlike the doctor who once committed her to one of these places, who committed women in those days for any number of ridiculous “ailments.” Sara shoves aside her fear and unease because she has a job to do. She asks after a patient: Robert Bunzl, a patient at St. Elizabeth’s in Washington who was transferred to this facility. As it turns out, Bunzl was released six years ago, but his files are at St. Elizabeth’s hospital.

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Our very perceptive Sara Howard asks why St. Elizabeth’s receives patients from the West. The doctor reveals a key piece of information: St. Elizabeth’s is actually The Government Hospital for the Insane. They take soldiers and sailors deemed unfit for duty, calling the place “St. Elizabeth’s” as a courtesy because what we now know as PTSD was a taboo subject back in the day. The killer, Sara infers, is likely a soldier.

So, the team gets to chase their true suspect now, as The Alienist enters the final act of the series.

That is, if the team can manage to work together and outside forces don’t continue to disrupt their work.

There was a lot of that this week. Kreizler and Moore get tossed around as riots erupt outside the police station. While the press is concerned about the “immigrant boy left by the Statue of Liberty,” the majority of the rioting is a ploy by gangster Paul Kelly to get his brothels opened up again. He tells Moore and Kreizler this in a carriage ride that’s more sinister than it is charitable, pressuring them to get Roosevelt to listen.

And he isn’t the only one using intimidation tactics to exert his power. There’s an underlying layer of greed and politics at work here that permeates each class in society, all of them pushing and pulling for the best outcome in this case that benefits their own interests. “Many Sainted Men” seems to deftly balance this idea better than most episodes, as Kreizler and Moore find themselves in the crosshairs.

Paul Kelly tells them, “You are fighting a monster, one that reaches from Millionaires’ Mile all the way to Mulberry Street, and if you’re not careful, it will devour you long before you find your child killer.” Not only does it give his character a certain gravitas we haven’t seen before, it describes the endless, unbreakable system of corruption and politics and society and capitalism and poverty as some kind of eldritch cryptid that stalks New York City.

In a similar vein, Chief Byrnes knows his and Connor’s place in all this (more at stake now that Connor tells him Van Bergen is dead) when he imparts some wisdom on the disgraced captain: “We serve the rich, and in return they raise us above the primordial filth. And God help us if we don’t keep up our end of the bargain.” Ted Levine really leans into this line, delivering it in a piercing, ominous fashion that’s fascinating to watch.

Drugged and abducted, Moore and Kreizler find themselves gathered among the “many sainted men” themselves: Chief Byrnes, Bishop Potter, and J.P. Morgan. The power struggle continues as Bishop Potter asks them to drop the investigation and Byrnes insists it’s a police issue. If it was really a police issue, the police would’ve solved the case by now…so we all know Byrnes is trying to salvage the situation with Connor, desperately grasping at straws.

When Kreizler tells them that Willem Van Bergen is not their killer, Morgan sends Bishop Potter and Byrnes off to deliver the news to the family. Byrnes tells Morgan that Willem fled the country because of the accusations, but Morgan dismisses them to assure the family anyway. Good luck with that one, Byrnes.

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Alone with Kreizler and Moore, Morgan informs them that the city is about to become the world’s greatest financial powerhouse as they approach the turn of the century. But…they can’t do that if they don’t have a compliant workforce. The civil unrest caused by the murders is disrupting the flow of capital. And Morgan is more unnerved by this than the actual murdered children. It’s callous and awful and a terribly familiar sentiment. Morgan offers to help financially with the case, allowing Kreizler and Moore’s investigation to resume. Kreizler turns down the offer, and it’s probably the only smart decision he makes during this entire episode.

This episode is not kind to Kreizler, and we kind of saw this coming. Unfortunately, his issues come at the expense of the team’s cohesive work. The first cracks show at the beginning of the episode, when Kreizler and Moore spar over Moore’s drawing of the killer. Kreizler scolds him for not looking past his own ideas of what he wants to see, and to listen to what Stevie is telling him. Meanwhile, poor Stevie is rattled from his encounter with the killer.

Cyrus’ niece, Joanna Crawford, delivers the next blow, one that seems to shake Kreizler to his core more than anything else has. She calls him out on his privilege, insisting that what he perceives as charity and friendship between himself and her uncle is actually condescending. They don’t stand on equal ground in their relationship, and Kreizler has been benefiting from the disparity. In an attempt to reevaluate the relationships he has within his household, Kreizler tries to make amends, but everything goes horribly. He tells Mary that she’s an independent woman who is capable of living on her own, in the only way that Laszlo Kreizler can—dripping with creepiness and more than a touch patronizing. Mary’s outburst is justified, because Kreizler is oblivious. Things don’t improve when Moore confronts Kreizler about hurting Sara. (Sara doesn’t say that Kreizler slapped her, but she doesn’t need to; her words, the look in her eyes, say as much). For one, Kreizler doesn’t even apologize for it. And then he tears into Moore, declaring that Sara will never think of him as anything other than “handsome and indolent.”

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The comment, unfortunately, sends Moore back to his old habits. His sobriety lasted all of two episodes. And, since he seems to find trouble everywhere, Moore follows Connor into an alley behind a gambling den to confront him. Connor knocks him down easily, and not for the first time in this series (or even this episode…poor John), Moore is rendered unconscious.

The episode ends on a softer note, in which Kreizler is more human and vulnerable than he has been so far in The Alienist. He invites Mary to join him for dinner, and in a sequence fraught with pining and a little awkwardness, she surprises him by accepting it. Their dinner is quickly ignored, however, when Kreizler reaches out to hold Mary’s hand. They kiss, but there’s a slow, emotional buildup to get there, wherein Kreizler looks so unsure of everything that Mary happily takes the lead. The scene is beautifully composed, from the use of touch to their shared glances and the music that drifts around them. Since the world of The Alienist is a dangerous place, we can only hope that whatever direction this relationship takes, it ends well.