Down the Dark Road of ‘The Alienist’

While the crime procedural has existed on television since the 1951 premiere of Dragnet, the series that arguably set the tone was Law & Order, which began in 1990 and remained on the air for 20 years, spawning five spin-offs and countless impersonators. Just a few years after that series started, writer Caleb Carr would find enormous success with his historical crime procedural, The Alienist.

What makes The Alienist unique is the way it plays with the timeline, reaching about 200 years beyond its 1994 publication date. Blending fact (Teddy Roosevelt’s history as the Police Commissioner of New York City) and fiction (a series of horrific murders of child prostitutes), The Alienist provokes an odd sense of déjà vu for fans of Netflix’s Mindhunter and those who’ve followed Thomas Harris’ Hannibal novels (as well as the movies and TV shows spawned from that universe).

The early years of criminal profiling

In a TV landscape populated by Law & Order reruns and the continued existence of Criminal Minds, it seems impossible to imagine a time when criminal profiling didn’t exist, but that wasn’t always the case. The Alienist transports the origins of this activity to the late 20th century. “We know nothing of the person we seek,” says The Alienist’s resident profiler Dr. Lazlo Kreizler. “What we must do… is to paint an imaginary picture of the sort of person that might commit such acts. If we had such a picture, the significance of what little evidence we collected would be dramatically magnified.”

Perhaps this is why changing the profession of Kreizler’s friend John Moore from police reporter (in the book) to sketch artist (on the show) feels appropriate. Although photography equipment was available in the late 20th century, American newspapers continued to utilize the services of sketch artists until New York’s Illustrated Daily News began publication in 1919. Kreizler complains to Moore about a sketch of the first murder victim, “This looks like a martyred saint in a Renaissance painting; I need to see what you saw.”

In the book, Kreizler’s crack team of police department employees serves as a proto-BSU, and he gives them reading material to prepare for their quest. “We must try not to see the world through our own eyes, nor to judge it by our own values, but through and by those of our killer. His experience, the context of his life, was all that mattered.” This is reflected in Kreizler’s startlingly Will Graham-esque monologue at the end of the The Alienist’s first episode. “Only if I become him… only then will I come to truly understand what I am.” This all plays into one of the killer’s crime signatures: removing the eyes of his victims.

Meeting the characters

As Kreizler, Daniel Brühl perfectly embodies the unsettling intelligence of Dr. Lazlo Kreizler, and it isn’t hard to understand why he endures discomfort, distrust, and at times, unadorned hatred from New York’s policemen and politicians. Brühl’s German and Spanish heritage and gentle, yet piercing gaze, make him a perplexing and formidable figure.

So too, is Dakota Fanning’s Sara Howard. In the novel she is a feisty character, though the word “feminist” is not written once. Within the first few seconds of meeting her on the series, it’s obvious that she is not a woman who suffers fools, or even intelligent people, gladly. She reduces John Moore to the role of bumbling idiot with nothing more than a stern “What are you doing here?” In fact, we hardly see a smile come across her face until the end of the second episode, when she finally feels like her sharp mind and stubborn nature, not her looks, are the qualities that are gaining her some positive attention.

It’s not hard to understand why Sara Howard feels the need to adopt a tough exterior. She is the first woman employed by the New York City police department and as such, must endure not only the indignity of not being taken seriously but also near-constant sexual harassment. The role of women in The Alienist’s version of 1896 New York City is roughly divided among several categories: society wife and mother, impoverished wife and mother, or prostitute.

John Moore is certainly familiar with the latter; in fact, he is introduced to the audience during an encounter with one. As Moore, Luke Evans comes across as perhaps even more irascible than he is in the book, and since Evans is so good at portraying that type, he is a fine choice. Moore also fulfills the role of troubled protagonist well: short-tempered, prone to drink, part of high society yet also curiously outside of it. This tension between what roles are expected of people and the roles they actually serve—or wish to serve—makes the first two episodes of The Alienist crackle with electricity.

Gothic flair

Overall, there is a lot of tension in the first two episodes of The Alienist: tension between the upper and lower classes, tension between the members of the team trying to solve the murders in secret, and tension between the team and the obviously corrupt police force, not to mention the gangsters who run the city in cahoots with the cops. This creates a situation not unlike that found in the best detective fiction, in which corruption of those tasked with upholding the law runs as deep as that of the criminals themselves.

The show is set one year before Bram Stoker’s Dracula would be published and as such, it embodies the Gothic horror aesthetic admirably, particularly in one scene where Kreizler chases a shadowy figure into an abandoned building, evoking Jonathan Harker being tormented after unexpectedly seeing The Count in London. Visually, the series conjures the seedy qualities of a series like The Knick while also recalling the suspenseful nature of Penny Dreadful.

Fans of the novel will enjoy seeing the characters come to life; the series does an incredible job of visualizing the macabre atmosphere that permeates the book. Based on these first two episodes, The Alienist seems well on its way to becoming something special.

The Alienist premieres on Monday, January 22 on TNT.

Leave a Reply