This week’s episode of The Alienist (“Silver Smile”) explores more of the class distinctions and police corruption that are integral to Caleb Carr’s novel. It also presents versions of the characters that are markedly different from the ones in the novel, albeit in a rather intriguing way.
“Silver Smile” introduces us to a couple—The Van Bergens—sitting at opposite ends of a long, impeccably polished, empty table as they have lunch. Recalling the “breakfast montage” from Citizen Kane, it indicates that the only things keeping these two people together are society’s expectations and money. (And is that Sean Young as Mrs. Van Bergen?)
The episode reveals more of the tension between Roosevelt and the old school cops like Byrnes (played by a wonderfully moustachioed Ted Levine) and Connor, who thrive on graft and brutality. As this Time article notes, “the boundaries between legitimate police work and amenities for those with political ‘pull’ became very blurry,” adding that Police captains ruled their precincts like private fiefdoms, but appointment to command required money and political influence… regular payments poured in from brothel keepers, counterfeiters, saloon-keepers, gamblers and others in the city’s demimonde.” Byrnes is even mentioned by name in the article, further blurring the lines between The Alienist’s factual and fictional narratives.
Indeed, the discomfort in the room is palpable when Roosevelt pins medals on several officers whom he is rewarding for meritorious service, pointedly telling Connor that “at long last the city has policemen it can be proud of.” This battle over the police force will come into play later in this episode when another murder victim is found and Roosevelt allows Kreizler and company to have first dibs on examining and photographing the crime scene. In fact, it’s Roosevelt who stands guard at the doors of the building where the body is found, keeping reporters and Connor’s men at bay.
The Alienist novel is told from the point of view of Moore, who comes across as personable and lively, but also someone who is plagued by trauma and self-doubt. While he comes from wealth and privilege, he has been forced to live with his grandmother after being shunned by the rest of his family and breaking off his engagement with a young woman a few years earlier.
Evans handles this role adeptly: he has the outward appearance of a refined young man, but his personality is coarse and quick-tempered. He is clearly someone who is battling his personal demons, including the drowning death of his younger brother. We get a feel for exactly how estranged Moore is from his family and the social strata in which he resides when he is forced to endure a terrifically boring afternoon tea engagement with his grandmother (Grace Zabriskie, in another delightful and unexpected cameo).
Seeing the characters interact with each other on the TV series, one suspects Carr positioned Moore as a kind of unreliable narrator. In the novel, Moore insists he’s not in love with Sara, but reveals himself to be jealous of her attentions to other men, specifically Kreizler. This is expressed perfectly in a scene in “Silver Smile” when Moore awkwardly kisses Sara on the cheek after she tells him “you can be quite amusing when you want to be, John.” The contradictory interplay of emotions across Evans’ face is perfect.
Because the reader only sees the other characters through Moore’s eyes in the novel, it’s refreshing to see Sara on her own in a scene where she attends a Vassar reunion. Like Moore, she is part of this world yet not part of it. The other women come across as frivolous (playing a murder mystery game), while Sara sits next to her former roommate, completely oblivious to the fact that this roommate is engaged to be married. “I only want what any girl wants,” says roommate, similarly oblivious to the fact that Sara is more interested in finding a real murderer.
Look inside yourselves
“Silver Smile” also gives us more insights into Kreizler’s desire to understand things from the murderer’s point of view and his insistence that the other members of the team “look inside themselves” for their own motivations. It also reveals his true feelings towards his servant Mary. Daniel Brühl does a wonderful job playing someone who, like John Moore and Sara Howard, struggles with what he wants and what society expects of him. He seeks to delve into the darkest parts of the human mind but becomes nearly paralyzed with fear at the thought of sexual attraction to a woman whom he has taken in as an employee.
“Change is far more terrifying than a murderer of children,” Kreizler tells Sara early on in the episode. Although he was talking about the police department and their apparent quest to prevent anyone from finding out the identity of the murderer, he may as well be speaking about himself.