“A Way to Hear the Music”: The Alienist, ‘Ascension’

The various narrative threads of The Alienist are being woven ever more tightly together in this week’s suspenseful episode. The friction between Dr. Kreizler and Sara Howard increased, and so has the pressure on Roosevelt to leave the Van Bergen family alone. Even though the team of investigators is closer than ever to catching the serial killer stalking the young male prostitutes of New York City, he is still finding ways to elude their grasp.

Opening with a close up of a white horse lying lifeless in the street, “Ascension” begins and ends with death. The team has concocted a sting operation using Kreizler’s young ward Stevie as bait. They plan to dress him up like a boy whore and wait for their killer to approach. Roosevelt is extremely uncomfortable with this idea, shaming Sara by speculating that her father would not approve. However, although more than a dozen men approach Stevie that night, no one fits the description of the man whom they seek. The team is baffled and disheartened.

Willem Van Bergen is slowly going stir crazy, shut up in an attic room on the other side of the river. Even though his mother assures him that his forthcoming trip to Buenos Aires won’t be “forever,” he eventually sneaks out and heads towards the city, catching the attention of a cop, who alerts the now-disgraced and unemployed Connor to the situation.

At a gala and silent auction put on by The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, none other than famous financier J.P. Morgan (a real-life person played with intimidating intensity by Michael Ironside) approaches Roosevelt and warns him to leave the Van Bergens alone while never once mentioning the family name. When Roosevelt pushes back, Morgan grows more forceful in his threats: “Do not betray your own kind. You’ll find yourself with no job, no friends, and no goddamn future.”

Sara is also trying to solve a mystery of her own, asking Kreizler why he refers to himself as a “cripple.” He tells her it’s a congenital defect of his left arm, but she digs deeper and uncovers a 30-year-old newspaper clipping indicating that, as a child, the doctor was a child prodigy on the piano. She presents her findings to John, who is perplexed until Sara says, flat-out, that Kreizler has apparently always lied about his “condition.”

The team sets up another sting operation at a brothel on Pentecost, the next holy day after Ascension on the Christian calendar. This time, Stevie is stationed inside the brothel along with John and Lucius, who eventually get distracted. Joseph, whom John had earlier warned to keep his window closed, seems to be developing affection for John’s fatherly advice, while another young boy, “Rosie,” encourages Lucius to tell him naughty jokes.

The killer approaches Stevie, only John and Lucius don’t notice until he’s already walked away. Stevie confirms that the man, whose face is not shown, is the one they seek, and alarmed, John shouts, “Stop him!” The man gives chase and Lucius goes after him, while John hustles Stevie into a nearby room and locks him in to keep him safe. Marcus, watching from across the street, goes down to see what’s happening.

Sara and Kreizler are waiting in a parked carriage down the street. She “accidentally” lets a piece of Mozart’s sheet music fall out of her folder, and then queries Kreizler about his familiarity with it, confronting him with his lies about his “congenital defect.” He angrily storms out of the carriage telling her she has no right to speak to him in that way, especially about his personal life, but Sara won’t let it go. “You don’t have the courage to see yourself for you who really are because you’re a coward.” He slaps her across the face and they both stand there, looking shocked until John interrupts. It’s kind of an alarming scene and while it feels alien to the Dr. Lazlo Kreizler as portrayed in the book, it’s important to note that the book is told from John’s point of view and he has a much more forgiving attitude towards his old friend’s peccadillos.

After John alerts Kreizler to the situation, the whole team gathers in the room with Stevie. Kreizler looks out the window to the rooftop and realizes Cyrus is not there. Everyone runs to investigate (except Sara, who stays to keep watch over Stevie) and they soon discover Cyrus prone on the ground, clearly injured.

At the same time, Connor is chasing Willem to the top of a large piece of scaffolding and calling him a “murdering pederast.” Willem protests: “I’m a Van Bergen! I’m one of the 400!” but this doesn’t dissuade Connor who angrily shoots him in the head and ten tosses the body into the river below.

What Willem is referencing is “self-appointed arbiter of New York society” Samuel Ward McAllister’s 1892 list of the 400 people in New York who truly mattered. (Please note that the Van Bergen family does not actually appear on this list.) Even Connor’s minion is shocked but it’s not hard to see that Connor blames Willem, at least in part, for his loss of status. Earlier in the episode he was infuriated at being forced to pay for a beer at his regular watering hole.

But what about Cyrus? Kreizler asks Lucius to find help while Marcus wonders aloud why the killer would attack Cyrus. As they walk towards the edge of the roof and gaze at the windows of the brothel across the street, John and Kreizler realize, with dawning horror, that the killer was aware of their stakeout the entire time and has gone to find another victim. The scene then cuts to another murdered boy whore, who is covered in blood and splayed underneath the Statue of Liberty.

The Alienist is truly an oddity. As I said in my earlier reviews, at times it seems intent on positioning Dr. Kreizler as a kind of Will Graham character, and Daniel Brühl brings an aura of creepiness to the character that is only implied in the pages of the book. The show also seems hell bent on pushing for a “will they or won’t they?” pairing between Sara and Kreizler even while she flirts so obviously with John (the line about men’s dexterity with their fingers is too perfect).

Yet, Mary keeps popping up to thwart things; noticing her cut finger after she serves him lunch, Kreizler wipes it with his own saliva in a move that is downright bizarre, though not surprising if we remember his nervousness around the dominatrix from a couple of episodes ago. Aside from the Isaacson brothers, it’s the supporting cast who, unfortunately, seem to get the shortest shrift in the adaptation. Knowing more about Steve, Cyrus, and Mary would give the TV show some of the finer background details that the original novel presented so wonderfully.

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