TV Recap: The Alienist – The Darkest Pit of Hell

The Alienist
“The Boy on the Bridge”
January 22, 2018

The Alienist Season One Gallery

What a fun (and not a little weird) show The Alienist is.  There is something particularly satisfying about a well done period piece TV show that enhances the “escapism” factor that so many turn to TV for; an hour of good drama to forget about your troubles and throw yourself into someone else’s plot.  Add in the anachronistic time period and your feeling of being transported away is doubled, at a minimum.

The Alienist, based on the book of the same name by Caleb Carr, and starring Luke Evans (as John Moore), Dakota Fanning (as Sara Howard), and Daniel Brühl (as the eponymous “Alienist” whose real name is Dr. Laszlo Kreizler), does the time period transformation flawlessly and its very easy to feel like you are in 1896 NYC.   As a general matter, TNT does drama and story telling well, with popular hits such as The Librarians, Last Ship  and Major Crimes as just some of their more recent examples, and The Alienist is at home here with amazing attention to detail, engrossing story and interesting central characters that you are left wanting to know more about.

Enough preamble, prepare your best old-timey phrases, tighten up your corset and let’s hop into the way back machine. Spoilers Ahead – you’ve been warned.  The recap of The Alienist pilot episode, “The Boy on the Bridge” … after the jump!

We are told right off the bat that “alienists” were experts in the 19th Century who studied persons suffering from mental illness who “were thought to be alienated from their own true natures.” In a criminal setting, I think this is what we would today call a forensics psychologist.  Thank you title card, most helpful.  You know that title card came about from some dim witted suit at TNT who was too lazy to watch the show and piece together what an alienist was so his comment to the show was, “Insert a title card at the beginning, explaining things a bit.”

New York City, 1896.  An old-timey copper in old-timey copper dress finds a disembodied hand in the snow while some blood drips down onto his face from above. Fairly gruesome start to the night.  Anyway, he sends up the old-timey alarm signal. He begins whacking his night stick on metal which is then picked up by other old-timey cops who begin to whack their sticks on metal and soon the whole city is clanging.  Fun fact: there are remnants of these types of old-timey “alarms” in Monroe, NY where I lived for a bit once upon a time. They are shaped like giant metal “C”s and they are outside of the fire houses.  Back in the day, before sirens and airhorns and mass telecommunication, firefighters would rouse their members from their homes by clanging on the metal C which would make such a ruckus as to be heard across the town. When you heard the alarm, you knew you had to get your butt down to the firehouse to go fight a fire.  So quaint and old-timey, I love it.

Kreizler House. A woman named Mary wakes Dr. Laszlo Kreizler (we only know this is Dr. Kreizler because we saw the promos and know this is the Alienist the show is named for). In the kitchen, a teenage boy named Stevie has brought Kreizler a young boy who reports to a dead boy being up on the “new bridge”**.  A few things to know, the dead boy was cut to pieces and was wearing a dress. “Why was he wearing a dress?” the young boy would like to know. I think we’d all like to know that, young boy.  Kreizler waits but a beat before springing into action.  He orders Stevie to ready the “calash” (an  old-timey word for a convertible roof carriage) and to also get John Moore down to the new bridge with his drawing kit; Kreizler needs details dammit!  Kreizler is very excited in an agitated sort of way but he’s using words we don’t understand right now so all I feel is anxiety.  Patience, dear viewer.  Oh, there is a large black man in this scene but the show has deigned to give him a name yet (his name is Cyrus Montrose (Robert Wisdom) but you wouldn’t know that yet – his name isn’t uttered until the end of the episode).

Brothel.  Lots of brothel scenes on this show so ready your self. Clutch your pearls if you must but this is happening.  The aforementioned John Moore is just beginning his time with a working girl when he is unceremoniously rousted by Kreizler’s messenger. Dutifully, Moore heads off to the bridge to try and begin drawing pictures of the dead boy … in the dress.  Oh, something to note about John and his lady of the night.  He seems to be a regular customer of hers, she is in love with another dude, named Jack, and when he pays her, she hands him a ring.  ??? I don’t know, I am just reporting the facts, ya’ll.

The Bridge.  Stevie is driving the calalsh like a true driver of Manhattan as Moore is peppering him with questions about what is happening to which Stevie gives the most vague of answers.   When they get to the bridge, Moore tells the cop (we don’t know his name yet but this cop (and his mustache and side burn chops) is Captain Connor, played by David Wilmot) blocking his path A. he’s with the New York Times. B. he’s an illustrator, not a reporter. and C. Commissioner Roosevelt specifically asked for him personally to go up ahead to the crime scene.  This last one does the trick and Moore goes on  ahead. Except, Commissioner Roosevelt (Brian Geraghty) is less than pleased to see Moore (they know each other) which kind of blows his lie apart.  Moore tells “Theodore”** that Kreizler sent him and he wouldn’t have done so if it wasn’t important. The dropping of Kreizler’s name gets Roosevelt’s attention and he allows Moore to stay. Hey, Connor refers to Kreizler as a “quacksalver” doctor.**

The Span of the Bridge (Under Construction).  Moore views the body which is fairly butchered and also missing his eyes – damn those birds … or maybe rats.  Giorgio Santorelli is the deceased’s name. Connor knows him – he’s a “boy whore” working out of Paresis Hall (another brothel), where he was known as “Gloria.”  The owners of Paresis Hall are Biff Ellison and Paul Kelly. Connor has so much exposition for us. Thank you, and your mustache and side burn chops, sir.  Commissioner Roosevelt wants them in his office first thing in the morning. Connor tries to out him off — these are not men you summon; especially over some “dago trash” (see my note above about immigrant epithets) … but Roosevelt cuts him off. “My office tomorrow or your badge on my desk, Captain Connor.”  Well, not much more to be said about that.  For his part, Moore has been trying not to retch over the side of the bridge this whole scene.  However, he’s got a job to do so once all other conversations are finished, he gets down to drawing, sorry, “illustrating.” We zoom in on the body (which is pretty gross) and then zoom out to Kreizler, in his study, holding a picture of young boy and girl, Benjamin and Sofia.  Title Card.

Kreizler’s Office.    The next morning, Kreizler is having a session with a boy and his parents. Seems young Ezra is fire starting … also, wetting the bed. His parents would really like Laszlo to cure their boy before they all die in a fire. Which seems reasonable but since Ezra’s symptoms stem from feelings of loneliness and shame, I am not quite ready to Be #TeamParents on this one.   Kreizler is very careful to say that, as an alienist (drinking gamer rules in effect — every time the name of the show is mentioned … drink!), he tries to alleviate the emotional and mental disorders of his patients, not “cure.” He definitely sounds like a Manhattan therapist.  One who only takes cash or credit, no insurance.  Assholes.  But, I digress.  An accord must have been reached because some time later, Laszlo is giving Ezra a tour of his … home for children, I guess? I don’t think we have seen name for this place.  But, there are lots of kids running around and he mentions a dormitory so, home for children is what we are going with for right now.

Moore comes to meet Kreizler and discuss last night’s events. No, Laszlo did not Giorgio, there is an unspoken “but I have known others like him …”  “Do you have the drawings?,” he asks.  Laszlo needs more info than Moore’s drawing provided – he idealized the death scene too much but Kreizler needs details and specifics.  What kinds of wounds, what kind of intent was shown in the killing manner? Were there guts, Moore?!?! Man, Kreizler must be a scream on a first date.  Moore composes himself and relates the information missing from his drawing: throat was cut to the bone, severed right hand, chest and abdomen ripped open, and the innards (kidney and a lung) left by his feet.  His genitalia had been removed, his eyes were missing and wearing a white dress, same as a girl might wear.  That’s pretty specific information.  Well done, Moore. Moore asks if he is interviewing the “suspect”? “What suspect??!?!?”

Bellevue Hospital.**   Kreizler and Moore get the lowdown from Dr. Fuller on one Mr. Wolff, the suspect.  Wolff is a male prostitute who, according the police, stabbed his friend, another prostitute and then, fueled by blood lust went looking for his victim and found poor Giorgio.  I cannot overstate the insane asylum surrounding Kreizler & Co as they walk and talk down Bellevue’s hallways. Its just fantastic visually.  Wolff has advanced syphilis, and is all boils on the face and everything.   Its … its hideous.  Pay attention kids to the STD talk in high school, you don’t want advanced syphilis!

Any who, Wolff freely admits to killing friend but stumbles a bit when he admits to killing Giorgio.  You can tell, Kreizler doesn’t buy it.  Further, Wolff has strong feelings about entering a boy whore house.  You have to like a syphilitic killer with moral standards. All these questions about Edwin (the dead friend) has Wolff agitated again and Kreizler enters his cell to settle him down. Also, to do a little psycho-analysis.  He gets through to Wolff who clearly killed Edwin out of jealousy and rage. After a few more questions, he gets Wolff to admit he didn’t kill Giorgio.

Photo by Kata Vermesf

The Police Station. Connor and Chief Byrnes (Ted Levine) are holding a press conference with lots of back slapping and attaboys for Connor … presumably for his mustache and side burn chops as well.  Some politics emerge here as it seems this Chief Byrnes is actually FORMER Chief Byrnes and Roosevelt replaced him. He does not think much of Teddy’s reforms.  How is Byrnes spending his retirement? Speculating on Wall Street with the help of friends like Mr. Morgan (this adds nothing to the narrative but I just love the name dropping of John Pierpont (JP) Morgan who was a big fucking deal at this time in history). Anyway, the press abandon Byrnes mid-story because Kreizler has arrived and they would like to ask him some questions.  Byrnes gives Laszlo some major stink eye as he passes by.  Can’t wait to get that story!

Inside, Moore and Kreizler arrive in the ante-chamber to Roosevelt’s office where we meet Sara Howard, the first female employee of the New York Police Department and you shall refer to her as “Ms. Howard.” Also, Moore and Howard know each other as their families have been long acquainted.  Ah, rich folks always know other rich folks.  Nevermind that though, Kreizler would like Sara to get them into to see the Commissioner.  Sara is on guard though and asks if she should perhaps use her “especially rosy mouth” or “Sparkling blue eyes”. She’s feisty this one. I like her moxy.  Seems these were some quotes about Ms. Howard in an article for which Moore did the illustration. Guilty by association is enough for Sara though and she is giving Moore more stink eye than Byrnes was giving Kreizler. Lots of stink eye these last few minutes.  You don’t have an appointment she says.  Once she puts a name to Kreizler’s face, her tone softens a bit (she’s a fan of his work) but she still tries to prevent these old friends of Roosevelt’s from barging in … but barge in they do anyway.

Roosevelt is annoyed, as you can imagine, but takes an interest after Kreizler drops some knowledge: A. Wolff is innocent – stabbing a boyfriend in a heated moment is different than a careful disemboweling of a boy, and B. this case reeks of a similarity to an unsolved case from three years ago … the Zweig twins (Benjamin and Sofia — of the picture we saw him holding at the end of the cold open). Benjamin was a patient of Laszlo’s (he liked to dress as his sister and his parents were all, no bueno). One day, both kids disappeared and when their bodies surfaced, Sofia was largely intact but Benjamin was cut “sternum to pubis, his innards displayed.”  “So?” Roosevelt asks. Really Teddy? You need this conclusion drawn for you?  Kreizler feels both murders are “works of theater, drawn from the same imagination.”  It’s here that Moore suggests perhaps Ms. Howard is too delicate a flower to listen to such a conversation … she will surely not remember this Moore.  Men, amiright?  What do you want?, Roosevelt asks. To look at the Zweig autopsies and see if he can determine a real commonality. Nope. Nope. Nope.  But Kreizler retorts that murderers like this exist whether Teddy likes it or not and, if in fact, this is the same murderer that like to butcher young boys, Roosevelt’s men won’t be able to handle such a perpetrator.  While he is on a roll, Kreizler also asks for unsolved murder records to see if any other murder is connected tat they may be missing.  We don’t see this last bit as we are now outside, with Sara, eavesdropping.

Back in the office now, Roosevelt mounts that high horse (figuratively, not like a real horse, he would do that a couple of years from now) and says he cannot allow Kreizler such access to privileged records … just because Kreizler makes up his own rules, doesn’t mean anyone else can.  Laszlo and Moore take their leave but not before Kreizler reminds Roosevelt that Wolff didn’t kill Giorgio, hence the killer is out there, and that won’t change no matter how many beatings the cops give Wolff. Commercials.

When we return, we get a brief recap outside where Kreizler society page illustrator-shames Moore into asking Sara to steal the Zweig file. Back inside the station, Sara finds a urinating Connor to tell him Roosevelt wants a word.  No matter how good his mustache and side burn chops are, I am beginning to really dislike Captain Connor.  He’s an asshole.

Back outside, Sara is taking a breather because she can’t even with these gross men and their Neanderthal ways. Which is bad for Moore because its exactly then he stalks her down and asks her to boost the Zweig file. She won’t do it John, no for Kreizler or for anyone else – she won’t betray the Commissioner’s confidence.  Moore isn’t done and makes a plea that they need her help. He punctuates this with his drawing of dead Giorgio.

Roosevelt’s Office.  The estimable Biff Ellison (Falk Hentschel) and Paul Kelly (Antonio Magro), proprietors of the Paresis Hall and all around, horrible people, come to meet Roosevelt and they are none to happy to be there.  They fear no one, including Roosevelt, and freely admit to bribing his police. That’s the kind of guy Biff is.  Why haul them in like “two bit sneak thieves” when you have your “throat slitter” behind bars. Holy shit, this guy is a treasure trove of amazing old-timey sayings. He’s got a really 1920s gangster vibe about him but seeing as he is a 1896 gangster, I guess they copied his style?  Anyway, “sneak thieves” is an amazing saying and you should try to use it today.  Kelly tries to play good cop or rather, good businessman, to Ellison’s bad boy. He mansplains that they are honest businessmen that have made everyone wealthier than they would be if they weren’t around. Roosevelt replies that it doesn’t change the fact that a boy is dead, one exploited by their brothel. Which, good point.  Teddy wants Paresis Hall  shut down and shut down today.  Biff begins to object but Kelly interrupts him to say that he agrees with the Roosevelt.  Hmmm, that was too easy. Something is amiss here.

Paresis Hall. We see Paresis Hall being shut down but not really, Kelly and Ellison are just  moving their sex workers to a building across the street.  Captain Connor takes his envelope of cash (minus $10 for the inconvenience of closing down) and swallows any pride he may have left and walks away.  Gah, Connor, you’re the fucking worst. You’re dead to me now.  You and your glorious mustache and side burn chops.

Somewhere.  We see a person cooking up pieces of Giorgio (he (?) even gives a cat a taste test – gross). We know its Giorgio because his “Gloria” Paresis Hall “players card” – I don’t know how else to describe it — is on display near the sizzling pan.  I may vomit. Be right back. Commercials.

Photo by Kata Vermes

Howard House.  Sara eats alone in a giant dining room, just her and a servant.  Later, we see the servant helping Sara take off her corset and the marks left in her back have her in a bad way about the things women have to do to be pleasing in a man’s world.  “To hell with them,” she says.  Word gurl, word.  Next, we see Sara smoking in her dressing gown.  She’s a modern day rebel; a proto feminist and its kind of hot.  She’s pondering Moore’s request as she stares at the lifeless drawing of Giorgio Santorelli.

Brothel.  Moore is with his lady of the night and again with the ring and the coins.  Outside, Moore has the unfortunate or rather uncomfortable occurrence to run into Sara, waiting for him.  She;s not concerned with his sensibilities; does he even know the villainy that passes through the doors of the police station to saying nothing of the “mutton shunters” she works with.  Mutton Shunters — I have no words for how good a phrase that is (its a Victorian age slang term for cops).   Anyway, she hands over the Zweig file.  Her only request, she wants in on any information that Kreizler uncovers.  The game … is afoot!

Kreizler House.  Moore enters Laszlo’s sitting room triumphantly, as if he got the file, and Laszlo turns to the file immediately. Unfortunately, there are no details in the autopsy that can help him.  Which means? Grave Robbing time!!! During this next scene, you have to keep in mind that a children’s chorus is singing the English language version of “Frère Jacques” the entire time … which makes it all just creepier. We see Kreizler ride out to the graves and then presumably excavates them and brings them back to his office/children’s house?  He removes the coffin lids on each, first Sofia and then Bejamin’s. But we are spared what’s inside.  A mourning woman in black barges into Laszlo’s study (Cyrus tries to stop her); Laszlo apologizes for disinterring her children.  This is Mrs. Zweig (Clare Calbraith).  She read about Giorgio in the paper and feels like Kreizler betrayed them by saying that no harm would come from Benjamin dressing like a girl.  Kreizler tries to explain the reasons for Benjamin dressing like a girl is completely different than why Santorelli was dressed like one. Further, Benjamin was killed by someone with a very disturbed mine … not because he dressed like a girl but she’s in no mood. Her kids are dead and it’s Kreizler’s fault.  Commercials.

When we return, the Brothers Detective Sergeants Marcus (Douglas Smith) and Lucius (Matthew Shear) Isaacson have joined Kreizler and Moore for a little “Fun with Modern Autopsy” methods. Seems the Brothers Isaacson are a tad too modern for the Mutton Shunters down at station house. Also, a tad too Jewish if Lucius is to be believed.  Kreizler exposits for Moore’s benefit (and ours) that the brothers are here to perform an autopsy for them because Teddy didn’t trust the official coroner’s office to keep quiet about reopening the Zweig case.  Some backstory on the Zweig case: the bodies were discovered in a water tower on Suffolk Street (if you don’t know your Lower East Side Manhattan geography … and really, why should you? Suffolk Street bisects Delancey Street right at the foot of the Williamsburg Bridge on ramp.)  Our killer definitely has a territory he likes …

The Brothers Isaacson’s mission? Examine every remaining bone fragment of Benjamin’s body for any markings, no matter how insignificant it may seem.

Outside, John is trying to keep his innards inside while Kreizler suggests they go for an early dinner.  Moore fears these horrific images will be with him always and that touches Laszlo, he wonders allow that John represents the best of us, and it probably explains why people tend to like him more than Kreizler.

Photo by Kata Vermesf

At the carriage, Kreizler finds a bunched up newspaper laying inside. After a brief second, his adrenaline spikes and he begins frantically looking for … someone in the crowd. Spying something we can’t see, he takes off in mad pursuit with Moore following long behind him.  Into an abandoned building, up flights of stairs, Kreizler finds himself on the top floor. At the other end of the floor, a shadow passes by a doorway and a door closes.  Working up the nerve, Laszlo turns the knob and enters the small room which is … empty.  When Moore finally catches up, he asks the same question we’re asking, “where’d he go?”  Kreizler looks up and we see an impossibly small hole in the roof which is impossibly high for a normal human to reach unassisted.  In the newspaper?  Giorgio’s tongue, “did you see the Santorelli boy’s mouth?” Laszlo asks John.

What.Is.Even.Happening?!?

Photo by Kata Vermes

Before we begin the wrap up, I want to mention that through the Laszlo’s pursuit, we got inter-cut scenes of the Brothers Isaacson’s autopsy.  Some close ups seem to indicate weird cuts and ridges on certain bones, including deep gauges about an inch apart, somewhere on the skull.

Photo by Kata Vermes

The Wrap-Up Montage.    As we listen to Kreizler soliloquy to himself in his study (though Mary is there but I am beginning to think she is mute), he’s talking about how a killer such as they are dealing with is not understood as other killers are understood. No, for this, Kreizler says, he will need to become like the killer, feel like the killer, murder the child like the killer, experience the depths of emotions that drive the killer just as the killer would … even if it takes him to the darkest pit of hell.   As we listen, we see a young boy prostitute being looked over and examined by some men. The men get physical with him, though and after being pushed to the ground, he takes off running.  Running. Running. Running. Into an alley, he finds himself trapped. As he turns, a voice asks, “What’s the matter child?”  And scene.

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Thoughts.  Wow. An already moody and edgy episode really accelerated hard in those final 10 minutes and opened up so many more questions.  Namely, is Kreizler essentially committing to become a murderer or is he speaking metaphorically, figuratively?  Honestly, he’s so esoteric, its hard to say at this point.  Who is the killer? Is it someone we met tonight?  Maybe, my guess is no but someone connected to someone we met tonight.

After having watched this episode a cfew times now, I continue to be struck at the art of it all.  For a TV show, this production is visually stunning and its attention to detail and mood and setting is breath taking.  It really keeps you engaged.  Together with a masterful score of music and I found myself not wanting to watch this with the lights off. Indeed, my Fitbit spiked twice to tell me my heart rate was elevated.  That’s a pretty good hour of television that can do that.

Let’s talk characters for a second.  John Moore is too square, too moral for this world and I am going to need him to be less snowflake and more badass if we’re going to be friends.  He needs some of Sara’s moxy if we’re being honest.  Luke Evans is great in the role and sells the discomfort Moore is experiencing this episode; I don’t know that Moore could ahve been any less comfortable at any point in this hour, that he spent it almost throwing up the whole time kind of demonstrates perfectly how he is too soft for this dark world we have entered.  Also, what’s the deal with the prostitute and the ring?!?

Sara Howard. The proto feminist before it was really a thing.  Dakota Fanning is perfect for this role and I think its a boon of great casting that they have her.  She needs to pump the brakes on the “always on guard” but I think we’ll continue to see that soften as she inevitably teams up with Moore and Kreizler and become Sherlock Holmes, Male Watson and Female Watson.  The love interest in Kreizler, the groundwork for which implicitly was laid tonight, will help her relax into a team member role too, I think.

Laszlo Kreizler – I don’t know Daniel Bruhl’s work bt holy shit, he is made for this role.  Not having a preconception of the actor really allowed me to fall in line with this character who equal parts macabre but respectful, blunt with adults but also tender and sincere with his youngest patients. He gives a tour de force portrayal of creepy yet endearing that makes you squint away but then peek back through covered fingers to see what he is doing.  The passion for the work, for the mystery, radiates off of Kreizler like heat from the Sun and he’s definitely the breakout character on this show (I know the show is named after him but this was sold as a Luke Evans and Dakota Fanning project).

Last thought, our killer?  Supernatural? Have we officially entered the supernatural realm with that small hole in the very high roof?  I don’t know; I really don’t but I will say I started thinking, “vampire”? Its so fucking dark in this show, it would seem like the perfect setting a vamp to thrive.

Until next week, my fellow Alienists.  Stay safe And stay out of the Brothels.

** Given the timing of the show, they are referring to the construction of the Williamsburg Bridge. The Williamsburg Bridge connects the Lower East Side of Manhattan (its entrance is not too far from that of the Brooklyn Bridge or the Manhattan Bridge for that matter …on the Manhattan side anyway) to the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn. Its construction began in 1896 and it opened in 1903. It was the second span across the East river with the Brooklyn Bridge having opened in 1883.

** Theodore Roosevelt. I am not going to go into the life of Theodore Roosevelt’s life but I think its beyond interesting to note that his role in this show is accurate. In 1896, Teddy Roosevelt was in fact the President of the New York City  Board of Police Commissioners (simplified to just being the “Commissioner” here).  In less than 5 years, he would be President of the United States. In between, he would serve as Assistant Secretary of the Navy (1897-1898), resign from that post to be in charge of the famed Rough Riders during the Spanish American War; come home from the war to become Governor of New York (1899-1900); and then became Vice President of the United States (March 1901-September 1901). He became President following the assassination of President William McKinley on September 14, 1901). Seriously impressive stuff. Plus, you know,the cool old-timey mustache.

** You can probably guess what this means but to set the record straight, my old-timey dictionary says that means, “one falsely claiming to possess medical or other skills, especially one who dispenses potions, ointments, etc. supposedly having curative powers.”  I’m here for all your old-timey word needs.

** Bellevue Hospital is a real place though not the fun house of horrors shown in this show. Not any longer anyway.  Founded in 1736 and named Bellevue Hospital in 1824, Bellevue is located on the East Side of Manhattan, near the Kips Bay neighborhood. Its actually visible from the FDR drive and my entire childhood has wicked metal bars coverings its windows.  Why? Because, starting in 1879, a part of Bellevue was dedicated to being a psychiatric hospital and I grew up knowing it as the “insane asylum.” Though the hospital has a robust medical teaching and treatment history, and I believe the entirety of the psychiatric hospital is now closed, its for the “pavilion of the insane” that Bellevue has its best known reputation.

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