This THE ALIENIST review contains spoilers.
The Alienist Season 2 Episode 1
Times have certainly changed. I’m not comparing today’s world to that of 1897; the scenes in the premiere of The Alienist: Angel of Darkness featuring police brutalizing innocent protesters highlights that society hasn’t evolved that much. No, I’m talking about the world in which The Alienist’s first “event” season arrived in compared to the TV landscape that the second outing arrives in today. The Alienist’s first good, not quite great, season was dinged for arriving in a crowded pack of shows with similar subject matter or period settings. However, The Alienist: Angel of Darkness appears to be one of the last big cable series to debut before the coronavirus and its effect on television production schedules creates a void in available new content. Instead of being the latest of many, it now feels like one of the last of a few.
Perhaps that feeling made reuniting with Daniel Brühl’s tortured genius Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, Dakota Fanning’s strong-willed Sara Howard, and Luke Evan’s charming John Moore more exciting than the prospect initially sounded. The trio certainly had a unique dynamic and chemistry that propelled the show through some clunky writing, but The Alienist was pitched as a one-and-done series and told a complete story that offered satisfying character arcs for its three leads. Despite there being more of Caleb Carr’s source material to adapt, the announcement of a second season felt unnecessary; we told Kreizler and company’s story and it was time to move on.
Still, reuniting with the three leads — watching Sara lead her own private detective agency, John rubbing elbows with members of high society, and Kreizler brooding his way through a new injustice in a bustling New York — felt satisfying. Perhaps quarantine has made The Alienist’s world feel strangely preferable, even with its own dramas and germs. Maybe the comfortable narrative structure of a whodunit without the complicated inclusion of a cop among the bunch helps on some level too. I’m not saying “Ex Ore Infantium” is without its issues, but at the moment, I’m happy to be back on the case with this trio.
The Alienist: Angel of Darkness scores its easiest points by doubling down on Sara Howard. The character, propelled by Fanning’s performance, was a frequent highlight the first time around, and it appears as if the series is putting her more at the center of things this year. Sara is leading her own agency, and along with her friends, finds herself deeply disturbed by and determined to stop a planned execution. A woman named Martha is receiving the death penalty for supposedly murdering her child, despite there not being any evidence. Sara, John, and Kreizler, who fought on the woman’s behalf at her trial, try to leverage their connection to Teddy Roosevelt (who in real-life was serving as Assistant Security of the Navy and doesn’t appear to be returning as a character) to delay the electrocution, but their efforts aren’t successful. The electrocution is pretty graphic, but it pales in comparison to what comes later.
Though all three of our main characters pledge to continue to fight for justice, it’s Sara that stumbles on proof that Martha may be innocent and that a child killer may still be at large. A Spanish dignitary and his wife are visiting the city when their child is kidnapped and replaced with a horrific doll. The case is first brought to Sara, as her efforts to clear Martha’s name made her appear as sympathetic to women that are cast aside as being “hysterical.” Sara’s pitch to take on the investigation without the help of the police is excellent; she’s compassionate and full of empathy, yet confident and resolute, making it clear that she’s the only person in New York with the acumen and sensitivity to handle the case.
She also makes it clear that Dr. Kreizler will only be consulted as needed. Though they may have made up in last season’s finale, it’s clear that the incident which involved Kreizler striking Sara still lingers over their relationship. They may be able to work together in a professional setting, but it’s obvious there’s an awkwardness between the pair when they meet one on one. Unfortunately, the scene with Kreizler meeting with Sara in her office is hindered by some over-written dialogue. Usually the actors on The Alienist are so good that they can elevate clunky passages, but when the characters are supposed to be displaying discomfort and awkwardness, it makes the problems with the script more obvious. There’s ungraceful exposition all over this premiere, but perhaps that’s just necessary table-setting.
The other problem with the episode is the gratuitous dead baby shots. A deceased child is found at a toy store in the city, believed to be the missing child that Sara is searching for. Like Perry Mason earlier this summer, The Alienist goes a bit overboard showing us the body. I understand that the series is supposed to be “dark” but it definitely feels like a bit much. However, the discovery of the child finally brings our team from last season back together as a unit, even if Sara is the only person officially on the case. Kreizler starts musing about the meaning of the dolls in the kidnapping, and after her quick education working by his side last season, Sara is more than following along, offering up her own theories. Though the writing feels strained at times, I really enjoy the direction this season seems to be heading in, with Sara taking the lead in a case with the progressive campaign for suffrage serving as a backdrop. I may have cringed at some overly expository lines of dialogue, but I lit up seeing Sara charge through an immaculately staged 1897 New York avenue. The production design is top-notch on The Alienist, making it beautiful to look at even when the script suffers (and as long as there are no dead babies on screen). The Alienist may not have needed to return for a second outing, but I’m glad that it’s here.