This The Alienist review contains spoilers.
The Alienist Episode 2
The Alienist is simultaneously gorgeous and grimy. Obviously, that’s by design; 19th century New York City was both a playground for the wealthy elite and a crowded pigsty for the city’s less fortunate inhabitants. The Alienist understands this and spends plenty of time juxtaposing the two atmospheres, peppering in bubbles of extravagance within the cesspool.
Even though “A Fruitful Partnership” brings together and adds depth to the team hunting for Georgio Santorelli’s killer, the imagery is what makes the most impact. A crowd shot at the opera or a tracking shot through the famous Delmonico’s Steakhouse highlight the painstaking attention to detail that went into the set design. Likewise, trips to the dingy, crowded Santorelli apartment or the seedy brothel where “Gloria” went missing add to the feeling that danger is never far away. If the investigation at the center of The Alienist never materializes into anything worthwhile, at least audiences will have been able to enjoy the series’ striking visuals.
However, at this point the series isn’t giving any reasons to worry that it may end up being a bust. With institutional corruption, organized crime, Dr. Kreizler’s powerful ideology and Sara Howard’s professional determination all rubbing up against each other, The Alienist is already starting to feel like a powder keg waiting to go boom. The episode begins with Captain Connor and some of his cronies roughing up the Santorelli family to keep them from talking more about their son. Cops like Connor are taking handouts from the mob-types running the brothel where Georgio, and other boys, as we learn, disappeared. Any more attention could cause Commissioner Roosevelt to shutter the illegal operations for good.
Sensing a cover-up after Connor pays her a creepy visit, Sara goes looking into cold cases involving young boys and discovers that Connor is deliberately hiding at least two cases that match the grisly details of Santorelli’s murder. Sara immediately takes the news to Kreizler and Kreizler then ambushes Roosevelt at the opera asking to use Ms. Howard as a part of a team that will run a parallel investigation. Kreizler assembles the team, including Sara, John, and budding forensic experts Marcus and Lucius Isaacson, at Delmonico’s, where we learn the killer has left behind a fingerprint.
The forming of the team brings out new character details in both Sara and John. We learn from John that Sara has a tragic backstory, having lost both of her parents at a young age. John has known Sara for a long time and bristles at the idea of having her involved in such a dangerous investigation. He claims she isn’t as strong as she appears, and Sara says the same about John to Kreizler. There’s obviously a deep affection between the two, and if you stir in the clear admiration that Kreizler has for Sara and her drive to rise through the ranks of the NYPD, and her apparent appreciation for Kreizler’s intelligence, it definitely looks like we could have something of a love triangle brewing.
We also learn new things about Kreizler. After spending time with a young female patient that has been brought to be examined in error, Kreizler lashes out at both the family and a priest. It echoes an earlier conversation that Kreizler has with a religious coroner at the beginning of the episode. It’s clear that Kreizler, a man of science, has difficult and almost hostile relationship with religion, and it will be interesting to see how this aversion manifests later in the series.
The episode ends with John, after arguing with Kreizler about Sara’s involvement in the investigation, going rogue and visiting the brothel where Georgio disappeared. It’s an unsettling scene, mainly because we get to see the exploitation of young boys up close and personal. Not making the purpose of his visit subtle, John firmly and repeatedly asks about Georgio before being drugged by Ellison. Before he succumbs to the effects of the mystery drug, John learns from a prostitute that “Gloria” was frequently visited by a man with a “silver smile” and that she disappeared from her third story room. The episode ends with a cliffhanger, with John losing consciousness as Ellison, Kelly, and Captain Connor look on as more prostitutes climb onto John’s paralyzed body.
After the first episode, all I could think about were the multitude of series that The Alienist reminded me of, but those comparisons were able to fade away with this gripping second installment. Perhaps I was awed by both the lavish and grim set designs, or maybe the powerful performances and headstrong characters were more capable of keeping me in the moment. Instead of my mind wandering to comparisons with Mindhunter, I was busy wondering why Kreizler’s assistant Mary seemed so suspicious or marveling at the imagery of an eyelash attached to a dry blood-coated finger. The Alienist has my full attention, but will it be able to keep it?