2018 has ushered in a variety of new shows, but TNT’s The Alienist stands out amongst them all. Based on Caleb Carr’s 1994 novel, The Alienist tells the dark, twisted story of a string of murders in 1896 involving young boy prostitutes. At the center of the drama are Dr. Laszlo Kreizler (Daniel Bruhl), John Moore (Luke Evans), and Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning). The trio work together to solve the mystery behind the serial murders that leave New York City in a frenzy.
The first episode of The Alienist opened as any typical horror movie does – with drops of blood dripping onto someone’s face from a dead body. The frightening realization that a murder has been committed casts a horrific sense of doom and sets the stage for what comes ahead. We quickly learn that the life of a young boy, Giorgio, has been taken, however, this isn’t the worst part. His entire body is mutilated with his guts hanging out and eye sockets bare – adorned in a girl’s dress. The story reveals Giorgio is a prostitute who spent his time in the Paresis Hall brothel and would dress up as a girl.
Cue Dr. Laszlo Kreizler. Dr. Kreizler is an alienist, aka the 1896 version of a psychologist. As the show defines, alienists treat “people suffering from mental illness who were thought to be alienated from their true natures.” Upon learning about the murder, Kreizler calls for John Moore, an illustrator for the NY Times, who is asked to sketch the brutal details of the mutilated body. Moore is the stereotypical hunk that our eyes are drawn to – but he seems to carry a heavy burden within him that we hope is explored as the series proceeds.
Upon completing the sketches (and being emotionally scarred from seeing the body), Moore visits Kreizler to deliver what he drew. However, Kreizler feels the sketches did not capture the essence of the murder and asks Moore to describe what he saw – viscera, gouged eyeballs, and skin cut to the bone. With Kreizler’s speciality being in children, he begins to draw similarities between Giorgio’s murder and the murder of two young twins. The male twin was a former patient of his who expressed interest in wanting to dress up like a girl and the only one of the two victims whose body was mutilated. The parallels between both murders leads Kreizler and Moore to visit Captain Connor (David Wilmot) – who is less than pleased at them poking around a closed investigation. This interaction is also where we meet police commissioner and future President Theodore Roosevelt (Brian Geraghty), who shares the same distrust as the Captain. Kreizler informs them that they may have arrested the wrong man for Giorgio’s murder.
Roosevelt’s secretary, Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning), joins the story during Kreizler and Moore’s visit – and we immediately fell in love with her. She is an unapologetic woman at a time where the odds and rules are against her. Her strong, no-fucks-given attitude shines through the first episode and was executed perfectly by Fanning. As we learn, Sara is a family friend of Moore’s – and so, on the sly, comes to Kreizler and Moore’s aid in solving this investigation. Upon Moore’s request, Sara manages to get the files on the Zweig twins murder – so Kreizler may begin to make connections between the murders. Unfortunately for them, the files contain next to no information which leads the trio to the graveyard to exhume the bodies.
The episode ends on a cryptic note – literally. A mysterious man is seen lingering around Kreizler’s carriage, whom he proceeds to follow. While he is unable to find the man, Kreizler finds a tongue wrapped up in newspaper. Flashback scenes show the murderer cooking up the remaining body parts but the tongue is left behind as a message for Kreizler. It is all but confirmed that this is Giorgio’s tongue when Kreizler asks Moore if he saw the young boy’s mouth. Yikes. As the episode closes out, Kreizler gives a monologue declaring that he must insert himself into the mind of the serial killer. If he is to truly understand, “he must see life as he sees it.” Fade to black.
Watching The Alienist I felt completely absorbed into the narrative that was unfolding. The suspenseful music, the 19th century NYC backdrop, and the intricate costumes were just one of the many things that lured me into the series from the get-go. Evans, Bruhl, and Fanning made for one hell of a trio playing their characters, and are reason enough to follow this limited series. I have to applaud the writers for giving Fanning a role where she plays an outspoken badass character, who by the way is also the first female employee of the NYPD. The parallels between resistance in the workplace for woman in 1896 NYC and the present is an aspect that stood out during the series premiere. Given the mentality and cultural viewpoint of the time, it was extremely refreshing to see Fanning’s character play a major role and have substance. Watching her character develop and become crucial to the narrative will be a journey I am very excited to follow.
The series premiere of The Alienist definitely brought on all the elements of a crime-based show–but wrangled in a different time period, strong characters, and a creepy plot. The set design, costumes, and music kept the audience engaged and tuned into every movement that was playing out. All these elements were the heart and soul of The Alienist and have set it apart from other shows in this genre.
What makes this show special is the story they are exploring–it’s disturbing, frightening, and morbid. Shows often shy away from controversial topics, but The Alienist dives headfirst into the dramatic pit of its story. While we seem to have been given insight into Sara and Kreizler’s characters, the series premiere strayed away from Moore. There were subtle glimpses of his nights at the brothel but the premiere did not explore much of his background as they did with Sara and Kreizler. Here’s to hoping we get to see who Moore truly is – and what secrets lurk in his past. All in all, for the first episode, this show has surpassed expectations, and if this premiere was any indication, The Alienist is here to stay.