The Alienist opens with one of the absolute worst ways to find a dead body: having blood drip onto your face, then looking up to discover you’re standing directly below a corpse. Not too long after, the camera zooms down from an untold height and directly into the bloody socket of where an eye used to be. In other words, though the base recipe from which The Alienist is baked is fairly rote — set in New York at the end of the Gilded Age, it’s Sherlock Holmes by way of Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal — it isn’t here to mess around.
The body belongs to a young boy, Giorgio, known to have worked in a whorehouse. As soon as criminal psychologist Laszlo Kreizler (Daniel Brühl) receives news of the murder, he sends for John Moore (Luke Evans) to produce some illustrations of the scene. It only takes their introduction to establish their respective characters. Going by stereotypical visual and outward behavioral cues, the hunky Moore ought to be our hero, but he’s deconstructed almost immediately. He’s sweet on one of the girls at the brothel he frequents, but it’s an attachment that comes from a strange kind of sublimation: Their back-and-forth involves the exchange of a ring, and the confession that she loves another man. On top of that, he’s not so bullish that he won’t take direction. As becomes clear over the course of the pilot, he defers to Kreizler on most issues.
So it’s Kreizler who goes charging headlong into the dark, despite how buttoned-up he seems. As a criminal psychologist, or “alienist,” he specializes in treating children, thus his interest in Giorgio’s murder. He’s also more progressive than most of his peers, refusing to think of the inclination to cross-dress as an affliction and preaching acceptance. (The cops, meanwhile, refer to the corpse as “it” to express their disdain.) Additionally, the only people of color we see are those he employs as his household staff: Mary Palmer (Q’orianka Kilcher) and Cyrus Montrose (Robert Ray Wisdom).
The delineation between Kreizler and Moore is made even clearer when Moore offers up his illustration of the body. Kreizler is quick to tell him that his drawing is an idealization, and prods Moore for something “real.” As it turns out, his interest in the case stems from having dealt with a similar murder some years ago. He’d treated a boy named Benjamin Zweig, who was brought to him after expressing his wish to dress like his twin sister, Sofia. Both children went missing, and were ultimately found dead — only Benjamin’s body was mutilated, and found clothed in a dress.
Unsurprisingly, the police — Captain Connor (David Wilmot), in particular — aren’t thrilled at having someone nosing around, especially as they get used to their new police commissioner, Theodore Roosevelt (Brian Geraghty, and yes, that Teddy Roosevelt). That enmity only worsens when Kreizler tells them that the man they’ve pinned Giorgio’s murder on, Henry Wolff (Giorgio Spiegelfeld), isn’t the culprit. It’s one more thing for them to hate about Kreizler, who’s become something of a local celebrity: As soon as he walks by, the reporters gathered outside the station all drop their coverage of the cops like wet toast.
Meanwhile, Roosevelt’s secretary, Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning), is the first woman to hold a position with the police department, and she’s treated just about how you might expect by the men around her. (Connor makes a point of exposing himself in front of her.) She deals with it with grace, but no amount of poise or wit will win her the respect of the officers. It’s a joy, as such, to see the little moments in which she gets to live life on her own terms. When she retires at home, for instance, free from the confines of her corset, she reclines and smokes a cigarette. Maybe it’s a clichéd sort of scene, but it still feels good as a metaphorical middle finger to the Man.
Given how little respect she gets from her colleagues, Howard opts to help Moore and Kreizler with their off-the-books investigation, getting them the file on the Zweig murders. Unfortunately, the file is a bust; there’s practically nothing in it. So our Scoobies hit the graveyard, and exhume the bodies for a pair of coroners named Marcus (Douglas Smith) and Lucius Isaacson (Matthew Shear) to inspect. (The Isaacsons are notably yet another instance of the “other,” as they cite their Jewish upbringing as alienating them — pun intended — from the rest of the police force.)
Naturally, messing with corpses summons a ghost: Mrs. Zweig shows up on Kreizler’s doorstep as the examination gets under way. Though her conversation with Kreizler is brief, it’s clear that she blames him for the deaths of her children, and, given the way his eyes well up, it’d appear that he does, too. To prod him over the brink of obsession is the fact that the killer seems to be intent upon drawing Kreizler into his web: The killer has cooked up most of the missing body parts, but leaves the tongue for Kreizler to find in his carriage.
Kreizler’s commitment to diving into the deep end is, weirdly, the least compelling part of the show so far. As Mary undoes the laces of his shoes, he monologues about how, in order to catch the killer, he will have to become him. “I must see life as he sees it,” he says, in a speech that could have been written by anyone who’s ever watched a movie about an undercover cop. We’ll see where things go from here, but as presented in the pilot, the character dynamics and what they have to say about the structure of society are more interesting than going full Will Graham. Regardless, it’s off to the races with The Alienist.