The Boy on the Bridge
In TNT’s The Alienist, based on the 1994 novel by Caleb Carr, we follow Dr. Kreizler–an alienist. In modern day, we would call them psychologists; in short, Laszlo Kreizler (Daniel Bruhl) studies the mentally ill and attempts to help them–or in this case, solve crimes committed by them.
We open in New York City, 1896–which, for the record, is just 5 years after the notorious Jack the Ripper murders in London (this isn’t mentioned, but I thought I should provide some historical context). A policeman is on his patrol and finds a severed hand in the snow and runs to sound the alarm to his fellow patrol men. It’s a neat trick on how he does so; without whistles or any high tech method, he bangs on a metal pole, which when heard allows another officer to bang on one, and so on. It’s an auditory version of the ‘beacon of Gondor is lit’ if you will. Now, I don’t know how accurate that is to real police procedures at the time, but it makes sense to me.
Cut to Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, who seems to run a sort of school for the mentally ill–in a nice change of pace we are introduced to all of his servants by name quickly, instead of having them remain nameless ‘help’. Steve (who goes by Stevie), his valet, has found a child on the streets who discovered the dead body, who said it was a young boy dressed as a girl, cut to pieces. Kreizler immediately jumps into action and sends Stevie to go pick up his friend John Moore (Luke Evans), an illustrator with the New York Times.
One thing I have to seriously commend this show for–it provides us visual cues regarding so many of the characters’ hang-ups and vices, rather than having them verbally explained in the first episode. Our first introduction to Moore is in a brothel, having sex with a woman who wears an engagement ring–one we see her give back to him each time they’re done. So most likely he lost a fiance in the past, and uses the brothel to deal with his loneliness. He also copes with alcohol; we rarely see him without his flask, or without a drink in hand–in fact, Kreizler is usually ready to provide him one. Good shows allow viewers to read these cues and form their own judgements, instead of spelling everything out–so this show has already made me happy.
Stevie gathers up Moore and takes him to the crime scene; without being told , it’s clear that Moore and Kreizler are close friends, as it takes nothing more than a, “he needs you,” to get Moore to do as asked. We find out later that they went to Harvard together.
We head up to the unfinished Brooklyn Bridge, where the police commissioner is overseeing the investigation–it’s none other than Theodore Roosevelt, who historically held the job prior to becoming mayor of NYC. He allows Moore to see the body, and I have to commend the music work during this scene–the composer has created something truly eerie that makes the sight of the mutilated boy even more haunting.
As Moore sketches, one of the police officers refers to the young boy as ‘it’; the child had been a prostitute, and wore a woman’s dress. Immediately Moore calls the officer out for dehumanizing the victim–this is the first of many instances in the show where the marginalized are stood up for on the show. Given that the show revolves around a dead male prostitute, I’m so glad the show is treating the subject with tact.
The young boy’s death reminds Dr. Kreizler of a pair of twins whose murder was never solved. The male twin liked to dress in his sister’s clothing, and his body was found mutilated while his sister’s body was left free of damage (save being dead, obviously). It’s clear that Dr. Kreizler thinks that the murders may be related–and that he may be responsible for not catching the killer the first time.
There are small moments in this episode I truly enjoy, such as the one where Dr. Kreizler works with a new young patient; he states he helps, but never tries to ‘cure’ someone of their aliment–as it isn’t always something that needs to be cured. It’s a radical way of thinking, back then, and it’s clear why people think of the Dr. as strange.
Kreizler’s friendship with Moore is wonderful as well; it’s clear that Moore is the heart while Kreizler is the mind of this outfit, and it will be interesting to see if this dynamic continues throughout the season, or if it will alter over the course.
Kreizler and Moore follow leads, immediately determining the police’s chief suspect isn’t correct; again the show does an excellent job showing that things are precarious within the NYPD currently, with Roosevelt not overly popular with his reforms, attempting to root out corruption. He has even hired a woman as a secretary–the first woman ever employed by the NYPD. Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning) is an old friend of Moore, it seems, and is very interested in Kreizler’s work. That doesn’t mean she is willing to provide the men with whatever they want–she has to deal with a great deal of prejudice within her position, and so demands respect from everyone, even if it makes her seem hard and cold. She seems to be brilliant, and I already adore her.
Despite her reservations in assisting our two friends, Howard does eventually gain the old file on the twins’ death for Kreizler–and delivers it to Moore as he comes out of the brothel. Again, she doesn’t blink an eye at this, already more than aware of what men get up to in this world.
The file is a dead end, though, and so the bodies are exhumed; Kriezler manages to gain the help from two coroners of the NYPD to assist in looking at the bones for any similarities to the injuries on the new body. Apparently the coroners are brothers that aren’t very popular at the NYPD for their methods and for their Jewish background. The show is already starting to form a little band of misfits.
The mother of the twins finds out Kriezler has dug up her children, and their discussion is one I truly appreciated–if only because of a genuine support from Kriezler for the dead boy’s desire to be himself. It may not have ended well, but the idea that his parents should have supported him and his wants is important.
Here and there we see glimpses of what can be assumed is the killer, who may not only be a serial killer, but a cannibal as well. As someone who studied Jack the Ripper a great deal, I’m wondering if this story is going to connect with that one at all, or if this killer may just be doing this as a homage.
The episode culminates with a run through the streets of New York as Dr. Kriezler thinks he’s seen the killer, after finding a child’s tongue in his carriage. Of course, the killer (?) gets away, but we’re left with Kriezler ruminating that he may have to go down a dark path to solve this murder mystery, and he isn’t sure if he will make it back the same man. Do not stare into Hell, for Hell may stare back, right?
This show is oozing atmosphere, and with some tight writing and great acting, I’m really excited to see where the story goes from here.